Just a fortnight into World War II, Manchester and the nation heard the news that the government was drafting at least one million women into war work.
They would replace men called up for armed service in unskilled occupations ranging from bus conductors to processed food operatives – as well as doing vital work in munitions factories.
The women were sorely needed. From September 1940 to the end of 1941, the armed forces and Civil Defence units planned to increase their numbers by no less than 1.75 million men and 84,000 women.
Over the same period, the munitions industries needed to recruit a further 1.5 million people. Single women in the 19-24 age group were quickly called up to fill the shortfall.
A set of inspirational images from the M.E.N. archive shows how these women went to war in Manchester from 1939 to 1945.
They ran mobile canteens, learned how to fire anti-aircraft guns, trained as firefighters, worked the land, dug ditches and laboured long hours in factories and workshops.
They became motor mechanics, pilots and ambulance drivers to aid the war effort as well as occupying critical public service roles.
In March 1941, Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin took things a stage further by introducing the Essential Work Order. This required all women aged from 18 to 50 to register for work in one of two categories – ‘mobile’ or ‘immobile’.
Women in the ‘immobile’ category could basically stay put in their homes. They would not be forced to do war work although they were welcome to volunteer.
These were women who were married or pregnant or had children under the age of 14 living with them.
The ‘mobile’ category included single and married women with no dependents. They could be ordered to work anywhere in the country.
In December 1941, the National Service Act allowed for the conscription of all single or widowed women aged from 19 to 30. They were given the options of working in industry, on the land or joining one of the women’s branches of the armed services.
The scheme was quickly extended to include women from the age of 18 to 51 as the conflict gathered pace.
In Manchester, women dispensed much-needed sustenance and cheer in mobile canteens and food stations through the Luftwaffe Blitz from August 1940 up to March 1941 and beyond.
Our photo shows women serving a hearty meal to civilians queuing at the counter of an emergency feeding centre in Scotland Road in February 1941.
The heaviest raids on Manchester occurred during the nights of December 22nd and 23rd 1940 – the Christmas Blitz. An estimated 684 people lost their lives and a further 2,000 were injured.
Barrage balloons were hastily manufactured to deter Nazi bombers. Attached to a steel cable capable of bringing down a plane, the balloons were tethered at heights up to 5,000 feet.
By mid-1940 there were 1,400 balloons flying over British cities, a third of them over London. Our image shows women preparing a barrage balloon in Manchester’s Gaythorn gasworks.
Women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) helped guard heavy anti-aircraft guns as our photo from Prestwich in April 1942 illustrates. Some gun emplacements even had mixed crews.
The 3.7 inch calibre ‘Ack Ack’ guns were huge affairs, taking 11 people to operate. The familiar term ‘Ack Ack’ came from the abbreviation of ‘anti-aircraft artillery’.
Another archive image shows women from the ATS learning motorcycle skills from regular servicemen in Manchester in September 1939. The ATS was effectively the women’s branch of the army during the war with more than 190,000 members at its height.
The Women’s Land Army, disbanded after the First World War, was reformed in 1939 to replace male agricultural workers called up for military service.
Commonly known as Land Girls, the women picked crops, dug irrigation trenches, drove vehicles and operated machinery. By 1944, the WLA had 80,000 members.
Our image of the WLA from March 1943 shows three Land Girls digging a site next to a Manchester waterway while another operates a dredging crane.
Land Girls Betty Lewis and Peggy Clarke are busy cutting logs on a sawmill in a Manchester timber farm in our second WLA image from June 1945.
Back on the home front, women did all they could to care for their families in the harshest of circumstances. At Gorton pit this meant the back-breaking task of hunting for pieces of coal in slag heaps during fuel shortages in January 1945.
*Unmissable images of Manchester and the North West feature in Clive Hardy’s latest hardback book, The Home Front – Britain 1939-45, published by iNostalgia Ltd. It’s on sale at £14.99 including UK postage and packing.
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