Violet Douglas-Pennant

Violet Blanche Douglas-Pennant was the sixth daughter of Lord Penrhyn. Although a Conservative Party member of the London County Council, she developed a reputation as someone with liberal views on social reform. For example, Douglas-Pennant was an active supporter of the Workers' Educational Association and in 1911 the Liberal Government appointed her as National Health Insurance Commissioner for Wales. Douglas-Pennant's salary of £1,000 a year made her the most highly paid woman in Britain.

Douglas-Pennant became an important political figure during the First World War. An organiser of the Scottish Women's Hospital Unit she helped form the Women's Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC) and was involved in the recruiting campaign for the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

In April 1918 it was decided to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) by amalgamating the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Also formed at this time was Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) and Geoffrey Paine, the Air Ministry Master General of Personnel, appointed Gertrude Crawford as its first commandant. However, Lady Crawford soon discovered she was expected to be little more than a figurehead and that Lieutenant-Colonel Bersey, was actually running the service. Unhappy with this situation, Lady Crawford decided to resign from the post.

Sir Geoffrey Paine now asked Douglas-Pennant to become commander of the Women's Royal Air Force. It was not long before Douglas-Pennant got the impression that the Royal Air Force was not fully committed to the WRAF . She was given no secretarial help and had difficulty getting the use of a staff car for official journeys. Douglas-Pennant resigned but agreed to go back after being promised that her complaints would be dealt with.

Sir William Weir, Secretary of State for Air, asked Lady Margaret Rhondda, Director of of Women's Department of the Ministry of National Service, to report on the state of the WRAF. Rhondda's report was highly critical of Douglas-Pennant, and Weir decided to dismiss her as Commandant of the WRAF and replace her with Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, Overseas Commander of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Politicians and trade union leaders were appalled by the treatment of Douglas-Pennant. Lord Ampthill, Mary Macarthur and Jimmy Thomas sent a letter of complaint to the Daily Telegraph about Weir's behaviour.

After the matter was raised in the House of Commons it was decided to set up a House of Lords Committee Inquiry. Douglas-Pennant's case was not helped by making false accusations against several of the witnesses. Douglas-Pennant lost her case and was also successfully sued by two of the libelled witnesses and had to pay substantial damages.

Primary Sources

(1) Violet Douglas-Pennant, letter to Sir Godfrey Paine, RAF's Master General of Personnel (April, 1918)

You will remember that I accepted provisionally on the clear understanding that I should be responsible to you for the general administration of the WRAF's. This was apparently not made clear to others concerned - I found myself in the difficult position of seeming to assume responsibilities to which I was not entitled, so I was blocked at every turn. The work that General Livingston requires from the Commandant could well be fulfilled by a subordinate clerk or a well-trained Matron. Please do not think that I care twopence for my own position. I only care about getting the work done smoothly, and I hope you will forgive me for saying that you will never get this force onto a sound footing unless the Commandant is treated with confidence and given due authority.

(2) In her book, Under the Searchlight, Violet Douglas-Pennant, described how she was sacked by Sir Sefton Brancker.

As soon as I reached his room, he told me very abruptly that he had sent for me to tell me that I was to go. He seemed very angry and told me that though he understood I was very efficient, I was grossly unpopular with everyone who had ever seen me. He spoke in a bullying, blustering and contemptible manner.

(3) House of Lords Committee Inquiry Report (December, 1918)

Miss Douglas-Pennant enters upon the scene in the character, in her own opinion, of the saviour, eager to find evils which do not exist. She was a woman full of zeal, much impressed with her own importance; very reckless in her imputations upon others, and a person not at all likely to get the best out of those with whom she had to work.

(4) Soon after Katherine Trefusis-Forbes became Commander of the WRAF in 1939 she was contacted by Violet Douglas-Pennant.

She came up to me at a public meeting and said the RAF had dismissed her and it would do the same to me. She spoke in a loud voice and lots of people heard her. Fortunately Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan had warned me.