Page last updated 16th November 2015

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WAAF Service Dress Uniform Buyer's Guide
 

In January 1917, a campaign was started to allow women to more directly support the war effort by enlisting in the army to perform work such as cookery, mechanical and clerical work and other miscellaneous tasks that would otherwise be done by men who could better serve their country in the trenches. On 7th July 1917, the British Army Council formally established the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) authorizing female volunteers to serve in non-combat roles in France during World War I. In May 1918 the WAAC was renamed as the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). In April 1918 six thousand of those women already serving with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and Royal Flying Corps (RFC) voluntarily transferred into the newly formed Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). In April 1920 the WRAF was disbanded, followed by the QMAAC in September 1921. With war once again imminent, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was formed in June 1939.

Initially the recruiting age limits for the WAAF were 18 - 43. In 1941 these limits were extended to 17 - 44. However, for ex-WAAC/QMAAC or ex-WRAF personnel who had previously served during the Great War there was no upper age limit for enlistment in the WAAF and there are reports of some ex-WAAC/QMAAC/WRAF senior NCOs and officers serving in the WAAF aged in their late sixties! Evidently their previous military experience was considered far more important than their age.

This article is aimed at the re-enactor who wants to portray a WAAF officer, NCO (non-commissioned officer) or OR (other rank). Unlike the RAF, WAAF officers and warrant officers, with very few exceptions, wore only the SD (service dress) style of uniform during WW2. WAAF NCOs and ORs employed in clerical, administrative and communications roles also usually wore SD uniform. Later in the war, WAAF NCOs/ORs who were employed as mechanics, drivers, barrage-balloon handlers and other such trades, were issued with the battledress-style blue-grey serge War Service Dress, including matching trousers, as this was considered a more practical form of uniform for them. But, as I know of no current source for WAAF War Service Dress, this guide will be confined to the subject of Service Dress only.

WAAF Service Dress was directly patterned on the pre-war RAF SD uniform in that it was a belted, button-fastened tunic with four flapped and buttoned pockets. It's important to note that WAAF tunics always buttoned-up in the male fashion (left-over-right) rather than in the usual female style. This was because campaign and decoration ribbons are always worn on the left breast and would be obscured by the usual female fastening. Additionally, WAAF tunics were initially re-tailored from standard male RAF issued items rather than being specially made for female personnel. The main difference between WAAF officers' and NCO/ORs' SD uniforms was that, on the officer tunic, the lower pair of tunic pockets were of the external bellows-type whereas the lower pockets of the NCO/OR's tunic were internal. Other differences were that the officer uniform was made of a good quality blue-grey wool barathea whereas the NCO/OR uniform was of a slightly coarser blue-grey woollen cloth, though not as coarse as the serge material of the RAF male NCO/OR's uniform. Female personnel wore a matching skirt rather than trousers. The skirt was a plain, straight, two-gore style of a length that finished between 14 and 16 inches above the ground. Later in the war the skirts became slightly shorter due to material shortages, but they always ended at or slightly below knee height. WAAF skirts were never worn above the knee.

Re-enactors intending to portray WAAFs should bear in mind that pilot wings and other aircrew insignia were never worn, as WAAF personnel were not employed in these roles during WW2. If you want to wear wings then you should perhaps consider portraying a member of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) whose ranks did indeed include many female aircrew (see the Uniform of the A.T.A. guide on this website).

A note about medal ribbons is in order. WAAFs seldom wore medal ribbons during WW2 as they did not receive their war service medals until after the war. Although the Air Ministry had a policy of encouraging RAF personnel to wear their gallantry decorations as soon as they were awarded during the war, very few WAAFs received such awards as they were not generally engaged in front-line service. So, unless you intend to portray one of the specific WAAF personalities who did receive such an award, you would be best advised to avoid wearing medal ribbons. The only exception to this is in the case of a more mature female re-enactor whose apparent age supports having originally served in the WAAC/QMAAC or WRAF towards the end of the 1914-18 war as described above. After the war she would subsequently have been awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal for her WW1 service. Upon her later enlistment in the WAAF after June 1939, she would have been entitled to wear the ribbons of those earlier campaign medals.

