The government realised that the British armed forces were short of manpower and so in April 1939 introduced the Military Training Act. Under the terms of the act, all men between the ages of 20 and 21 had to register for 6 months military training to prepare them for entry into the armed forces.

When war was declared in September, 1939 there were 875,000 men in the armed forces, but far more were needed, so conscription was introduced in October 1939. The government announced that all men between the ages of 18 and 41, who were not working in reserved occupations, could be called to join the armed forces. They were allowed to choose between the air force, the army, and the navy.

The reserved occupations were:

Dock workers, doctors, farmers, merchant seamen, miners, railway workers, school teachers, scientists, and utility workers (in electricity, gas, and water)

People working in occupations that were considered to be important to the war effort, such as skilled engineers, were often excused military service.

Men who were too old or unfit were expected to join suitable voluntary organisations such as the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), the fire fighters, or the Home Guard (Local Defence Volunteers), created on the 14th May, 1940 and known as ‘Dad’s Army’.

There were also conscientious objectors, men who felt unable to take part in the war. They had to apply for conscientious objector status, and appear before a tribunal to explain their reasons for wanting to opt out.

In 1941 conscription was introduced for unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30. They were not expected to take part in the fighting, they had to work in one of the reserved occupations, especially in factories and farming.

They also worked as air raid wardens, and joined the ATS (the army’s Auxiliary Territorial Service), in which they acted as drivers, worked in mess halls, or worked on anti-aircraft guns, but were not actually allowed to fire them. Some also became welders, carpenters, and electricians. By July 1942 there were  217,000 women in the ATS.

Some women also joined the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) and worked on aircraft, radar tracking stations, and more mundane work such as cooking, and clerical work.

Some women joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and flew RAF planes from factories to military airfields.

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