The best place to begin a summary of the contributions of women during the war is on the home front, where women served as traditional guardians of the family and culture in every country and in a wide variety of nontraditional roles created in the crucible of total war. In Allied countries, millions of women worked as volunteers for government agencies and distributed ration books, assisted with salvage projects, joined blood and scrap drives, planted victory gardens, served in the Civil Air Patrol, sold war bonds, or worked as air raid wardens and ambulance drivers. In the United States, many of the more than 36 million Americans who joined the Red Cross and the over 5 million who served as volunteers were women. They distributed 29 million food parcels for prisoners of war and refugees, 13 million units of blood, and packaged kit bags for U.S. soldiers deploying overseas. The Red Cross employed 6,500 women by 1945 and thousands more in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Women also played a key role in the United Service Organizations (USO), which operated over 3,000 clubs worldwide (including 300 for African Americans) that catered to the social and entertainment needs of Allied soldiers. The USO included 1.5 million volunteers, most of whom were women, and more than 7,000 performers who conducted 428,521 performances by 1947. Alice McLean's American Women's Voluntary Services (AWVS) also served a vital support role, training 18,000 women to drive ambulances, give first aid, and set up field kitchens. Between 1940 and 1945, the AWVS carried out relief work at military bases, taught Braille to soldiers blinded in action, and shoveled snow during harsh winter months to free soldiers for training. Similar services were performed in Britain by the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute (NAAFI) and the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA), both of which included a high percentage of women workers and volunteers, and other organizations such as the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and a wide array of religious groups. In government, women conducted much of the official business and administrative details in the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. They worked in such agencies as the U.S. Office of War Information, which produced propaganda and translated enemy broadcasts and publications between 1942 and 1945.
The Allies were also adept at recruiting women for industrial work. In Britain, where more than half the population served in the armed forces or in key war industries (5 million in uniform and 21 million in agriculture or manufacturing), women represented 38 percent of the workforce by 1945. More than 6 million women took jobs in war-related industries in the United States, and they proved especially adept at aircraft construction and welding. They were generally superior to men in repetitive skilled jobs such as riveting or parachute construction, and they were encouraged to work by government advertising campaigns that urged them to support their loved ones at the front by working at home for victory. In the Soviet Union, 1 million women worked in industrial jobs by December 1941, and before the war ended, they constituted 55 percent of the overall civilian workforce. By 1945, women constituted 92 percent of the agricultural workforce.
In most countries, women struggled with housing shortages, sexism, and lower wages than men. Women in the United States suffered from a lack of any national service legislation that might have organized their wartime contributions at home and provided child care. Two-thirds of American men stayed at home during World War II, and millions of women remained homemakers, but few men saw the need to help provide child care for the women the government was encouraging to take war-related jobs. Instead, many people criticized women who left their children at home while they worked, and they lambasted the decay of the traditional family under the exigencies of war.
Efforts to recruit women were much weaker in Germany, Italy, and Japan, where conservative cultures and racial ideology emphasized the importance of women as homemakers and the primary transmitters of race and culture. Still, German, Italian, and Japanese women suffered from shortages of food, water, and medicine, and large numbers went to work in war-related industries. Young single German girls had to work as nurses, on farms, or as domestics for terms ranging between 6 and 12 months, and by the end of the war, 1.5 million German women had entered the workforce, along with another 1.5 million foreign women brought into Germany to toil in forced-labor camps. Efforts to mobilize women in Japan were delayed until the war was clearly being lost, but more than 1.5 million Japanese women took jobs outside the home by 1945.
Beyond the home front, all the major combatants in World War II utilized female nurses, and all save Japan made use of uniformed women's auxiliaries to help support their war machines and to free men for combat. These units were typically distinguished by military branch and performed virtually all noncombatant roles, and most were patterned after those formed by the British in the early years of the war. Women eventually composed more than 10 percent of the British armed forces, a ratio over five times higher than that in the United States, and at least 700 died in air-defense roles or as firefighters and air raid wardens during German attacks.
By 1943, the British were utilizing 7.75 million women in industry or in the military, in organizations as disparate as the First Aid Yeomanry (affectionately known as the FANYs), the Women's Transport Service (WTS), the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and the Women's Voluntary Services for Civil Defense (WVS). The WVS enlisted more than 1 million women to help clear rubble, organize relief shelters, and fight fires, and more than 470,000 other women served as nurses, 2 million worked in munitions, and 400,000 served full- or part-time in the Home Guard or the Royal Observer Corps. More than 207,000 women in the ATS supported the British army, including 57,000 who served in the Anti-Aircraft Command as spotters, searchlight operators, and radar technicians. In the ATA, women pilots from all over the Commonwealth and the world ferried aircraft between bases and from factories to the front; 15 of them died in the line of duty.
Even occupied countries with governments-in-exile followed the British example, as in the case of Poland. The Poles formed the Pomocnicza Lotnicza Sluzba Kobiet—Women's Auxiliary Air Force (PLSK)—in 1942, and as many as 1,653 officers and enlisted women joined up to support Polish air force units in the field by performing noncombatant office, supply, and repair duties, just like women in the British WAAF.
