The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), whose members were invariably referred to as WAAFs, was the female auxiliary of the Royal Air Force during World War II, established in 1939. At its peak strength, in 1943, WAAF numbers exceeded 180,000, with over 2,000 women enlisting per week.
A Women's Royal Air Force had existed from 1918 to 1920. The WAAF was created on 28 June 1939, absorbing the forty-eight RAF companies of the Auxiliary Territorial Service which had been formed since 1938. Conscription of women did not begin until 1941. It only applied to those between 20 and 30 years of age and they had the choice of the auxiliary services or factory work.
WAAFs did not serve as aircrew. The use of women pilots was limited to the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which was civilian. Although they didn't participate in active combat, they were exposed to the same dangers as any on the home front working at military installations. They were active in parachute packing and the crewing of barrage balloons in addition to performing catering, meteorology, radar, aircraft maintenance, transport, communications duties including wireless telephonic and telegraphic operation. They worked with codes and ciphers, analysed reconnaissance photographs, and performed intelligence operations. WAAFs were a vital presence in the control of aircraft, both in radar stations and iconically as plotters in operation rooms, most notably during the Battle of Britain. These operation rooms directed fighter aircraft against the Luftwaffe, mapping both home and enemy aircraft positions.
Air Force nurses belonged to Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service instead. Female medical and dental officers were commissioned into the Royal Air Force and held RAF ranks.
WAAFs were paid two-thirds of the pay of male counterparts in RAF ranks.
By the end of World War II, WAAF enrollment had declined and the effect of demobilisation was to take thousands out of the service. The remainder, now only several hundred strong, was renamed the Women's Royal Air Force on 1 February 1949.
For material on other women flyers, refer to:
Soviet Night Witches
Luftwaffe's Hanna Reitsch
Women in USAAF
Specialist site on Women as Combat Pilots WW1
Beryl Markham - Britain's Amelia Earhart
Jadwiga Piłsudska: Polish Ferry Command Pilot
For material on women Secret Agents and Resistance fighters, refer to:
Freddie Oversteegen: Dutch Resistance fighter
Violette Szabo GC: British/French SOE Secret Agent
Andrée Peel: Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur: French Resistance
Madge Dubois: Heroine of the Belgian Resistance
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them. - Laurence Binyon