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Women in WW2-The Womens Voluntary Service
An 'Army' of Volunteers
When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, the country's people were not very shocked. International events were all building towards this outcome.
Britain had already been preparing for war. Since 1938, the WRNS (Women's Royal Navy Service) and WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) had been reformed in readiness for supporting the military's push to send men to war.
Women would be a vital part of the ability to keep the Navy, Army and Air Force at full strength, providing support in roles such as catering, driving and administration.
In one other area, this organisation of women had been going on without too much leadership at all. The Women's Voluntary Service was organised by Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading who was asked to organise a voluntary organisation to support the Air Raids Precaution (ARP) Unit. The British government were already mindful of the possibility of Germany bombing Britain after its use of force against Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Ms Isaacs was from an extremely wealthy and influential family and she enlisted the support of personal friends in getting the support needed for ARP.
This led to the 'organisation' being rather dominated by a particular class in society. Nonetheless, the women she involved got to work right away and by 1941, the WVS numbered some 1 million women - an amazing number, all doing some amazing work for nothing more than the desire to help their country.
Women's Voluntary Work in Britain Before The War
It is all too easy to forget that in Britain as in other parts of the world, some women wanted to work and had the drive and enthusiasm to do so but sadly, before emancipation, were prevented from working in their chosen area. Working class women worked in factories, mills and shops but for educated women with so much to offer, there were few outlets for their talents.
In the Victorian period this led a number of women to volunteer to do 'good works' - usually in support of the destitute in cities, in supporting prisoners and working for their churches.
Out of this type of work came a number of now well-known organisations like the Salvation Army and Girl Guides so there had already been a long tradition of voluntary work, the WVS was really the crystallisation of this work - women had a real purpose and will to support the people at home and they did this is a number of ways.
WVS and Air Raids in World War Two
It was the government who first determined the work to be undertaken by the WVS. In their pamphlet, 'What You Can Do' they listed the following suggestion for volunteers “as the enrolment of women for Air Raid Precaution Services of Local Authorities, to help to bring home to every household what air attack may mean, and to make known to every household in the country what it can do to protect itself and the community.”
Pure and simple, the government knew that preparedness for air raids would need to be something organised in the correct way. The job was given to the WVS. Locally, in various parts of the UK, they trained residents on correct procedures in the event of an air raid.
They were issued with uniforms but as these were provided at a cost, rarely wore them, preferring to wear the WVS badge only.
When the outbreak of war came in 1939, Britain's residents were already well prepared in the even of an air attack but of course, once war began, the WVS were put to work in other areas too.
It was very important to the British government that at home people felt safe and that the facilities available to them were as well organised as possible.
WVS - The Blitz in World War Two
The work of the WVS was especially prevalent during the blitz in London and at other bombed towns and cities throughout the country.
As well as acting as Air Raid Patrol supporters, they soon became familiar figures, walking around bombed buildings in aid of the injured and dispossessed.
This was traumatic work - the deaths of whole families left neighbours and friends distraught. In London, whole streets were reduced to rubble. The WVS helped to collect what possessions remained and found places for people to sleep in local churches and community centres.
They even enlisted support from friends in the USA where their counterpart, AWVS and BWRS led a campaign called 'Bundles for Britain - sending bundles of clothes to Britain to support the dispossessed.
Their work in the London underground was lauded at the time. They set up canteens and kitchens, fed as many people as they could, tended to the injured and provided a shoulder to cry on for those who had lost their loved ones. But this was so much more than 'tea and sympathy' - who else was providing this service? The WVS were filling an important void - they were providing morale when everything seemed lost.
It was all carried out in well organised shifts with areas overseen by a number of different groups. They communicated with one another by telephone and when this was not available, they cycled to the next aid station where information could then be relayed on. It was dangerous work across a fractured terrain.
Inevitably, many women in the WVS lost their lives in service to their country - 241 were killed during the blitz.
When men returned from Dunkirk, first aid stations were set up in Kent to receive men back into the country. They were met off their ships by the WVS, serving soup, cups of tea and handing out blankets and giving the men perhaps their first comfort for many months.
WVS - 1 Million Women Strong During the War
By 1941, the WVS were one million members strong.
Their work in Air Raids had included being trained to use anti-aircraft guns (they were allowed to aim them but not fire them, only men were allowed to fire them).
They helped to support the evacuation of a million children from Britain's towns and cities.
They supported crucial first aid training in towns and cities so that people could support one another in the event of an injury during an air raid.
They made connections in the USA in support of their efforts - this caused an enormous groundswell of support from American women which in turn led to the formation of voluntary organisations there.
They made thousands of cups of tea, bowls of soup, loaves of bread
They collected scrap metal - enough was collected in Portsmouth to fill four railway carriages!
Sometimes, they were just there to be a shoulder to cry on for those who had lost everything - they were an amazing group of women who gave their all to their country and did it all for nothing.
The role of women before the war was already changing. Sociologists at the time referred to this new found emancipation and freedom to serve as 'social capital' - it could not have been gathering momentum at a more opportune time - Britain, America, indeed all of the allies owe a huge debt of gratitude to this 'Housewives Army'.