I can thoroughly recommend several excellent books that have useful sections on the subject of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, including The Royal Air Force by Andrew Cormack & Ron Volstad, and World War 2 British Women's Uniforms in Colour Photographs by Martin Brayley & Richard Ingram. These are listed in the Bibliography section of this website.

 

  Service Dress  
 


 








 








 


 


The problems in obtaining original 1940s-period WAAF service dress uniforms are three-fold: condition (items are often moth-eaten and literally falling apart at the seams), sizes (1940s-era women tended to have a different body shape to that of modern day female re-enactors) and price. Original period WAAF uniforms (see image at left) very rarely come up for sale on ebay and when they do the prices are absolutely insane!

So the only choices left for the typical buyer are to obtain a good modern reproduction uniform, or to 're-clock' a later post-war WRAF/RAF uniform.

Unfortunately, unlike other Allied service uniforms, there are very few manufacturers or retailers of reproduction WAAF uniforms. In fact, at this point in time, I know of only one, Warhorse and Reproductions of History. As I haven't personally had dealings with them, and they unhappily suffer from mixed reviews, I am unable to recommend them.

There is another UK supplier, The History Bunker, that advertises a tailor-made WAAF SD uniform package at a fairly reasonable price (see image at left). They don't describe it as an ofiicer's uniform but, given that the lower tunic pockets are of the bellows type, it can't be anything else. However, I must issue a caution here. From personal experience we can tell you that, although these uniforms are very well-made, some of the styling details are just plain wrong. The most obvious fault is that the tunic is made to fasten in the usual female manner rather than the correct male style of left-over-right. The waist-belt is held in place by belt hooks rather than being sewn to the back of the tunic, and the buttons supplied as standard are just plain brass rather than RAF King's Crown pattern. We have recently been working with The History Bunker to improve their WAAF uniform to a sufficient level of authenticity suitable for serious re-enacting. If they address the problems that I have described, this uniform package will definitely be worth recommending.

So, given the scarcity of original or reproduction WAAF uniforms, the only option left is to 're-clock' a post-war WRAF/RAF uniform. The term 're-clocking' was coined by Graham Cornell in his excellent Beginner's Guide to RAF Uniform, which can be found on this website, and refers to the process of converting a more modern WRAF/RAFuniform to resemble an older WAAF pattern. With the post-war evolution of the WAAF into the WRAF and then, more recently, the complete integration of women into the RAF, the female uniform has undergone several revolutionary changes which unfortunately render the tunics totally useless from the point of view of re-enacting. We do occasionally see women wearing 1970/1980s-era uniform at 1940s events but these bear absolutely no resemblance to the period of service that they probably believe they are portraying.

Luckily, the male RAF officer's tunic has hardly changed at all since WW2, except in colour and one or two other minor points such as the change from King's Crown RAF brass buttons to Queen's Crown pattern. Current-issue RAF uniform has changed in colour to a much bluer shade of blue-grey and is unfortunately unsuitable for 're-clocking'. This is a pity as it is readily available on ebay at very low prices. However, officer tunics from the 1970s and 1980s are of a colour not too dissimilar to that of the earlier WW2 period, and these are ideal for 're-clocking' as WAAF officer tunics. These can often be found at the trading stalls selling vintage uniforms at the various 1940s events, and regularly come up for sale on ebay at reasonable prices. A good starting point is to find one of these tunics in the correct chest size to fit the female re-enactor. Yes, there will be a fair bit of alteration required for one of these tunics to fit the female form, such as narrowing the shoulders, taking-in at the waist and shortening the sleeves, but the result will be a tunic of the correct pattern that fastens in the correct manner and the colour of which is reasonably close to the original item. Moreover, the quality of the uniform will be greatly superior to most typical reproductions.

