The War Years: 1939-1945

The Wartime Women Operators

The first three photos on this page show training sessions taking place in 1941.
During the Second World War the shortage of manpower for industry meant that women were employed in many jobs previously thought to be the preserve of men. The BBC was not exempt from the problem of finding sufficient staff. Not only did it lose many of its engineers to the services but broadcasting expanded dramatically. Between the start of the war and the beginning of 1942 the number of transmitters increased from 25 to 90. At the same time the number of languages in which the BBC broadcast increased from 9 to 40 and the number of programme hours increased dramatically.

When the war began the government decided that BBC engineering staff above the age of twenty-three should be exempt from military service. However about fifty engineers above that age were transferred at the request of the Air Ministry to undertake special wireless work. By March 1941 nearly 400 had left to serve in the Forces. By June 1942 the BBC had lost over 70 per cent of its experienced pre-war engineers and by the end of the war over 500 had been released to the forces. Junior engineers were being lost too. Having joined at the aged of seventeen or eighteen they became eligible for call-up at nineteen, just as they were becoming useful.

The idea of employing women to fill engineering posts was discussed in late 1940 and in the following June adverts appeared in newspapers and The Listener. The starting salary was to be 3.25-3.50 per week. The first batch of seven joined on 30th June. After attending the engineering training school they were appointed to stations on 11th August. They worked in London Control Room and Technical Recording. The next batch of twenty-one finished their training on 23rd August; most of them were deployed in the Regions.

Soon some of the new recruits were sent to transmitting stations, initially allowed to work only in the control rooms though this restriction was lifted in September. The following year women operators were sent to some Group H transmitters and by the end of 1942 they were working at twenty-seven of these stations. They were not allowed to rectify faults at first, having to wait for help from the Engineer-in-Charge or his deputy. This lengthened the duration of the breakdowns but it wasn't until May 1943 that it was agreed that women operators could do simple unsupervised maintenance work.

The women's ability to learn impressed trainers and management. However some of the Engineers-in-Charge seem not to have totally trusted them, attempting to limit their activities as much as possible. One EiC complained that he could not employ them on work inside the transmitter unit because their clothes got caught up in the components. At the same time he complained about them wearing trousers! He had forbidden them to do so except on the night shift. The official ruling was that trousers could be worn provided that 'they were of a reasonably quiet colour'.

By the end of 1942 there were five hundred women operators - a quarter of the Operations and Maintenance complement. In all, over eight hundred women operators were recruited and trained during the war.

The 1945 BBC Year Book included this comment:
It has been particularly noteworthy how women operators with no previous technical experience whatever have absorbed the intricacies of broadcasting and have become, within a few months, useful members of the staff.
In 1971, twenty-six years later, there were seventeen of the wartime women staff still working in engineering operations.

1940s CR
1940s CR

Two shots taken in the 1940s BH Control Room. The young lady in the picture on the right is Joyce Perry who worked for the BBC from 1942 to 1947.