The Women Who Defended Britain's Skies

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In researching my upcoming release, The Light Over London, I was continually amazed at the many—often unsung—ways women contributed to the war effort in Britain during World War II. The Lightseekers is an ongoing series of articles that highlights some of their work and the ways they brought light to Britain in one of its darkest times

In April 1941, a new kind of job opened up for the women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army. In order to be taken on, they needed to show great aptitude as well as quick reflexes and a natural courage. They were tested, assessed, and those who made the cut became Gunner Girls.

Also called Ack Ack Girls, these ATS women were given the rank of gunner as they were now attached to the Royal Artillery (RA). They were part of mixed batteries—units with women and men—and they took over some of the vital roles previously performed by men in an effort to free those men up for other jobs.

In an Ack Ack unit, a spotter would work the powerful tool used to locate and identify enemy aircraft. Two women would operate the height and range finder that would gather the information to properly aim the gun. Then that information would be sent over to the predictor, which would calculate and account for both the forward movement of a plane and the time it would take a shell to reach it in order to damage or shoot down the plane. Once trained, the Gunner Girls could do this all in a matter of seconds.

Gunner Girls learning how to use an identification telescope on September 24, 1941. (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Gunner Girls learning how to use an identification telescope on September 24, 1941. (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

One thing the Gunner Girls didn’t do, however, was pull the trigger on guns. When arguing for the inclusion of women in Ack Ack units, General Sir Frederick Pyle, Commander in Chief of Air Defense, agreed to the government demand that women would not fire the guns. This is because, even in the middle of a war, the government didn’t believe it was appropriate for “life givers to be life takers.”

By the time the first mixed battery units were trained up and dispatched to their first assignments, the London Blitz was over. However, the Luftwaffe still conducted bombing raids in the capital and across Britain throughout the war.

In their book The Girls Who Went to War, Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi, record the story of Jessie Ward, a Gunner Girl. After the war, Jessie remembered speaking to a woman in a fish and chips shop in Aberdeen who sounded as though she was from Hull. Jessie told her that she’d been stationed in Hull during the war as part of an Ack Ack unit, and the woman said, “Oh, you don’t know what they meant to use in the city. Whenever we heard the guns open up, it gave us a bit of hope to hold onto.”


My own family, the Kellys, would’ve been familiar with the 33rd (Western) Anti-Aircraft Battalion that defended Liverpool throughout the war. Liverpool, a major port, was one of the cities bombed at the same time as the London Blitz, and it also experienced its own sustained bombing that came to be known as the Liverpool Blitz. Ack Ack units from the 33rd were stationed around the city and its outskirts and in surrounding towns like Stockport, Birkenhead, and Boodle to try to protect the buildings and people of Liverpool.

My grandparents’ house was one of the 6,500 homes bombed during one of these raids on Liverpool, although fortunately no one in our family was hurt. Family lore has it that my Uncle Nick was actually born during an air raid in the middle of the Liverpool Blitz.

The last air raid of Liverpool happened place in January 1942.

There is now a memorial to the women of the Ack Ack Command in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Read every story of the The Lightseekers in the series archive. You can also learn more about their stories by following the hashtag #TheLightseekers on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.