WWII

Battle of Britain: Tribute To The Female Few

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force played a crucial role in using radar to detect Luftwaffe attacks.

Whilst mentions of the Battle of Britain conjure up images of the pilots who became known as The Few, there were also many on the ground who played their part.

Radar stations up and down the country provided vital information on incoming Luftwaffe planes, giving the RAF an edge on intercepting the enemy.

Those men and women have also been celebrated this week. 

The Suffolk coast is home to a building which helped to win the war.

RAF Bawdsey was a radar station, once the top-secret workplace for those who got the very first indication that the Luftwaffe was on its way.

Chief Executive Officer of the RAF Benevolent Fund, Air Vice Marshal Chris Elliot said: “It was a team effort – there was lots of technology on the ground, which was a modern-day radar system, probably the first of its kind that practically used radar as part of an air defence system.

“From seeing a blimp on the radar, it could get the men in the air probably in about six minutes”.

“It was an extraordinary system.”

In 1940, RAF Bawdsey would have been a hive of activity. Its transmitter block is now a museum, commemorating the people and technology that played such a crucial part in the Battle of Britain.

It was a place where women in particular were allowed to thrive, with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) holding its own.

RAF Bawdsey on the Suffolk coast (Picture: RAF Benevolent Fund).

President of the Bawdsey Radar Trust, Mary Wain said: “I think they realised that there weren’t enough men, they were getting to the point when war had broken out that the men were really needed on active service.

“Then they began to recruit women, actively recruit women, for the radar. You needed them on the transmitter side, you needed them on the receiver side, which is the one we really know about the WAAFs - the WAAFs watching the screen.

“There were other WAAFs that were trained on the technical side, who went up the towers and actually repaired aerials and things like that, they did everything.”

Both of Mary Wain’s parents worked at RAF Bawdsey during World War Two, but like many members of the WAAF, her mother never told her or anyone else about their work.

Ms Wain said: “Obviously she was told that you couldn’t talk about what you did and I’d say she did literally take that to her grave.

“I think I mostly feel proud of them for their modesty, that there’s no way that I was brought up thinking that they had done anything special, which is mad because that wasn’t the case at all.”

Eighty years on, as the sun set over RAF Bawdsey, and RAF Buchan in Scotland, the RAF Benevolent Fund remembered the vital role that those on the ground played.

Cover image: Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force operating radar systems during the Second World War (Picture: MOD).