Post-war RAF tunics dispensed with the lowest brass button and replaced it with a flat plastic one that sat under the waist-belt, so another task will be to create a fourth buttonhole below the waist-belt. See the 'before' and 'after' images at upper left. The standard silver-coloured 'Staybrite' alloy Queen's Crown RAF buttons will need to be replaced by brass King's Crown buttons which are available either as originals through ebay (beware badly tarnished examples) or as reproductions. The only source we currently know of for these is What Price Glory. The last item to be addressed is the waist-belt buckle. This again will be of a silver-coloured alloy and needs to be replaced by a brass one of the correct pattern. These regularly turn up for sale on ebay for a few pounds.

Similarly, a 1970s/1980s-era male NCO/OR's tunic can be successfully 're-clocked' into a WAAF NCO/OR SD tunic by exactly the same process.

The next item required is the WAAF skirt. Luckily, whilst the women's WAAF/WRAF/RAF tunic has completely changed in style over the decades, the matching skirt has remained pretty much the same. The only differences have been in the shades of blue-grey cloth used. The trick now is to obtain an officer's skirt from the same era as the officer's tunic so that they match in colour. It's important to note that WRAF/RAF skirts were issued in two different versions: the No.1 Dress skirt and the No.2 Dress skirt. The No.1 Dress skirt is the correct one that will match the officer's tunic. This version, sometimes described as 'heavyweight', is a four-gore skirt made of a woollen fabric and is lined. The No.2 Dress 'lightweight' skirt is made of a wool/polyester material and is completely unlined. Whilst the No.2 Dress skirt is the right colour, it's fabric looks completely different against the wool barathea of the officer's tunic and simply doesn't match. The No.1 Dress skirt comes with a front pleat which must be removed or otherwise sewn-up to conceal it, but this is a straight-forward operation - see the 'before' and 'after' images at left. It does mean that the skirt is slightly less than authentic because of its additional seams, but we consider this to be an acceptable compromise in the absence of anything better. Do not be tempted to buy the un-pleated lightweight No.2 Dress skirt, it just won't match with the man's tunic.

 

Here at left is an example of a re-clocked post-war RAF male officer's tunic and WRAF/RAF officer's skirt converted into a WW2 WAAF officer's uniform.

 

  Rank Insignia  
 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


It's probable that the tunic acquired for the purposes of 're-clocking' will come without rank insignia. If the tunic is to be reborn as a WAAF officer's then it will require the appropriate rank braid to be sewn on to the cuffs. However, be aware that modern RAF rank braid differs markedly from that used in WW2. Modern braid is composite, different braids being used for every separate officer rank. During the WW2 period, ranks were indicated by combinations of just two ribbons, " wide and " wide (see image at left). For instance, a Flight Officer's rank was indicated by two " rings of braid, and that of a Squadron Officer by two " rings separated by a " ring. It's important to note that there was approximately a " gap of sleeve material visible between each ring of braid. For those attaching their own rank braid, measure 3" inches up from the edge of the cuff and this point will be the centre of the rank braid group. For an Assistant Section Officer or Section Officer  this takes the measurement to the centre of the single ring of braid. For a Flight Officer the measurement goes to the centre of the " gap between the two rings of braid. For a Squadron Officer the measurement goes to the centre of the middle " ring of braid.

There are a number of online sources for RAF rank braid, including ebay, but one excellent retailer is Monty's Locker which specialises in authentic reproduction British Forces badges and insignia of the WW2 period. Below is a list of the WAAF officer ranks and their RAF equivalents:
 

Assistant Section Officer = Pilot Officer
Section Officer = Flying Officer
Flight Officer = Flight Lieutenant
Squadron Officer = Squadron Leader
Wing Officer = Wing Commander
Group Officer = Group Captain
Air Commandant = Air Commodore
Air Chief Commandant = Air Vice Marshal
Commandant in Chief = Air Marshal

The officer's cuff braid is sewn on with its centre 3" (9.5cm) from the bottom of the cuff

WAAF NCO and OR rank insignia was identical to that of their male counterparts in the RAF, and from January 1942 the two services shared the same badges of rank and trade. Here is a summary of the rank equivalents:
 

Aircraftswoman 2nd Class = Aircraftsman 2nd Class
Aircraftswoman 1st Class = Aircraftsman 1st Class
No equivalent rank pre January 1942 = Leading Aircraftsman
Leading Aircraftswoman (post January 1942) = Leading Aircraftsman
Corporal = Corporal
Sergeant = Sergeant
Senior Sergeant = Flight Sergeant
Under Officer (pre January 1942) = Warrant Officer
Warrant Officer (post January 1942) = Warrant Officer

All WAAF/RAF badges of rank, with the exception of that of Under Officer, are readily available as originals or reproductions from ebay.

