British history

British Women in World War 2

From a guide for US troops stationed in Britain in World War 2:

'A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.” There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.

Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect.'


Ack Ack Girls

'Ack Ack Girls' were members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) that helped operate Anti-Aircraft Guns in the defense of Britain from German bombing raids during World War 2. 

From 1941 onward all unmarried British women aged 20 to 30 were required to join one of the Auxiliary services, which included the ATS. One of the most dangerous and exciting ATS roles was to be selected for 'Ack Ack' duty, manning the Anti-Aircraft guns known for their distinctive ack-ack sound as they fired. The idea to use women in gun crews was first proposed by British engineer Caroline Haslett and was eagerly approved by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill's own daughter, Mary Soames, was one of the first Ack Ack volunteers and served at a gun site in London's Hyde Park.

As a royal proclamation forbade women from operating deadly weapons, Ack Ack Girls worked as part of mixed-gender squads where men would load and fire the weapons with the women's support. The three main roles of the women were Spotters who used binoculars to find enemy planes, Range-Finding teams who calculated the distance a gun shell would have to travel to hit the target, and Predictor teams who worked out the length of the fuse necessary to make sure the shell exploded at the right height.

Women were subject to the same intensive training as men and  had to undergo rigorous testing in terms of fitness, hearing, eyesight and nerves in order to be accepted. This was essential for enduring the hard conditions at the gun emplacements and to keep on task while bombs fell all around them. When the Germans deployed V1 flying bombs against Britain, 369 Ack Ack Girls were killed in just 3 months. Their sacrifice and dedication proved invaluable to the war effort, as well as providing a boost to civilian morale, the sound of the Ack Ack guns becoming a well-recognised symbol of British resistance.

Read a personal account of Ack Ack Girl, Vee Robinson, here.

Yaa Asantewa

Yaa Asantewa was the Queen Mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire during the late 18th and early 19th century, as well as leader of the Ashanti rebellion against the British Empire.

Born in 1840, Yaa Asantewa played a supporting role in the royal family of Ashanti Empire (located in modern-day Ghana) as ‘Queen Mother’.  Following the exile of her grandson King Prempeh I by the British in 1896, Yaa Asantewa inherited leadership of the empire as regent in his stead.

In 1900, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, met with local leaders at Kumasi. He demanded that the Golden Stool, the divine throne and symbol of the Ashanti nation, be turned over to him as a recognition of British power. While some of the leaders considered this, Yaa Asantewa, as Guardian of the Golden Stool, reprimanded them, saying:

“If you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”

Yaa Asantewa then assembled an army of 5000 volunteers to resist the British forces, inflicting heavy losses upon them and forcing them to retreat to the fortified British offices at Kumasi. With the offices defended by machine guns and 500 Nigerian Hausas, Yaa Asantewa’s forces chose to instead lay siege to the British, cutting telegraph wires and blocking supply routes. Two days before the British would have been forced to surrender, a relief column sent by Hodgson broke the siege and forced the Ashanti to retreat.

Despite having been able to harass the British forces from several well-defended forts, the Ashanti Empire was eventually defeated and absorbed into the British Empire in 1902. As rulers before her had been, Yaa Asantewaa was exiled to the Seychelles, where she remained until her death in the early 1920s. In 1924   Prempeh I was finally allowed to return to Ashanti, bringing Yaa Asantewa’s remains with him to receive a royal burial on her native soil.