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RAF 100: Breaking down barriers over a century of opportunities

PUBLISHED: 11:00 14 July 2018

Working with video equipment, circa 1990. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF Museum

Working with video equipment, circa 1990. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF Museum

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Women have served in the Royal Air Force throughout its 100 year history though the fight for equal opportunities took almost as long.

Jean Lennox Bird in the 1950s. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF MuseumJean Lennox Bird in the 1950s. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF Museum

A woman now occupies a top-ranking position in the service but in 1918 when the Royal Naval Air Service and British Army’s Royal Flying Corps merged to form the RAF women were limited to roles such as cooks, clerks and store keepers.

“The driving force at that time was necessity,” RAF Museum archive manager Nina Harding said. The idea was women could do certain roles to release men, many of whom were sent to the Western Front.

More than 50 trades were open to women by 1920 including tailoring, catering, pigeon keeping and driver.

Standard Orders poster for the Women’s Royal Air Force, 1918. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF MuseumStandard Orders poster for the Women’s Royal Air Force, 1918. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF Museum

“Women wanted to do their bit. Patriotism was a strong motivator with service also offering comradeship and freedom,” Mrs Hadaway said.

But during the war there was a lot of resistance to women serving in the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), some coming from members of the same sex.

However, that didn’t deter Helen Gwynne-Vaughan – later made a dame for her efforts – who the government parachuted in to the WRAF in September 1918 to bring even more discipline and respect into the service.

Barrage balloon crew under inspection, November 1943. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF MuseumBarrage balloon crew under inspection, November 1943. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF Museum

By 1919 WRAFs were serving in France. Later that year a decision was made to send a contingent to Germany to help the British Army of Occupation replacing male personnel allowing them to be demobbed.

At the end of the war women’s service even merited a mention by King George V who wrote: “Everywhere, by God’s help, officers, men and women of the Royal Air Force have splendidly maintained our just cause”.

Even though air force chiefs recognised their service as crucial for victory, in 1920 the WRAF was disbanded.

Assistant Section Officer Elizabeth Weightman, 1940s. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF MuseumAssistant Section Officer Elizabeth Weightman, 1940s. Pic: Crown Copyright, courtesy of the RAF Museum

The RAF was battling for survival after the army and navy called for the return of their air wings.

Over the two years of its short life the Women’s Royal Air Force saw about 32,000 women serve.

“There was a lot of disappointment. The women would have wanted to carry on,” Mrs Harding said.

During the Second World War women proved again what they could do under fire in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

A peak strength of 180,000 women serving as WAAFs was reached in July 1943.

This time though many carried on serving after the war when the Women’s Royal Air Force started up again. Its rebirth came about in recognition of women’s war time service. However, women were still barred from active combat duties.

The WRAF continued until April 1 1994 when it merged with the RAF.

There is now no distinction with women serving fully in the world’s oldest independent airforce.

The first woman to be awarded RAF wings was Jean Lennox Bird who in 1952 as a reservist was recognised as the first female pilot.

However, it wasn’t until almost 40 years later that Julie Ann Gibson became the first full-time serving woman to get the same recognition.

“She had quite a battle on her hands to pursue her dream. Her determination is a really good example,” Mrs Hadaway said.

In 1994 Flt Lt Jo Salter shattered another barrier becoming the first operational fast jet pilot flying Tornados with 617 Squadron. Female pilots have flown operations on a number of missions, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2009 Flt Lt Kirsty Moore became the first female pilot in the Red Arrows display team.

And air vice marshall Elaine West was the first woman to achieve the non-honorary rank in the British armed forces since the Second World War.

As of April 1 this year there are 4,660 serving female RAF regulars and 620 reserves, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Since 2017 women have been able to serve in the RAF Regiment meaning they can now take part in combat.

“Being able to serve in the regiment is the final door to be pushed open. It’s fantastic to see that progression,” Mrs Hadaway said.

On women in RAF history, she added: “It shows everybody can contribute to the defence of this country. It shows how attitudes can and should change over time. It proves women can do the same jobs as men.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s taken a considerable amount of work to get those doors open, but the RAF has always been able to offer women opportunities,” she said.

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