Women of the Battle of Britain
Uncovering the hidden histories of women during WWII
At Biggin Hill Memorial Museum we tell the story of Britain’s most famous fighter station through the personal experiences of those who served there, and the community that supported them. This exhibition brings to life the stories of women in the Battle of Britain and the significant role they played at RAF Biggin Hill through two interpretive themes.
A joint letter to Biggin Hill Memorial Museum
My name is Ann Galley and I served as a WAAF and I worked as a plotter at RAF Biggin Hill between 1941 and 1944. I joined up aged 18 as my Father was in the RAF. My cousin, June Harrison, was also stationed at Biggin Hill and the two of us were together for most of the war. I remember with fond memories dressing up and putting on performances at Keston Village Hall with other WAAFs. My work was dangerous, and we were told not to walk around in groups in case we were a target for bombs. The original operation room I worked in at Biggin Hill was heavily bombed in summer of 1940 and we moved to Keston to continue our work. I would stand all day at the map table, listening out for codewords through my earphones and I was later promoted to Corporal. A visit from Eisenhower and the Eagle Squadron later in the war brought much excitement for Ann and her team. They brought boxes of oranges, a great luxury at the time. I was posted to RAF Northolt in 1944. My wartime work was tough, but I felt proud to do my bit. When I chatted to staff at Biggin Hill Memorial Museum I felt emotional to discuss with them a potential exhibition which I may be in! As women our story has been overlooked and although I would never wish to take anything away from the heroic RAF pilots, the WAAF’s also played a hugely significant part. All we want is to be remembered and hopefully to let young ladies know that the sky’s the limit as I showed in 1941!
When we think about the RAF we tend to see Spitfires and Hurricanes and Lancasters and the pilots and aircrew that flew them. But back on the ground few now remember the RAF regiment protecting the airfields, the mechanics, fitters, armorers, planners, plotters and directors keeping the planes flying and getting them into the right places at the right times to protect the country. Or the NAFFI and the cleaners and the ambulance crews and the firemen and the telephonists and the bomb-disposal teams and the anti-aircraft crews and the simple labourers filling craters in the runways so that the planes could land, who all worked through the battles and the air raids with minimal protection from the bombs and machine-guns of the plains attacking the airfields. There were many more of these than ever there were aircrew and many were killed or injured during the battles. My mother was just one of these many invisible ground staff at Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain and always wanted to make sure that these people were not forgotten whether they were RAF, WAAF or of any others of the services that were so essential to keeping the airfields operational. And so do I. I was pleased to hear that Biggin Hill Memorial Museum are exploring the idea of an exhibition to capture these hidden histories and I have many objects, images and uniforms which could be displayed. My Mother and her colleagues, I know would be proud to know that they have not been forgotten. Heather Redfern (Elspeth Henderson’s daughter)
Did you know?
- In 1938 the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was founded by British Airways.
- At the outbreak of World War II the civilian pilots of the ATA were tasked with ferrying new, repaired, and damaged aircraft between factories and airfields. Their work relieved the pressure on the RAF.
- Did you know that pilots in the Air Traffic Auxiliary (ATA) were expected to fly any plane to anywhere. The training was very limited and there were 147 different aircraft to master.
- Did you know that pilots in the ATA received equal pay based on their rank? This is the first example of a British Government controlled organisation paying males and female’s equal pay.
- On the 1st of January 1940 the first 8 women pilots reported for duty with the ATA under the leadership of Pauline Gower.
- Did you know that Jackie Moggridge initially applied to join the RAF but was refused? She had moved from South Africa to England in 1938 so she could train to be a commercial pilot, but when World War II broke out her training was suspended, and she applied to the Royal Air Force but was turned down due to being female!
- Jackie Moggridge, one of the featured brave women in the exhibition, flew 82 different planes during her service with the ATA.
- Corporal Elspeth Henderson, Sergeant Helen Turner and Sergeant Joan Elizabeth Mortimer were the first women to be awarded the Military Medal in 1941. They had remained at their posts in the aerodrome’s operation room following a direct hit and continued bombardment.
- By July 1943, 182,000 women had joined the WAAF.
- A quarter of a million women served in the WAAF and supported the work of 110 different trades.