When the Royal Air Force was formed on April 1st 1918 the new service inherited the female air elements of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) survived until 1920 by which time the level of disarmament meant that the trades the women undertook were now replaced by the surplus of men who had become available.
Women were called back to serve in the RAF as war loomed once again in 1939 in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The WAAF served throughout World War II and briefly beyond until 1949 when the service was renamed back to the Women’s Royal Air Force on February 1st 1949. It was the passing of the Army and Air Force (Women’s Service) Act in 1948 that created the opportunity for a permanent peacetime role for women in the Armed Forces, in recognition of their invaluable wartime contribution. Around 80% of RAF trades in 1949 were open to members of the WRAF and this would rise over time.
On April 1st 1994, in recognition of the increasing number of roles women undertook in the RAF, the WRAF was disbanded and its members formally merged with the full-time RAF. In the 21st century, there are no boundaries on gender in the RAF with female aircrew having served in combat over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
After years of campaigning for equality in the British armed forces, female service personnel will soon be allowed on the frontlines with their male colleagues as the last barriers of sexual segregation are brought down. The decision comes in the wake of a review of the current defence policy regarding female personnel which dictates that women are limited to 80% of jobs in the armed forces with direct combat roles limited to men only.
At present the following elements of the armed forces do not allow women;
Royal Armoured Corps
Royal Air Force Regiment
Other units do allow women but mostly in a supporting role.
It is important to note that women have been in combat with British forces already with female RAF pilots carrying out ground attack missions in Afghanistan and female sailors aboard warships in the Persian Gulf. Research is currently being carried out into exploring the physiological demands of combat on women building on previous research which said women were able to cope with the rigours of close combat. This research will help the armed forces adapt to having women in roles that were once men-only.
Following the Conservative Party victory in the recent general election, Prime Minister David Cameron has retained Philip Dunne MP as Minister of State for Defence Equipment, Technology and Support while Penny Mordaunt MP becomes Minister for the Armed Forces.
Mourdaunt, herself a Royal Navy Reservist and the first woman to take up the post, said upon her new appointment;
“I am delighted to have been appointed to the role of Minister of State for the Armed Forces and I am particularly proud to be the first woman to take up the role…The UK’s Armed Forces have consistently proved their high readiness and ability to deploy with an impressive and vast array of capabilities both internationally and on the domestic stage. Over the last year alone they have been at the forefront of responding to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone; helping to tackle the barbaric scourge of ISIL in Iraq as well as successfully drawing down military operations in Afghanistan.”
A woman who has become the first to command an RAF fast jet squadron is expected to lead bombing missions over Iraq this summer against IS forces. Wing Commander Nikki Thomas, who took charge of the newly reformed No 12 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk on Friday, flew a daring low mission to help foil a deadly rocket attack on a UK base in Afghanistan.
The 36-year-old is a weapons system operator with extensive experience of combat operations, clocking up more than 35 missions in Afghanistan within three months alone. In December 2009, as squadron leader of No 31 Squadron Tornado team, she and her pilot, Flight Lieutenant Juliette Fleming were the RAF’s first all-female Tornado jet crew. They flew an aircraft armed with 500lb laser guided Paveway IV bombs, Brimstone air-to-ground missiles and a 27mm gun and their missions helped both American and British troops under fire in Helmand Province.