Following the dismemberment and occupation of the Republic, many Czechoslovak women citizens emigrated Great Britain where several dozen of them joined the ranks of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) in order to fight against Nazism and fascism.
This women’s auxiliary service for the RAF was founded in 1939. Its members were supposed to reinforce the ranks of the ground personnel at airports and so release men for combat duty. Women at the airports performed various auxiliary services: some packed parachutes, others worked in the canteens, and others in the meteorological service. Many girls worked as telephone and telegraph operators, and even as aviation electricians. The “WAAFS” who worked as co-ordinate recorders at the staff of flight control and were in contact with the crews, monitoring the position of both RAF and Luftwaffe planes, became famous. “WAAF” pay was two thirds that of the pilots of the RAF. Organizationally the WAAF Corps fell under RAF command but it had its own special hierarchy and designation of different ranks. Women in the WAAF were not permitted to take part in military operations. They did not serve as crew members in military planes, and in 1942 they were further banned from service with so-called barrage balloons, where there was a direct danger from enemy aircraft. Despite all the efforts to protect women from danger, however, many members of the WAAF died during the war. The reason was mainly the bombardment of military airports and airstrips.
At its largest – in 1943 – the WAAF Corps had 180,000 members. It included not only Britons but women from the Commonwealth countries, and also from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other occupied states. Although multinational, the WAAF had a singly RAF top command, and the nationality of members was indicated solely by a badge on the sleeve with the name of the country from which the member came.
About twenty citizens of Czechoslovakia served in the WAAF. Like the British women they took re-qualification courses but also had to pass a test in proficiency in the English language. Czech and Slovak women served at air bases throughout England and were not organized in any special Czechoslovak military group. Often they did not know of each other. Some of them married in England, changed their names and never returned to Czechoslovakia. This makes it very hard to establish their precise numbers. To the Czechoslovak women in the WAAF we might loosely add the group of British “Waafs” who married our pilots. One well-known case is that of Joy Turner-Mžourková-Kadečková; her husband fell in the war and in 1945 Joy flew with her son to Czechoslovakia, where she spent the rest of her life.
The service assignments of the Czechoslovak “Waafs” was very varied – some became electricians or meteorologists, some cooks, some secretaries or translators, interpreters or radio operators.
We know of just one fatality among Czechoslovak WAAFs – and it is all the sadder for having happened when the war was over. On the 5th of October 1945 a plane was returning from England to Czechoslovakia carrying Czech pilots, mechanics and one WAAF. This was Edita Sedláková, who had served during the war with the 311th Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron. Edita had not been immediately discharged from the WAAF when the war ended, and so was flying to Czechoslovakia secretly. Alas, the plane crashed near Plzeň and none of the passengers or crew survived.
The work of Czech and Slovak women fighting in England during the war was in better conditions and better remunerated than that of the other groups of our fighting women, but it made high demands for precision, and was tiring to the point of exhausting. The Czech Republic can be proud of these brave women citizens and should never forget them.
The ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) existed in Great Britain from September 1938 to February 1949. Originally, joining the ATS was a voluntary matter, but from December 1941 on the basis of the law on general military obligation, single and childless women in the age-group from 17 to 50 years were called up. They could choose between service in the airforce (WAAF), navy (WRNS) and army (ATS). Those who joined the ATS were supposed to perform auxiliary services in the rear. They worked as cooks, in the stores, telephonists, radar operators, drivers, car mechanics, and so on. In 1945 the women’s corps of the ATS numbered more than 190,000 women, among them quite a number of Czechoslovak citizens.
Czechoslovak women had escaped from their occupied homeland by many routes. One possibility was the dangerous and long route across Slovakia and Hungary to Yugoslavia and from there to the Middle East or to the West. Not unnaturally, it was Jewish Czechoslovaks who most often headed for the Middle East and Palestine. Often the emigrants – men and women who had been in direct danger of arrest in Slovakia and Hungary – were not allowed to embark for Palestine by the British authorities. Here we should remember the tragedy of the wreck of the ship Patria, the survivors including a number of Czech and Slovak women. The Czechoslovak women who had arrived in the Middle East had very limited possibilities for making a living. They looked for any jobs available. Some took a course with the Red Cross and then served in the Red Cross, while others worked on the irrigation canals. Another possibility was to join the ATS in Palestine.
The first Czechoslovak women joined the ATS in 1941, to be followed by others in 1942 and 1943, when an appeal was made for women volunteers via the Czechoslovak military mission in Jerusalem. At the beginning of January 1943, a total of 28 women joined. The Czechoslovak women in the ATS were concentrated in one group and underwent training together in a training camp in Sarafand. The girls were given British uniforms and allowed to wear a badge marked Czechoslovakia on their shoulder.
Here the majority specialized in automobile transport and were then assigned to work in repair workshops. After finishing the course in Sarafand this group of women were taken to the military camp of Tel-el-Kebir not far from Suez, where they started to work as auto-mechanics. Their work in the desert conditions was extremely tough – the women had to cope with huge fluctuation in temperature, sandstorms, and dangerous desert animals. The mechanics included for example Ludmila Možná, Hana Nettelová and Hana Pavlů-Pfefferkornová.
Other girls worked in administration or the stores, while yet others took a course for drivers of military trucks. These drivers made long journeys in convoys to Port Said, Alexandria and Cassassino, often alone, without a co-driver or assistant. A Czech group of six “drivers” was led by Edita Zochovická, one of four Czechoslovak women who graduated from the ATS officer course. The others who became ATS officers were MUDr. Berta Golová, Zuzana Meklerová and Helena Kramerová.
While the British women were relieved by others after two years of work in the desert, the Czechs and Slovaks had to stay until the end of 1945, when the British Army finally discharged them. They were all then decorated with the Africa Star medal before the Czechoslovak Military Mission in Jerusalem organized their journey back to their homeland, where they did not arrive until the spring of 1946. Some of them were happily reunited with their families, but the others found both their families and their homes gone.
These forty women managed to replace men in traditionally male activities, and in the extreme conditions of the African desert, where they resolutely overcame the stresses of very demanding work, tiredness, the aggressive omnipresent sand, the dangers presented by scorpions. With their work they played their part in the victory over Nazism and the liberation of their country. They showed themselves equal and brave partners of men in the struggle.