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Behind the Few – The Women's Auxiliary Air Force and their Contribution to British Intelligence during the Second World War

Sarah-Louise Miller

PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King's College London

05 March 2021

‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. Churchill’s famous words appear on the plaque at Yale College Wrexham, commemorating one of its most honoured and extraordinary pupils – Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier. A Royal Air Force fighter pilot in the Second World War, Rosier shot down two Messerschmitt 110s on 23 May 1940, shortly before being shot down himself. He escaped his burning Hurricane, receiving facial burns and other injuries which he recovered from in hospital. The group of Messerschmitts had appeared in force and without warning, as he, along with his weary and depleted force, had taken off from an airfield in Northern France.

Speaking later of his experience, he blamed the lack of intelligence for what had happened. He had received ‘no reliable information on how, when, where and in what numbers the enemy would appear’, and found it unsurprising that he and so many others had been caught at such a disadvantage. This lack of intelligence, however, would not last long. The ‘feeling of isolation, even of helplessness’ which it induced in RAF pilots subsided with developments in technology, including overland-looking radar.

Indeed, when Churchill spoke of his ‘Few’ in August 1940, he also attributed the smaller number of casualties in the second of the twentieth century world wars to improved strategy, organisation, technical apparatus, science and mechanics. Included in the developments of which he spoke were the planes and weapons used by the British armed forces, and the ability of the ‘few’ RAF pilots who so famously and gallantly flew in the Battle of Britain.

Also included, however, were the developments in the technology of the intelligence community, utilised by women like Aileen Clayton of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Rosier worked closely with Clayton, who was the first WAAF to be commissioned for intelligence duties when promoted to officer rank in July 1940. She worked for the Y Service, an organisation tasked with the monitoring and interpreting of enemy radio transmissions. Rosier considered her a ‘most important member of the Y Service’, despite the fact that she was ‘a woman in a man’s world’.

Clayton and her colleagues passed Rosier and his fellow pilots warnings of impending enemy raids, their targets, their identities and other vital intelligence which made it possible for enemy raids to be successfully countered. The radar system, also largely manned by members of the WAAF, enabled women like Gwen Arnold to direct Rosier and his colleagues to intercept enemy fighters before they had even been able to begin a raid. Technical developments, Rosier admitted, contributed greatly to British success in both the Battle of Britain and the Second World War itself.

Equally as vital in both, however, was the ‘extraordinary resilience and adaptability of women who showed that they were supreme’ in using such technology. In the words of Rosier, without these ‘remarkable and courageous’ women, the direction of events in and the ultimate outcome of the Second World War ‘might have been very different’.

WAAF radar operators of the Dowding system placed themselves in great danger in isolated coastal locations to collect information on incoming German aircraft, which they passed to their colleagues in filter rooms to record. WAAF filterers in these Fighter Command filter rooms disseminated this information to Operations Rooms, where it was used to direct the ‘Few’ in battle, resulting ultimately in the British victory in the Battle of Britain, as well as saved lives and preserved aircraft.

Listen to the War Studies podcast episode with Sarah-Louise Miller on The Hidden Women Behind Britain's WWII Air Victory

Women worked to the same end during the Blitz, aiding British bomber crews in their offensive operations and helping to defend Britain against the relentless German onslaught by night. In the Y Service, German-speaking WAAF collected first-hand information from German pilots and commanders, passing it to the Fighter Command hierarchy to utilise alongside information yielded by the Dowding System during the Battle of Britain and in the months and years that followed it.

At the Government Code & Cypher School, WAAF worked alongside the famous codebreakers to ensure the continuous movement of intelligence to and from Bletchley Park, keeping the RAF and the Air Ministry informed and involved in the war at all times. After the Battle of Britain had been won and the Blitz had failed to bomb Britain into submission to the Nazis, it was these WAAF who disseminated ULTRA intelligence - obtained by breaking high-level encrypted enemy communications, to signal that Operation Sealion had been abandoned by Hitler.

In photographic intelligence, WAAF worked to aid the discovery of and defence against the threatening V Weapons and jet-propelled aircraft, as well as assisting with Britain’s offensive war in 617 Squadron’s famous Dambusters raid and Bomber Harris’ ‘Thousand Bomber Raids’.

Lives were saved, resources were preserved, and victories were won. Behind the few famous faces of the war, women of the WAAF worked, hidden but crucial, every one of them a ‘cog in the wheel which moved towards victory’ in 1945."– Sarah-Louise Miller

For various reasons, the work of the WAAF towards British air intelligence in the Second World War has gone generally un-noticed. This is not unusual with intelligence work – inherently, such work is carried out in secret and due to the laws pertaining to intelligence records, often remains secret for decades after it is carried out. With the very real fear of invasion during the Second World War, fewer records of such secret work were kept, and where they were, as with most official records at the time, they tended not to pay much attention to work carried out by women, as it was assumed that they were filling clerical and secretarial roles only.

The successful concealment of what they were actually doing, persisted until long after the war had ended, even up to today. This concealment, coupled with the seriousness with which the women took their wartime oath of secrecy (often resulting in their hesitancy and sometimes downright refusal to talk about their wartime intelligence work), have kept them hidden.

It is vital we recover them from the outer margins of history, in order to gain a much more accurate understanding of just how the British victory in the air was achieved during the Second World War. They were not only present in the collection and dissemination of vital intelligence – they were integral to these processes, and as Air Chief Marshal Sir Rosier states, without the vital role they played, the direction of events and even the ultimate outcome of the Second World War might have gone very different way without them.

Sarah-Louise is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King's College London. She is also Leader of Women in War and International Politics (WIWIP) in the School of Security Studies also at King's. 

Listen to the War Studies podcast episode with Sarah-Louise Miller on The Hidden Women Behind Britain's WWII Air Victory

The School of Security Studies is hosting a number of events and engagement activities throughout March in celebration of International Women's Day 2021, explore our events


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