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Dame  (Katherine) Jane  Trefusis Forbes (1899–1971), by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale, 1941Dame (Katherine) Jane Trefusis Forbes (1899–1971), by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale, 1941
Forbes, Dame (Katherine) Jane Trefusis [married name Dame (Katherine) Jane Watson-Watt] (1899–1971), businesswoman and director of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, was born on 21 March 1899 in the Chilean desert, the youngest of three children, and the second daughter, of Edmund Batten Forbes (1847–1924), civil engineer, and his wife, Charlotte Agnes Wauchope (d. 1958). Little is known about her schooling, except that part of it was conducted in London, but, whether it was learned or inherited, Jane Trefusis Forbes combined a lively and creative mind with formidable and tireless powers of organization and leadership, which served her well in both business and military environments. Her business career was successful and varied. A breeder of prize-winning Dandie Dinmont terriers, in the 1920s she founded Bell Mead kennels and canine nursing home. In the 1930s she combined work as managing director of this enterprise—by now a company—with managing a housing trust, Caroline Trust Ltd Estates. After the Second World War she revived her interest in housing as chairman of Draydonne Properties, and she branched out into the dry-cleaning industry, retiring as managing director of Davis Dry Cleaners in the 1960s.

However, it was in the military sphere that Jane Trefusis Forbes was particularly celebrated. Her military career started in 1916 when she joined the Women's Volunteer Reserve as a driver. The women's voluntary services were disbanded at the end of the war, but in 1934 German rearmament prompted women who had served in the First World War to prepare for a revival of their wartime role. In 1935 Jane Trefusis Forbes joined the Emergency Service, a voluntary Officers' Training Corps formed to train women for service in the event of a national emergency, and as senior cadet she played a key organizational role. The Emergency Service was renamed the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) on receiving Army Council recognition in May 1938, and Trefusis Forbes served as chief instructor at its school of instruction until, when the Air Council requested that some ATS companies be attached to RAF stations, she became company commander of no. 20 RAF (County of London) company, ATS. On 28 June 1939 the RAF finally took the plunge and formed its own independent women's service—the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF); two days later Jane Trefusis Forbes was appointed as its first, non-executive, director. The outbreak of war saw a distracted Air Ministry largely unencumbered by a coherent strategy for the organization and administration of the WAAF, and Trefusis Forbes needed all her powers of tact, diplomacy, and, on occasion, no small degree of cunning, to see that the service-women were clothed, accommodated, and trained, and to reconcile a host of often conflicting interests and needs while establishing the service on a firm organizational footing. The remarkable expansion of the service from 1734 at its mobilization to 181,835 at its peak in July 1943 stood as testament to her success. She firmly believed that the WAAF could only contribute to the war effort to the fullest extent and with the greatest efficiency if airwomen served on equal terms with airmen as an integral part of the RAF. In an atmosphere not always conducive to such an egalitarian agenda she worked tirelessly, and doggedly when need be, to expand the employment of service-women into skilled, technical trades, and into positions of authority and responsibility. She also looked beyond a purely wartime agenda: her ‘progressive training’ scheme to enhance airwomen's sense of themselves as citizens displayed an exceptional and creative long-term vision of women's role in the post-war world, and she gave considerable and detailed consideration to the problems that both service-women and -men might encounter on demobilization. She resigned as director in October 1943, convinced (incorrectly) that Air Ministry plans for the decentralization of the WAAF would diminish its overall efficiency. It was a further year before she retired from the service, however, having conducted a fact-finding mission to North America, India, Gibraltar, Ceylon, the Middle East, and the Far East. Her role as deputy director and then director of welfare services for the Allied Control Commission for Germany from 1946 to 1948 called on many of the skills she had displayed as director of the WAAF, and her work producing a welfare handbook, increasing the scope of leave centres in the British zone, and organizing cultural and sporting competitions did much to ease the difficulties faced by civilian staff in unfamiliar surroundings.

Slim, tall, a little plain, but always immaculate in uniform, Trefusis Forbes's austere appearance belied a charming manner. An impressive speaker with a commanding presence, she could inspire the loyalty and boost the morale of service-women of every rank, while those with whom she worked closely praised her colossal energy and drive, her originality of thought, and her outstanding organizing ability. Her interest in, affection for, and readiness to serve the RAF never diminished: after her retirement from the service she was vice-president of the WRAF Officers' Association and of the RAF Association (RAFA), deputy chairman of the RAFA executive, and a member of the RAFA council, the RAF Benevolent Fund council, and of numerous subcommittees. Her charitable interests included the national advisory council for the employment of the disabled, and the disabled advisory committee, Hammersmith. She was appointed CBE in 1941 and DBE in 1944, and in 1968 was awarded an honorary LLD by St Andrews University. On 10 March 1966, in a quiet ceremony at Kensington register office, she became the third wife of , the developer of radar, with whom she had worked during the war. She survived a coronary thrombosis in 1970, but died at their home in London, 7 Crescent Place, Brompton Road, Kensington, following a second heart attack on 18 June 1971.

Tessa Stone


Royal Air Force Museum, department of research and information services, Hendon, London, K. J. Watson-Watt files, AC 72/17 · d. cert. · m. cert. · The Times (21 June 1971) · The Times (25 June 1971) · WWW, 1971–80 · The Times (11 March 1966) · The Guardian (27 June 1960) · B. E. Escott, Women in air force blue: the story of women in the Royal Air Force from 1918 to the present day (1989) · K. B. Beauman, Partners in blue: the story of women's service with the Royal Air Force (1971) · Air Ministry (AHB), The women's auxiliary air force (1953) · Burke, Peerage (1967)


Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, files, AC 72/17


T. C. Dugdale, oils, 1941, Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, London; on loan to RAF, Linton-on-Ouse [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£211,765: probate, 1971