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Women in Military Aviation in World War Two

Severe pilots shortages in combatant nations during the Second World War provided an unprecedented opportunity for women aviators to demonstrate their competence and patriotism.

The Soviet Union: The most dramatic and significant role played by women in military aviation during WWII was by women on the Red Army Air Forces in the Soviet Union.  Here entire squadrons of both bombers and fighters were formed entirely of women pilots.  They flew largely obsolete equipment from improvised airfields in appalling weather against an Army equipped with the best anti-aircraft defences of the age, the Wehrmacht's feared 8.8 mm flak batteries.  Many Russian women pilots were killed.  Many more suffered serious injuries.  One of the women's regiments, the 46th Guards Bomber Regiment, completed a total of 24,000 combat sorties, and allegedly all the pilots in this unit made more than 800 combat sorties each.

Nazi Germany: In Germany despite the early and extensive use of women in a variety of support roles in the Luftwaffe's female auxiliary organization, women pilots were not utilized except on an individual and exceptional basis. One of these exceptions is particularly notable.  Melitta Gräfin Schenk von Stauffenberg. Countess Stauffenberg had earned a degree in aeronautical engineering and was initially employed by the German Institute for Aviation Testing (Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt.) While working as an engineer she earned her pilot's license.  She was instrumental in developing an auto-pilot for German flying boats, particularly for long-distance flying on these exceptionally awkward aircraft.  She became the only woman in Germany to obtain pilot licences for all classes of aircraft, powered and unpowered.  During the war she was conscripted to the Luftwaffe, where she was responsible for improving the bomb site for the Ju 87 ("Stuka") and Ju 88 dive bombers.  To perform her duties she personally made more than 2,500 test dives from 4,000 to 1,000 meters.  She sometimes flew as many as 15 test flights in one day, an extremely demanding physical achievement, which to this day has never been equalled.  She was shot down and killed by an American fighter in the closing days of the war.  No ideological bigotry should deny Countess Stauffenberg recognition as an outstanding pilot; both of her brothers-in-law gave their lives in the coup attempt against Hitler on July 20, 1944; one of them, Claus, laid the bomb in Hitler's headquarters.
ATA waitingGreat Britain: Even before the outbreak of the war, the British Air Ministry had recognized the sense of employing already trained women pilots in support capacities.  Thus, when the war broke out, it was only a matter of weeks before women were being recruited for an auxiliary pilot's organization whose principle role was to become the ferrying of military aircraft from factories to squadrons.  This organization, the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), employed at its peak over 3,500 people of whom roughly 640 were pilots.  It held a monopoly on the ferrying of military aircraft and also provided selected air charter and air freight services to the armed forces and the government.  The ATA was recognized throughout the war as a vital and indispensable component of the total war effort.

The women pilots made up on average 16% of pilot strength in the ATA. Although initially only highly qualified and experienced pilots were accepted into the ATA, by 1943 the manpower shortages were so great that the ATA initiated ab initio training for women as well men.  Meanwhile, the women pilots already employed  in ATA were qualifying to pilot all types of aircraft in accordance with their ability.  By the end of the Second World War women had flown all kinds of aircraft from light trainers and liaison aircraft to fighters such as the Spitfire and Mustang and bombers, including the American Flying Fortress and Liberator.  In the closing months of the war, the ATA women pilots were also flying the first operational jet aircraft employed by the RAF.

In the ATA women also held command positions with authority over men and as well as women.  They served as instructors on aircraft for men and women.  Most important, they enjoyed the same conditions of service and rates of compensation as their male colleagues.  In short, the ATA can be described as an exemplary case of early equal opportunity for women.

The United States: On the other side of the Atlantic the utilization of women pilots got off to a much later and more complicated start.   As late as July 1941, the C-in-C of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), General Henry "Hap" Arnold, still categorically denied the need to employ women pilots in any capacity in or with the USAAF.  At American entry into the war, however, the Ferrying Division (FERD) of the USAAF alone needed more pilots than existed in the entire Army Air Forces of the United States.  To solve this problem, the Ferrying Division received Congressional approval to hire civilian pilots, who were unsuitable for commissioning into the USAAF for age or health reasons, directly as civilian employees of the Army.  FERD proposed to employ qualified women on exactly the same basis as these men. Unfortunately, a celebrity woman pilot with close ties to the White House, Jacqueline Cochrane, torpedoed the idea because she rightly perceived that such an arrangement would have eliminated the need for a separate woman's organization and so provided no opportunity for command position for herself.