People in the United States responded in similar fashion, forming the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), the Women's Army Corps (WAC), the women's Coast Guard arm known as the SPARS (from the Coast Guard motto "Semper Paratus," or "always ready"), and the Women Marines. The WAVES organization was formed in 1942 as part of the U.S. Naval Reserve and trained women for a wide array of technical and support specialties. At its height, the WAVES numbered 8,000 officers and 76,000 enlisted women, most of whom were stationed in the continental United States—equivalent to the manpower of an entire carrier task force. The WASPs were formed in 1943 by combining the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTS). They served with, but not as a part of, the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF).
WASP pilots ferried military aircraft from factories to bases and filled aviation support roles stateside, towing targets and training pilots and navigators. The number of WASPs eventually peaked at 1,074, but despite an outstanding record that included 12,650 ferrying missions in 27 different types of aircraft, they were disbanded late in 1944 because of protests from Congress and from male pilots who feared competition with women during and after the war. Thirty-eight WASPs died in the line of duty.
In contrast to the WASPs, the WAC (which began as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) lasted from 1942 to 1978 and served during World War II as a separate corps of women that performed all levels of support work for the army, including military intelligence and air-traffic control. WACs were eventually stationed at more than 225 bases worldwide, and 150,000 of them (including 6,500 African Americans) served in every theater of the war by 1945. These were the first American military women formally to serve apart from nurses, and they amassed 3 Air Medals, 16 Purple Hearts, 10 Soldiers' Medals, and 565 Bronze Stars. More than 32,000 WACs served with the AAF in 200 enlisted and 60 officer specialties; 7,530 WACs were deployed to Europe, and 5,500 went to the southwest Pacific. Their record of success led U.S. Army leaders to ask Congress to make the WAC permanent in 1946. Women's units were rounded out by the SPARs, which enlisted almost 11,000 women to help free men for sea duty with the Coast Guard, and the Women Marines, the last women's reserve unit formed by the U.S. armed forces.
Interestingly, Marine Corps Commandant Thomas Holcomb opposed enlisting women for a long time, but when he relented, he insisted on giving them the title Women Marines and making them a regular part of the Marine Corps. By 1945, 800 officers and 14,000 enlisted Women Marines were in uniform, and their service freed enough men from support duty to form the 5th Marine Division. All told, more than 350,000 U.S. women served in uniform, including over 74,000 army and navy nurses, a handful of whom were captured by the Japanese and became prisoners of war.
Neither Germany nor Japan utilized auxiliaries or military women to the same extent as the Allies, but a number of women and organizations still played an important part in the war. In Germany, Hanna Reitsch flew helicopters, gliders, an experimental version of the V-1 rocket, the Me-163 Komet rocket plane, and bombers as a test pilot for the Luftwaffe; in addition, she landed a light plane in the streets of Berlin during a mission to Adolf Hitler's underground bunker during the final days of the war. Melitta Schiller Stauffenberg also flew as a test pilot and won the Iron Cross Second Class and the Gold Pilot badge before being shot down by a U.S. fighter in April 1945. The largest number of German women (100,000) served in Luftwaffe flak units from 1944 onward, and a handful joined SS units and guarded women at concentration and death camps. A small number of those guards were executed after the war. In Japan, the most important mobilization of women was conducted by the Greater Japan's Women's Association, which trained volunteers for civil defense and military training designed to battle the anticipated American invasion.
Although most countries took steps to limit the participation of women in combat, the Soviet Union broke with broad cultural convention by placing them in or near the front lines. More than 800,000 women served in the Soviet army, including approximately 400,000 in the Air Defense Forces and another 400,000 in ground units. Air Defense women began in traditional support roles, and eventually, a small number served in combat with both single-sex and integrated units by 1945. Women manned thousands of antiaircraft batteries, completely replaced men in barrage balloon units, and manned searchlights throughout the war, most famously during the final Soviet offensive against Berlin. On the ground, women served in tank and artillery crews, as mechanics and cooks, and in medical or headquarters units on all fronts. The most famous women were those who fought as snipers or as fighter and light bomber pilots, including Lidiia V. Litviak, who racked up 11 individual kills, 3 group kills, and 1 balloon kill prior to being shot down in August 1943. The first female ace in history, she fought with integrated units and at Stalingrad. Among snipers, the most famous was Liudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko, who is credited with 309 kills; wounded four times, she became the first Soviet citizen to visit the White House. She eventually visited 43 US cities as well as Britain and Canada, then returned home and became a master sniper instructor and trained 80 snipers who were collectively credited with killing more than 2,000 Germans. Her expertise encouraged the Soviets to form the Central Women's School for Sniper Training in 1943, and by the end of the war, 1,885 snipers had graduated and claimed 11,280 German kills. Pavlichenko was ultimately named a Hero of the Soviet Union, an honor shared by 94 other Soviet women who fought during World War II. Alongside the Soviets, liberated or exiled Poles formed the Emilia Plater Independent Women's Battalion in 1943, and between 8,000 and 14,000 women fought with Polish armies under Soviet command.
