Women's Auxiliary Air Force

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), whose members were invariably referred to as WAAFs /ˈwæfs/, 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 existed since 1938.[1] 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 did not 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.[2]

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.


Initially, the WAAF used the ATS ranking system, although the director held the rank of "Senior Controller" (equivalent to Brigadier in the British Army, Air Commodore in the RAF) instead of "Chief Controller" (equivalent to Major-General, Air Vice-Marshal) as in the ATS. However, in December 1939 the name was changed to Air Commandant, when the ranks were renamed and reorganized, other ranks now held identical ranks to male RAF personnel, but officers continued to have a separate rank system, although now different from that of the ATS. From February 1940 it was no longer possible to enter directly as an officer; from that time all officers were appointed from the other ranks. From July 1941 WAAF officers held full commissions. On 1 January 1943, the rank of Air Chief Commandant (equivalent to Major-General, Air Vice-Marshal) was created with the director's appointment to that rank.

WAAF Recruitment poster
WAAF Pre-January 1940 WAAF Post-January 1940 RAF Equivalents
Aircraftwoman 2nd Class (ACW2) Aircraftwoman 2nd Class (ACW2) Aircraftman 2nd Class (AC2)
Aircraftwoman 1st Class (ACW1) Aircraftwoman 1st Class (ACW1) Aircraftman 1st Class (AC1)
n/a Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW) Leading Aircraftman (LAC)
Assistant Section Leader Corporal Corporal
Section Leader Sergeant Sergeant
Senior Section Leader Flight Sergeant 1 Flight Sergeant
n/a Warrant Officer 2 Warrant Officer
Company Assistant Assistant Section Officer Pilot Officer
Deputy Company Commander Section Officer Flying Officer
Company Commander Flight Officer Flight Lieutenant
Senior Commandant Squadron Officer Squadron Leader
Chief Commandant Wing Officer Wing Commander
Controller Group Officer Group Captain
Senior Controller Air Commandant Air Commodore
n/a Air Chief Commandant 3 Air Vice-Marshal
n/a n/a Air Marshal
n/a n/a Air Chief Marshal
n/a n/a Marshal of the Royal Air Force

n/a - no authorized rank
1 - also called Senior Sergeant[3]
2 - also called Under Officer[3]
3 - created 1943 with first appointment


On 1 July 1939, Jane Trefusis Forbes was made Director of WAAF, with the rank of Senior Controller, later, Air Commandant. On 1 January 1943 she was appointed to the rank of Air Chief Commandant with its creation. On 4 October 1943, while Forbes toured Canada, assessing the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division, she was relieved by HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, who had been head of the WAAF since 1939, again with the rank of Senior Controller, then, Air Commandant, being gazetted to Air Chief Commandant on 22 March 1943. Forbes retired in August 1944, and the post of director was given to Mary Welsh, who was appointed Air Chief Commandant. After the war, the rank of Air Chief Commandant was suspended and in December 1946, the final director of WAAF, Felicity Hanbury, was appointed.

WAAFs serving with SOE

Several members of the WAAF served with the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War.

Flying Nightingales

Nursing Orderlies of the WAAF flew on RAF transport planes to evacuate the wounded from the Normandy battlefields. They were dubbed Flying Nightingales by the press.[5] The RAF Air Ambulance Unit flew under 46 Group Transport Command from RAF Down Ampney, RAF Broadwell, and RAF Blakehill Farm. RAF Dakota aircraft carried military supplies and ammunition so could not display the Red Cross.

Training for air ambulance nursing duties included instruction in the use of oxygen, injections, learning how to deal with certain types of injuries such as broken bones, missing limb cases, head injuries, burns and colostomies; and to learn the effects of air travel and altitude.[6]

In October 2008 the seven nurses still living were presented with lifetime achievement awards by the Duchess of Cornwall.[7]

See also


  1. Narracot, A.H. (1941). "9 - Woman in Blue". How The R A F Works. Frederick Muller Limited. pp. 108 (n115). Retrieved 2009-07-30.
  2. Eileen Younghusband. One Woman's War. Cardiff. Candy Jar Books. 2011. ISBN 978-0-9566826-2-8
  3. 1 2 Air Ministry, Women's Auxiliary Air Force: Notes for the Information of Candidates, 5th edition, 1941.
  4. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 38578. p. 1703. 5 April 1949. Retrieved 2007-11-16.
  5. "The Flying Nightingales". RAF Broadwell website. Retrieved 2008-10-24.
  6. "The Flying Nightingales". Hampshire the County Magazine. Retrieved 2008-10-24.
  7. Allen, Vanessa (24 October 2008). "Honour at last for the 'Flying Nightingales' who treated 100,000 Second World War troops aboard planes". MailOnline. London. Retrieved 2008-10-24.

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