Recruits of the Indian Auxiliary Territorial Service, part of the Women's Auxiliary Corps of the British Indian Army

Commonwealth Day

Women in the Commonwealth have played vital roles in conflicts, from the First World War to the modern day. 

 

To mark Commonwealth Day and International Women’s Day, explore how their roles have changed over the last 100 years and discover the stories of Commonwealth women who have pushed the boundaries.

South African National Defence Force on a peacekeeping mission for the Africa Union Organization

The changing role of Commonwealth women in war

When the First World War began, there were no military roles for women except nursing. 

2,139 Australian nurses served during the conflict as well as 3,141 nurses from Canada.

The role of Commonwealth women in the military changed significantly during the Second World War.

With a lack of established women’s services, such as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in Britain, women who wished to support the war effort formed their own organisations.

Kenya Women’s Emergency Organisation

The Kenya Women’s Emergency Organisation was formed to fill numerous roles, from running canteens to feed African soldiers, to providing a nursing service and training local women to spin and weave so that they could support their families whilst the men served.

 

They also took charge of the welfare of the thousands of Polish refugees who fled Europe and from 1942 onwards arrived in Kenya.

Policewoman in 1940 in Kampala, Uganda
Meanwhile in Uganda women served in the police force.

Maori tribes in New Zealand worked in the food industry, gathering and preparing seafood and non-perishable items to be sent overseas.

Young Maori women tending forestry seedlings
The majority of New Zealand’s food produce went to feed US troops fighting in the Pacific.
Uniformed Maori members of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps welcome the Maori Battalion home on Wellington wharf
Maori members of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps welcome the Maori Battalion home

Maori women also served in the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps.

At its peak, it had a strength of nearly 4,600 serving personnel.

Maori members of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps welcome the Maori Battalion home

Women in Africa also played a vital role in food production, processing palm oil products and walking miles to collect cocoa from farms and bring it to market.

 

Woman in Uganda working in food production
Jamaica's first ATS unit at drill
Jamaica's first ATS unit at drill

Britain’s female auxiliary services invite Caribbean women to apply

In 1943 Britain’s female auxiliary services invited Caribbean women to apply and placed adverts in the local press.

Jamaica's first ATS unit at drill

19-year-old Connie Mark leapt at the opportunity and joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) which supported the British Army.

Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica when it was part of the British West Indies, Connie felt it was her patriotic duty to support the war effort.

Connie Mark in ATS
Connie Mark during her time in the ATS in Kingston
ATS recruits in the West Indies

An estimated 30 Caribbean women joined the ATS and around 80 joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

The majority of female recruits went to Britain. But Connie remained in Jamaica where she worked as a medical secretary at the British Military Hospital in Kingston.

She typed up the medical reports of war casualties and bombing victims, and was on call 24-hours-a-day.

Looking back, she remembered the sadness at seeing healthy men embarking for service, only for them to return on hospital ships with terrible wounds.

After six months Connie was promoted to Lance Corporal and six months after that to Corporal.

Connie Mark
I was very proud that I was in the Army.

In 1954 Connie relocated to the UK with her first husband who played cricket for Durham. 

As a member of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen and Women’s Association, she tirelessly campaigned for the West Indian contribution in the Second World War to be fully recognised. 

Connie finally received her British Empire Medal for meritorious service in 1991 and an MBE in 1993.

A South African Women's Auxiliary Air Force Sergeant Instructor fitting a gas mask to a beginner
South African Women's Auxiliary Air Force Sergeant Instructor fitting a gas mask

Women’s roles in the military become more defined

In general, women were not allowed in combat roles, but there were a few exceptions.

South African Women's Auxiliary Air Force Sergeant Instructor fitting a gas mask

In South Africa, 500 women were trained as Range Takers for the various Coastal Artillery batteries from Saldhana to Durban. The Artillery Specialists - Women’s Auxiliary Service (AS WAAS) was an elite artillery unit and although they did not fire weapons, they were listed as combatants.

The Second World War proved women could serve effectively in the military and by the end of the 1950s all the women’s auxiliary services across the Commonwealth had been made permanent.

 
Indian servicewomen of the Women's Royal Naval Service, Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, and the Auxiliary Territorial Service
Indian servicewomen of the WRNS, Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and ATS

Although many services were subsequently scaled back, some countries were more progressive. 

Maj. Chelsea Anne Braybrook briefs Canadian troops

The Royal Canadian Air Force began accepting women as early as 1951.

In the 1960s when Canada’s Army, Navy and Air force were unified as the ‘Canadian Armed Forces’, the remaining women’s services were fully integrated into the main services. By 2000, Canadian women could apply for any role.

Jamaica, South Africa and New Zealand integrated their women’s services into their main branches in the 1970s, followed by Trinidad and Tobago in 1980.

Jackie Moggridge in Spitfire 1944
© Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky

One of the first women to earn RAF wings

Growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, Jackie Moggridge dreamed of flying whilst watching the aeroplanes of the Royal South African Air Force and went on to become a pioneer of women’s rights.

© Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky

Aged 16 she moved to Britain to study at Witney Aeronautical College, Oxford and was the only woman training to be a pilot at the college. 

When the Second World War broke out she applied to join the RAF but was rejected because she was female. Instead she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a radar operator and helped identify enemy planes. 
 
Jackie Moggridge in RAF uniform Jackie Moggridge on wing of a plane Jackie Moggridge in plane cockpit 1953

In 1940, aged 20, Jackie was accepted to fly in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).

She was the youngest of the first 15 women chosen and eventually 168 women,  drawn from across the Commonwealth, Europe and North America, would fly for the ATA from 1940 to 1945. 

During this time she ferried 1,438 planes to waiting RAF pilots, flying 82 different types of planes. 

At 5ft 3” she was too small for many planes that were designed for men, and would use her parachute, log books and cushions just so she could reach all the controls.

Jackie was awarded the King’s Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air after the war and was determined to continue flying. 

From 1948-1954 she was a pilot in the Women’s Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, where in 1953, she was one of the first five women to earn their RAF wings. The next woman would not earn her wings until 1991.

Determined to continue flying in a man’s world she became a pilot for Channel Airways and was the first person to be awarded The Jean Lennox Bird Trophy for ‘Furthering the cause of women in Aviation’ by the British Women’s Pilots Association for becoming the first female commercial airline Captain.

Images: © Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky
Learn more about Jackie Moggridge
Jackie Moggridge with her daughter
© Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky

Jackie's greatest wish was to inspire girls to fly.

Over her lifetime she flew 501 Spitfires and her last flight was in 1994 when she was reunited with the same Spitfire she had delivered 50 years earlier to a waiting fighter pilot ahead of D-Day.

© Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky

Read Jackie Moggridge's story in her book, Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky.

The first all-female crew for a Royal Australian Navy MH-60R helicopter
The first all-female crew for a Royal Australian Navy MH-60R helicopter

Commonwealth forces today

Women still only make up a small percentage of military personnel across the Commonwealth, but with new opportunities, the numbers are growing.

The first all-female crew for a Royal Australian Navy MH-60R helicopter
Soldier white

10.9%

of the UK Regular Forces are women.

As of April 2020, 10.9% of the UK Regular Forces are women, 16% of Canadian forces, and as of 2018, 17,9% of Australian personnel.

The UK Armed Forces employ about 4,500 Commonwealth citizens with many of the recruits hailing from Fiji, Ghana and Saint Vincent.

Alison Baskerville

Over the last 20 years women have been able to take on more and more roles.

And since 2018 they have been able to serve in all combat roles alongside male colleagues.

Discover more

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