Although the Western powers were unwilling to follow the Soviet example, they did enlist women for espionage operations behind enemy lines. The most important of these missions were conducted by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). At least 50 women were dropped into occupied France to work with Resistance forces, and others worked with intelligence agencies such as the British MI-6. One of the most legendary was the American Amy Thorpe, who worked for both MI-6 and the OSS. Among other activities, she secured both Italian naval and Vichy French ciphers, leading the MI-6 chief of station in Washington to say she had saved at least 100,000 lives. Thorpe survived the war, but a number of OSS and SOE women did not, including Noor Inayat Khan, an SOE operative killed in 1944 at Dachau who was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and became the first female saint of the Sufis in India. Other famous female operatives include Virginia Hall and Jeanette Guyot, who received Distinguished Service Crosses for their work with the OSS, and Violette Szabo, an SOE operative who was arrested in France and executed by the Germans at the end of the war. She was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the British George Cross, the first occasion that award was given to a woman.
Women also fought behind the lines as members of the resistance in occupied countries. Women composed 12 to 20 percent of the French Resistance; many performed support work by decoding messages, serving as couriers, and operating Resistance newspapers. Others fought directly against the Germans, utilizing assassination, bombing, and sabotage to support the Allied war effort. As in most cultures, their ability to fight was limited by men, though Communist cells often gave women more latitude to engage in direct combat. Famed female Resistance fighters include Lucie Samuel, who was awarded the Croix de Guerre; Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who led a Resistance network of more than 3,000 people; and Georgette "Claude" Gerard, who led more than 5,000 men and women in the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (French Forces of the Interior, or FFI), better known as the maquis. The number of women who served in the Resistance is difficult to determine with any precision, but the French government did recognize more than 200,000 women after the war for their service. Women fought in the Paris uprising of 1944, in the Massif Central and Haute Savoy uprisings, and in hundreds of other places, and their valor earned them a permanent place in the French military after 1945. In Poland, Resistance leaders formed the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army), and one-seventh of its members were women. They served as couriers and medics and in some specialized units, including one designed for fighting in the Warsaw sewers during the uprising of 1944. Women also served in the Resistance forces of all other occupied countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark. More than 20 percent of the 150,000 people in Allied intelligence networks in western Europe were women, and they helped rescue 5,000 Allied airmen and 1,600 other soldiers. Women were especially valuable in this role because couples were far less suspicious when traveling than men walking alone. These women also assisted with the Normandy Invasion, and they paid a high price when they were captured. Between 200 and 300 French women are known to have been executed by the Germans, and 8,500 were sent to the infamous female concentration camp at Ravensbrück. Only 400 survived. Other women were executed in countless places, including the Ardeatine catacombs in 1944 and the Czech village of Lidice in 1942. In the Soviet Union, an estimated 200,000 women fought with the partisans, and in Italy, 35,000 women (one-third of the Resistance) fought against the Germans in support roles or in small squads. Some were members of the all female Novella Albertazzi, and by the end of the war, 5,000 women had been imprisoned by the Germans; 3,000 were deported to Germany, and at least 650 died in combat or were executed. Mussolini's Italian Social Republic also recruited women support units. In the Balkans, women fought with the Greek Resistance in large numbers, and about 100,000 served with the Yugoslav National Liberation Army under Josip Broz (Tito). They trained and fought in integrated units, and the death rate for women was 25 percent, twice that of the men.
This litany of sacrifice and service is hardly complete, for it omits the thousands of women who were taken prisoner by the Japanese when Singapore fell or the thousands more who experienced some aspect of the war in Africa, the Middle East, Burma, or Indonesia. It also neglects the handful of women captured when Japanese forces seized or sank civilian ships in the opening days of the war or the women on Soviet and Scandinavian merchant ships who helped fight the Battle of the Atlantic. These and other women remain largely unknown to history, and until their stories are told, our knowledge of World War II will remain incomplete.
What we can determine at this juncture is that virtually all women who served in the war were demobilized in 1945 and encouraged to go home. They had confounded social and military expectations of the prewar years, which made no allowances for the importance of women to national war efforts, and in many ways, their societies were ungrateful for their service. France (in 1944) and Italy (in 1946) extended suffrage to women as a reward for their sacrifices, but other gains were few and far between. Most men and many women wanted to return to traditional roles, and in the rush toward peace, many valiant women were slighted. They were not eligible for the Victoria Cross, were banned from some Italian Resistance group parades, and were denied admittance into the American Veterans of Foreign Wars. Some women found their wartime experiences such a social liability that they hid them for the rest of their lives, much to the dismay of historians.
We are left today with the discomforting knowledge that male-dominated political systems created World War II and that the vital contributions of women during the war were forgotten by most men afterward. Although much has improved over recent decades in terms of our knowledge and our appreciation, much work remains to be done. After all, no insight into the nature of World War II can be complete without coming to terms with this fact: the victors of the war were those countries that most successfully mobilized their women. Lance Janda
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