 

  Other Insignia  
 


 


WAAF officers wore a pair of ⅜" gilt-metal 'A' badges on the upper lapels of their tunic throughout the war to denote their auxiliary status. Similarly, NCOs/ORs wore an embroidered 'A' badge (white embroidery on a square black felt background) on their upper arms just below their RAF eagle shoulder insignia (see photo in Hosiery section below). This practice was officially discontinued after January 1942, but WAAFs who had enlisted prior to that were permitted to continue wearing their auxiliary insignia. Reproduction WAAF officer's gilt-metal badges of the correct size and pattern are obtainable from E.C.Snaith. Unfortunately I have never found a source for the NCO/OR's embroidered 'A' badges so I am unable to recommend anywhere for these.

WAAF NCOs and ORs (but not officers) wore the RAF eagle insignia at the top of both upper sleeves just below the shoulder. These were embroidered in pale blue on a black felt background. Later in the war they were printed in grey on a black cloth background for reasons of economy. The insignia are always sewn-on with the eagles facing to the rear. Good quality embroidered versions of this insignia are available from Soldier Of Fortune.

 

  Service Cap  
 






The WAAF officer's SD cap was made of blue-grey wool barathea with a black mohair band, a patent leather chinstrap and a gold wire bullion King's Crown RAF officer-pattern cap badge. The caps of officer ranks from Assistant Section Officer up to that of Group Officer had a cloth peak reinforced with lines of stitching, whereas Group Officers and above wore caps with a patent leather peak to which gold braid was applied. This followed the general convention of the RAF. Note that WAAF Under Officers/Warrant Officers wore the same pattern of cap as officers.

The only supplier of WAAF officer caps with which we are currently familiar is Soldier Of Fortune. It's a reasonably well-made, authentically patterned, fully lined cap of the correct shade of blue-grey barathea and comes complete with a nice bullion King's Crown cap-badge. Don't be tempted to order a size larger for a more comfortable fit as, in our experience, these caps tend to be generously sized anyway.

The NCO/OR's cap was a plainer design with patent leather peak and was worn with a standard brass King's Crown RAF cap badge. The only supplier of which we are currently aware is Apple Tree Lane.

 

  Shirt

 

 


 


The WAAF officer's shirt was a pale blue button-fronted, collar-attached style without breast pockets or epaulettes. As these were privately purchased, some variations in colour were common. The NCO/OR pattern (see image at top left) was a grey-blue detachable collar shirt, issued complete with spare collars and studs, again without breast pockets or epaulettes, and made of a material known as 'fil--fil',  or 'end-on-end', which means that the fabric is woven with threads of two different colours, in this case blue and grey, giving it a distinctive irregular effect. These shirts were very similar to those issued to RAF NCOs and ORs, the main difference being that they fastened in the conventional female fashion. Original examples of these are almost impossible to find, even on ebay.

Unlike men's shirts which come in either standard collar or chest sizes, shirts for females must be correctly sized for both collar and chest in order to fit properly. If a woman orders a man's shirt with a size 42" chest, it will almost certainly have a collar size of 16" - 17" which will be far too loose at her neck to permit the wearing of a tie. So, obtaining a modern replica shirt is more difficult for the female re-enactor than for her male counterpart. The only solution is to acquire a modern RAF-issue female shirt as these are of approximately the right colour and are available in a wide range of chest and collar size combinations. The best source we have found for these is Cadet Direct. Their RAF Blue Shirt Woman's, Long Sleeve (see image at lower left) is a little darker and bluer in colour than is preferable but it's the best compromise we have found so far. It comes fitted with epaulettes but these are not visible under the WAAF tunic and purists could easily have these removed if required.

