Updated: Jul 31
The Royal Auxiliary Air Force
Authors: Dr Louise Wilkinson and Squadron Leader Tony Freeman
Publisher: Air World, 2023
That this book is the fruit of much detailed research becomes clear immediately on opening it. Between them, the authors bring much in the way of service experience and academic achievement to the task and they have produced a readable reference book.
Those seeking tales of the 'posh' pre-war antics of the AAF should look elsewhere. There is not much of that kind of thing. Instead we are presented with the facts and analysis needed by the historian. Tables abound.
The volume covers the early years of the AAF and the Second World War. There is a WAAF chapter. There is coverage of developments since the war, including the flying squadrons until 1957, radar, the RAuxAF Regiment, Maritime Headquarters units and specialist squadrons and units.
When war came the existence of women seems to have taken the RAF by surprise. We read that: “The mobilisation of the WAAF on 28 August 1939, after only two months existence, and its rapid expansion to some 8,000 personnel during the first five weeks of war produced acute clothing, accommodation and kindred difficulties. No uniforms were at first available, and for many weeks, WAAF officers were reduced to searching London and provincial cities for essential garments which they ordered from wholesale and retail houses. The accommodation position was equally unsatisfactory. It had been agreed in July 1939 that tentage for 5,000 should be earmarked for the use of WAAF on the outbreak of war, but as war broke out in September, the tentage was of little value. Consequently, airwomen had to be housed in all types of quarters, many of which were quite unsatisfactory from the administrative, hygienic and disciplinary aspects. Other airwomen had to return home on pay and allowances until some form of housing was available. The position improved on 26 October when the WAAF Depot at West Drayton was opened. It then became possible to give nearly all recruits a fortnight’s disciplinary course. Previously, a number of them had to be sent directly for duty at their war stations or for initial or specialised training.”
Move on a year from those unpromising beginnings and, as most supporters of the Memorial Trust will know, the WAAF was making an outstanding and heroic contribution to victory in the Battle of Britain.
That being the case, there is a rather strange and confusing passage in the introduction regarding Military Medals received by WAAFs. It is suggested that three were “awarded” during the Battle to “women who worked as plotters and radar operators in Fighter Command”. Perhaps the intention is to be specific about the roles and postings of three people but I suspect that the average reader would have liked to have been told at this point that six WAAFs, across three locations and a range of jobs, performed acts during the Battle that led to the award of MMs. In any case, the use of the word “awarded” is incorrect. None of the six awards were gazetted until after the Battle had concluded.
There are, inevitably, a few other mistakes, typos and so on. For example “Jumbo” Deanesly (No 152 Squadron in the Battle, but No 605 Squadron previously) has his surname spelt incorrectly. I knew Wing Commander Deanesly in the 1990s. He was a jovial and determined man and seemed resigned to the fact that his unusual name (an ancestral amalgamation of Deane and Sly) would rarely come out correctly.
An odd and misleading table on pages 26 and 27 claims to show COs of Auxiliary squadrons in the Battle of Britain but only gives one name in each case. Some COs such as Hogan of 501 and Johnstone of 602 did indeed hold their appointments for all or most of that period. When we come to 601, though, we find that Max Aitken’s is the name selected. He was CO for 10 days of the Battle.
Points like these do not impact much on the quality of the book. I suggest that you consider making a purchase or dropping birthday or Christmas hints.