Dame Kathryn Jane Trefusis Forbes – a brief life

Dame Kathryn Jane Trefusis Forbes will forever be remembered as the first director of the Women’s Air Auxiliary Force (WAFF) – the female support organisation to the Royal Air Force. She took up the post, at the organisations inauguration, in July 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of the second world war. By September 1939 the force consisted of 1,500 women, by 1943 its ranks had swelled to 175,000.

Simply assembling, housing, equipping and accounting for such a vast organisation is such a short space of time is no small achievement. But as well as that, Trefusis-Forbes oversaw the WAAF playing a critical role in the Battle of Britain. The RAF’s victory of the Luftwaffe over the skies of southern England in the summer of 1940 was largely the work of its airmen. Their numerical and technical inferiority might have been cruelly exposed, however, if it were not for the introduction of Radar – and the dedication of the Radar operatives from the WAAF who, working hours every bit as punishing as the airmen, ensured that the British forces at least had some warning of the enemy overhead.

Roles were strictly divided along gender lines – although Trefusis-Forbes did change the rules so that WAAFs could fly in RAF planes when necessary.

Despite her remarkable achievements, Trefusis-Forbes became frustrated in her role. The hastily inaugurated service she led was allowed to do very little without the approval and interference of the male services.  In particular, although holding the rank of Air Commandant – equivalent to a Brigadier in the army – her views had to be explained to the Air Council by a man. Trefusis-Forbes considered this intolerable and when there arose an exit that allowed her to continue with war work and not damage the service, she took it.

From Autumn 1943, while retaining her rank, she undertook international tours of the allied territories, helping to set up similar women’s forces. The next year she was created a Dame, and returned to civilian life shortly after the cessation of hostilities. She opted to be known as Dame Kathryn, although friends and family always knew her as Jane.

Described by one colleague as ‘slim, plain but charming’, she was also considered to be a ‘real war-time lady’. She delighted, for example, in riding around on a motorcycle and side car. She was obviously not prim in any way. Garden designer Oliver Hill and playwrite Robin Maughin regularly stayed with her in Scotland. The later in particular, who described himself as ‘queer and alcoholic’, could party on an international scale – and to judge from hints in Trefusis Forbes’ correspondence, appears to have done so in her company.

She was born in 1899, daughter of Edmund Forbes (the brother of George Forbes, who built the Observatory). In 1916, at the height of the First World War she left school and volunteered for the Women’s Volunteer Reserve, serving as a private and a driver, and later promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. She was disappointed to be too young to be posted to France.

Shortly after the First World War she established the Bell Meade Kennels in Haslemere, Surrey, which served as a training college for kennel boys and girls, She bred and enjoyed a national reputation for a Dandie Dinmonts (a popular breed of terrier).  A couple of Pathé films made at her kennels, give flavour of this largely forgotten world.

She appears to have been particularly adept at media relations. As well as the Pathé films she was extensively featured in the press. ‘Banshee’ in the Yorkshire Post’s ‘Dog Days’ column noted that the kennel school had opened in July 1925. The Sphere featured her in 1927.

As the clouds of war gathered, however, Trefuis-Forbes put her commercial life aside and joined the Emergency Service, a voluntary body created to start in motion the establishment of women’s support services for the forces.

Post-war she served on numerous charitable and advisory bodies – particularly ones concerned with ex-forces personnel, disabled people and housing.

She did not marry until 1966 when, at the age of 67, she accepted the proposal of Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of Radar. How they met, and whether they knew each other 25 years before their marriage as both played their critical role in the success of Radar, is unknown.

Trefusis-Forbes inherited the Observatory in Pitlochry in 1936, upon the death of her uncle, George Forbes. Early in the war she is said to have allowed the house to be used as a place for senior militarily personnel to have a few days respite – Field Marshall Montgomery is thought to have been among the guests. By the end of the war, she started to develop the house for use by larger parties. Bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen were added. There was even a tiny room, known to this day as the maid’s room, in which her one member of staff made her bed.

Trefusis-Forbes portrait was painted by Royal Academician Thomas Cantrall Dugdale at the time of her appointment to lead the WRAF, on behalf of the War Artists Advisory Committee. It is now in the collection of the RAF Museum.

Trefusis-Forbes died in 1971 and is buried in Pitlochry.

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