 

  Tie  
 


The WAAF tie was a plain black woollen pattern for both officers and NCOs/ORs. Original examples are extremely few and far between (in fact, I've never actually seen one). However, Amazon abounds with perfectly acceptable modern alternatives at sensible prices. Please do get a proper woollen tie and not one of the shiny modern ones of some man-made fibre or other - apart from the fact that they look awful, they also tend to loosen their knot very quickly.


 

  Hosiery  
 



 


Contrary to popular belief, WAAFs were not required to wear thick, ugly, blue woollen stockings as part of their uniform! NCO/OR's were issued with three pairs of blue-grey cotton lisle stockings, and officers privately purchased their own civilian pattern flesh-tone hosiery. However, as the photo at left illustrates, even NCOs/ORs obtained and wore civilian stockings.

If you really want that authentic 1940s look, there are still plenty of original unworn pairs of silk, rayon and lisle stockings to be had on ebay and Etsy at fairly reasonable prices. 

 

  Shoes  
 

 


WAAF-issue shoes were a plain black apron-fronted pattern (see image at left). These do occasionally turn up on ebay, but invariably in very small shoe sizes and always at very high prices. Having studied many original period photos of WAAFs, I have come to the conclusion that a lot of variations in footwear existed and that they often wore privately sourced shoes - see the photo in the Hosiery section above. Soldier of Fortune stock Womans Black Parade Shoes (see image at lower left) which are an acceptable alternative at a reasonable price for re-enactors portraying WAAF officers, NCOs or ORs.

 

  Shoulder bag  
 


Unlike their ATS counterparts, WAAF personnel were not issued with bags for personal items until very late in the war. It wasn't until March 1944 that WAAF officers were issued with shoulder-bags, which were zip-fastened and made of blue-grey barathea to match their uniform. NCOs/ORs didn't receive their bags until June 1945 and these were made of black serge. For most of the war, WAAFs made do with carrying their necessities in their gas mask haversacks. So this was really the de facto WAAF shoulder-bag, albeit unofficially. Some of you may recall the caustic comment made by Kenneth More to Susannah York in the classic film, The Battle of Britain, about WAAFs misusing their gas mask bags!

The best source for a WW2 gas mask haversack is Soldier Of Fortune. They stock an excellent replica of the original Mk.V haversack at a reasonable price. Do not go trawling through ebay trying to find an original WW2 haversack as they will be expensive and usually not in very good condition as they will have been used for all manner of other purposes since the war.

 

  Accessories  
 

 

 




During the early war years it was compulsory for RAF ground personnel, including officers, to carry their respirator (gas mask) and steel helmet with them at all times whilst on duty. So, certainly if re-enacting the Battle of Britain period, a respirator and helmet are essential accessories when wearing service dress. Genuine WW2 Mk.5 service respirators are relatively easy to find on ebay at reasonable prices. Alternatively, just buy a respirator haversack (Soldier Of Fortune stock both new-old-stock originals as well as new replicas) and fill it with something suitable, such as bubble-wrap, to pad it out (but beware of inquisitive members of the public asking to see your gas mask!).

RAF blue-grey steel helmets are not quite so easy to find (I had to source mine from a dealer in Holland!) but standard Army-issue green helmets are fairly common and much cheaper. Soldier Of Fortune stock reconditioned Army helmets with new liners and chinstraps at a not-unreasonable price - simply discard the camouflage net and re-spray the helmet shell in RAF blue-grey. Alternatively, acquire a cheap helmet shell and recondition and re-spray it as per Graham Corner's excellent DIY article, RAF Steel Helmet Restoration, available on this website's homepage.

The steel helmet was carried on the outside of the respirator haversack, held in place by the helmet's chinstrap. The combination was carried on the left hip, with the haversack strap either across the chest on the right shoulder or casually slung over the left shoulder.

The devil is in the detail, as they say! Why not add this detail, in the form of replica ID cards and other ephemera, to your carefully recreated period ensemble? Soldier Of Fortune carry a small range of such paraphernalia.