This is an index of 31,090 Women’s Royal Air Force service records held by The National Archives. Was your ancestor among the thousands of women who joined the armed forces during the First World War? The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was created at the same time as the RAF. Through their membership women were introduced to new spheres of labour and learned new technical skills.
Each record includes a transcript of the information found on the original record. The detail in each record may vary but most will include:
Image link – link directly to the record at The National Archives, for a small fee you can view the original document. The original may have recorded even more details about your ancestor.
Prior to the First World War women’s involvement in the armed forces was limited to nursing. The outbreak of World War One was the first time that women became a vital part of the war effort. The idea of women participating in the war or imitating the military through their own units or organisations was frowned upon. But due to the scale of the Great War and sheer necessity, women were given more positions and responsibilities within the war machine. Women took on essential roles in factories and with the armed forces in order for more men to be released for combat.
The British Women’s Royal Air Force Service Records index the names of 31,090 women who volunteered with the armed forces as part of their commitment to their country and to support the war effort. The original records are held by The National Archives at Kew. At the archives they are known as series AIR 80. The records include other ranks and not officers. No known records of Women’s Royal Air Force officers survive. When searching the records for your ancestor, it is important to know that if a woman enlisted under her maiden name and she married during her service, the records will be held under her married name.
The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was created on 1 April 1918, the same date as the Royal Air Force. Aircraft had greatly advanced since the outbreak of the war; before they were a novelty but by 1918 they became a fundamental part of warfare. Volunteers from the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, Women’s Royal Naval Service, Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Women’s Legion were invited to join the new WRAF. The minimum age to join was 18. In order to join, women had to pass a medical examination and to provide a satisfactory reference.
From its beginning, the importance of women to the air force was recognized. However, it was not until after September 1918 when the WRAF was brought under the command of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan that they came to be recognized as a professional and disciplined organisation and earned the respect of their male counterparts. Gwynne-Vaughan was given powers of a Brigadier and she re-organised the WRAF. In June 1919 she was awarded the Dame of the British Empire (DBE) for her efforts.
Members were either mobiles or immobiles. The immobiles lived at home and were contracted to work at their local station in their neighbourhood. In lieu of food and accommodation they were given an allowance in addition to their rate of pay. The mobile members lived in quarters on or near the base and could be transferred anywhere. Most of the WRAF were based in Britain, but after 1919 about 500 women were sent to serve in Germany and France. The organisation was disbanded in 1920.
There were four categories of work for members of the WRAF: A – Clerks and typists; B – Household such as cooks, waitresses and domestic workers; C – Technical such as tinsmiths, photographers, metal workers, wireless operators and carpenters; and D – Non-Technical or General, which included tailoresses, shoemakers and motor cyclists. The majority of the work was for clerks and typists. The household workers endured the toughest work and the longest hours. The technical section offered the greatest range of employment and was one of the few sectors during the war where women were trained for skilled positions. The WRAF was nicknamed the ‘Penguins,’ because, like the birds, they did not fly.
All issues of discipline, leave, medical services, welfare and discharges were controlled by women officers. However, in some bases, women officers were scarce. Alice Chauncey, who became Company Commander for the WRAF, explained in the RAF’s Spirt of the Air publication, ‘There were camps where several hundred Immobile women were employed in aeroplane making, storekeeping, and all manner of Air Force trades, yet there were no officers in the camps, and discipline was beginning to suffer.’ More officers were recruited and the organisation transformed into a disciplined body of women.
Behaviour was strictly monitored and regulations were established in the WRAF constitution. In the early days the women’s uniforms were an issue of debate and even rebellion. Gertrude George, found in the records as enrolled on 29 October 1918, is quoted in the Spirit of the Air speaking about the Order for the Day regulation that all women were to wear black stockings. ‘The Great Battle. Stockings to match the uniform looked so nice that it gave some people a positive pain to discard them. All other irregular practices they would give up when ordered, but the stocking episode went to their hearts. Again and again the forbidden articles of apparel broke out in a fresh place, when all other legs were decorously black and the Quarter-mistress was congratulating herself that the fight was over.’
Compared to other services the WRAF and the RAF worked closely together. By the end of the war the women of the WRAF were receiving orders directly from the RAF. In 1920, the WRAF was disbanded, but the organisation paved the way for future female pilots and service women.