The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was created in 1907 by Lord Kitchener as a link organization between frontline fighting units and field hospitals. Early women recruits were drawn mainly from the upper middle classes.
During the First World War the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry ran field hospitals, drove ambulances and set up soup kitchens and troop canteens. These women worked in highly dangerous conditions and won 17 Military Medals, 1 Legion d'Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre.
After the war the women served as drivers for government and military officials. They also trained in the telephonic and wireless communications. In 1926 members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry helped to provide essential services in transport and communications during the General Strike.
In 1938 the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry became part of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). During the Second World War, they provided the nucleus of the Motor Driver Companies of the ATS. On the Home Front the women worked in canteens, hospitals, recreation centres and military headquarters.
In 1940 Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare, established the Special Operations Executive (SOE). As Dalton pointed out an "organization to co-ordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants."
Colonel Colin Gubbins, Director of Operations and Training, made contact with the commandant of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and arranged for her to provide personnel for the SOE. At first the women were used to produce passports, ration cards, and other forged documents for use in occupied Europe. They were also employed to transmit, encode and decode messages to and from the field.
In April 1942, Winston Churchill gave his approval for women in the Special Operations Executive to be sent into Europe. It was argued that women would less conspicuous than men. In countries like France women were expected to be out and around whereas the Gestapo were suspicious of men on the streets. Women were used as couriers and wireless operators. Women were never sent to Europe as circuit leaders although Pearl Witherington became leader of the Wrestler Network after the arrest of Maurice Southgate in May 1944. She organized over 1,500 members of the Maquis and they played an important role fighting the German Army during the D-Day landings.
During the Second World War the SOE sent 39 women to France. This included Lise de Baissac, Yolande Beekman, Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Christine Granville, Virginia Hall, Noor Inayat Khan, Cecily Lefort, Vera Leigh, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman,Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo, Nancy Wake, Pearl Witherington and Yvonne Rudelatt.
SOE wireless operators took with them a short-wave morse transceiver that could send and receive messages. It weighed 30 pounds and fitted into a two foot long suitcase. Its frequency range was 3.5 to 16 megacycles a second. The main problem for the operator was that the transceiver needed seventy feet of aerial to function properly.
It was estimated that in towns it would take the Germans around 30 minutes to discover where the transceiver was being used. Where possible, operators worked in isolated areas. They were also under strict instructions to transmit briefly, at irregular intervals, at various wavelengths and from various places.
Each wireless operators was instructed to always spell certain words incorrectly. The reason for this was that if the Germans captured the operator and code books and tried to use the transceiver to trap other agents, the Special Operations Executive in London would be able to discover what had happened and would warn all its agents in the field.
SOE agents were taught that once captured they must try to stay silent when interrogated by the Gestapo for 48 hours. During that time all the people who had been in contact with the arrested agent were supposed to move house and cover their tracks.
It is estimated that around 200 SOE agents lost their lives. Most of these were executed on instructions from Adolf Hitler in September 1944 and March 1945. Those who did not return included Yolande Beekman, Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan, Cecily Lefort, Vera Leigh, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman, Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo and Yvonne Rudelatt.
Since the war, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry has been known chiefly for its work in the field of military and civil communications. In 1999, the organization was officially renamed the Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps (PRVC), and it is now known as FANY (PRVC).