While we know that females’ contribution during the First World War was away from the trenches like nurses or the Canary Girls of Britain, WWII had opened an opportunity for them to serve closer to the warzones than ever before.

In Britain, 640,000 women joined the armed forces, while the Soviet Union had 800,000 women enlisted. The US resisted sending women during this conflict, but some 350,000 still served in the Armed Forces, fulfilling critical roles both in and out of the country. Here are some of the parts that they took during World War II.

The WACs and WASPS of America

As mentioned, the United States didn’t want to send women into the combat zones at the very beginning until 1942, with the persuasion of First Lady Eleanor and the women’s group to Army Chief of Staff George Marshall. Then, seeing how British women were of great help in the service, he supported the idea and introduced a women’s service branch in the army.

Congress instituted what was initially called the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1942. This was later upgraded to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) with full military status, credits to Director Oveta Culp Hobby. Initially, General Marshall authorized WAACs to be trained on anti-aircraft batteries and searchlight units. However, he had to call it off the following year due to fear of public outcry and Congressional opposition.

Regardless, more than 150,000 women still served in the WAC, thousands of them sent to the European and Pacific theaters. By 1945, more than 100,000 women were members of WAC, with 6,000 of them as officers. Although their works were non-combatant, their service led to the acceptance of the idea of women being in the military.

Elizabeth L. Remba Gardner, Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. (US Department of the Air Force., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The US Army Air Forces also started training female pilots to free male pilots so they could fight on the ground instead. Because of this, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program was created.

Women were flying B-26 and B-29 bombers and similar planes straight from factories to military bases all over the country. They were also assigned to test and repair these planes and tow targets in the air so gunners on the ground could practice shooting using real live ammunition.

Twenty-five thousand applied to the program, with only 1,100 accepted. The program was closed in December 1944 as mandated by Congress. It faded into the abyss of the official military records until President Jimmy Carter granted these female aviators as US army veterans in the late 1970s.

Night Witches of the Soviet Union

The threat of German forces invading Moscow and Marina Raskova convinced Joseph Stalin to authorize women to be pilots in 1941. Perhaps the most well-known was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment (later known as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment). These aviators could take down lots of their targets that the Germans gave them the nickname “Nachthexen,” which translates to “Night Witches.”

The women of 588th had been to 30,000 missions and dropped over 26,000 incendiary shells and 3,000 tons of bombs. The job was even more dangerous because they did not carry parachutes due to the bombs’ weight and the low flight altitude until 1944.

Several female pilots belonged to the 588th Night Bombardment Regiment. (Sergey GCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Without even having formal training, some 2,500 Soviet women also served as snipers tasked to target German frontline officers. One of them was Lyudmila Pavlichenko, also known as “Lady Death” because she had 309 confirmed German kills in less than one year of service in the 25th Rifle Division, 36 of which were enemy snipers.

The Ack Ack Girls of Britain

Gunner Girls learned how to use an identification telescope on September 24, 1941. (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum/juliakellywrites.com)

At the start of mid-1941, all unmarried British women from 20 to 30 years old had to join one of the Auxiliary services, like the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Women were still not allowed to take combat roles and were tasked to spot enemy planes with their binoculars. They also calculated the distance a gun shell would travel to hit the target and calculated the length of the fuse needed to ensure the shell would explode at the right height. Once all of these were done, a man assigned to their unit would be the one to load and fire the machine gun at the enemies, producing a sound that became its nickname, “Ack Ack.”

When Germans deployed their V1 flying bombs against Britain, 369 Ack Ack girls died in 3 months, all enduring the tough conditions to fulfill their tasks in the middle of bombs showering around them. However, their efforts and sacrifices helped their country fight while boosting the civilians’ morale.

ATS ‘Ack-Ack Girls’ memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum. The badges depicted are those of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, Royal Artillery, and Anti-Aircraft Command. (RickfiveCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)