By September 1942, however, the manpower shortages were so acute that Arnold approved a revised proposal for the employment of women pilots in the Ferry Division, albeit no longer on a completely equal basis.  This proposal provided for the creation of a single experimental woman's squadron, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron or WAFS.  Membership in the squadron was restricted to women with a minimum of 500 flying hours and with a 200hp rating.  Altogether 28 women with an average of 1,000 flying hours were sworn into the WAFS.  While the requirements were higher for civilian male pilots joining FERD at this time, their rates of pay were just 65% of their civilian colleagues.

WAF trainingWhen word reached Cochran about the WAFS, she flew back to Washington and confronted Arnold.  Arnold abruptly agreed to establish a "Women's Flying Training Detachment" (WFTD) and appointed Cochran the director of women pilot training.  The objective of this programme was to see if it was possible to train women up to USAAF standards and, if so, to employ them in non combat capacities which would free male pilots for combat.  Eventually, an entire training facility, Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, was put at the disposal of the WFTD, although actual training remained in the hands of a civilian contractor.  Successive classes of women with 35 hours pervious flying experience went through an average of seven months of training here.  A total of 1,830 women entered the programme and 1,074 completed training successfully.  Although the majority of these women were still in training when the program was discontinued, graduates of the program served not only in FERD but were also employed in a wide variety of other tasks.  These included: target towing, radar calibration, smoke laying, engine and maintenance testing, flying as co-pilots at training facilities for aircrew, and the transportation of supplies and personnel.

In August 1943, the WAFS and WFTD were fused into a single organization, the Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP, under Cochran's command.  Almost at once Cochran began pushing for the "militarization" of her new organization.  Since this required Congressional approval, a bill was sponsored and introduced in the House in late 1943.  Throughout the spring of 1944, while the WASP bill was before Congress, an increasingly virulent lobbying campaign against the WASP unfolded.  In June 1944, the WASP militarization bill was defeated in the House.  Just six weeks later, however, Cochran issued a report to the press in which she insisted that without militarization the organization ought to be disbanded.  Cochran's press release was widely interpreted as an ultimatum, and Air Force Staff responded by recommending de-activation of the WASP, effective Dec. 20, 1944.


Sisters in Arms coverSisters at Arms is comprehensive comparative study analysing the experiences of the women pilots in the UK and US during WWII.  It seeks to highlight the differences between the organization, training and employment of the women pilots in the two countries, and above all to explain the differences in their fate.

It is fair to say that although the individual women on both sides of the Atlantic were equally competent and devoted, the American women were placed at a distinct disadvantage by a number of key factors.  First and foremost, they suffered from sub-standard and excessively lengthy training.  Second they were hampered by a confused organizational structure lacking clear lines of command, responsibility and discipline.  Third, they were operating in a far more hostile environment than were the women in the UK; the US Army had a long tradition of treating women auxiliaries as "second class" while the RAF pioneered with opening non-traditional opportunities to women as far back as WWI.  Last but not least, the WASP was the victim of a disastrous handling of Press, Public and Congressional Relations by Cochran.

The personal role of Cochran in the destruction of the WASP cannot be overstated and forms the fundamental tragedy of the WASP story.  For the supporting evidence, please read Sisters in Arms.




NOTE: In building this site, I thought about many things - such as what spelling standard I should use in referring to World War II, and what keyword spelling people might use in a search engine to find this page.  I found it interesting to note the following numbers of page listings for the various ways one might type World War II into a search engine. 

bullet  6,050,000 for world war two
bullet  5,860,000 for world war 2
bullet  134,000,000 for world war II (using the capital i for the 2)
bullet  83,900 for world war ll (using the lower case L for the 2)
bullet  26,200,000 for second world war
bullet  310,000 for 2nd world war

bullet  21,600 for ww two
bullet  804,000 for ww 2
bullet  7,130,000 for ww ii (using the i for the 2)
bullet  46,300 for ww ll (using the lower case L for the 2)

bullet  21,600 for w.w. two
bullet  804,000 for W.W.2
bullet  7,130,000 for w.w.II (using the capital i for the 2)
bullet  46,300 for w.w.ll (using the lower case l for the 2)

Note that capitalization, punctuation and spacing changes introduced no differences.  So if you are looking for information on a particular subject, remember to use all variations of the wrods related to the subject.  The pages a search engine will give you to look at will vary with each method. Also in general, I have referred to World War II on these pages using WWII (using the capital i for the 2).


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 Last updated May 29, 2010