From crosscutting trees by hand to operating sawmills, their work was vital on the home front to help Britain's war effort - but they were the forgotten force of the Second World War.

As many as 15 -18,000 young women left home for the first time to carry out heavy and arduous work during the war, replacing men who had left to join the armed forces.

Many members of the Women's Timber Corps (WTC) - a branch of the Women's Land Army (WLA) - rivalled the men in their strength and skill.

They may not have been on the front line but they fought their own battles on the home front for 'respect and equality'.

This week, to mark the 80th anniversary of the WTC, the 'Lumberjills' - as they were affectionately known - are being highlighted to recognise their vital contribution to the war and the important part they played in the history of Britain's forests.

Eastern Daily Press: Forest of Dean Lumberjills bark strippingForest of Dean Lumberjills bark stripping (Image: Joanna Foat)

The Lumberjills played a vital role in providing timber for the war effort, with millions of tonnes of wood needed for pit props, railway sleepers, telegraph poles, gun butts, ships, aircraft, packaging boxes for bombs and army supplies.

Britain was the largest timber importing nation in 1939, importing 96pc of its wood. And with the advent of war, homegrown timber supplies became vital.

Thousands of forestry workers were therefore urgently needed to replace the labour shortage, and to keep Britain running.

Eastern Daily Press: Women's Timber Corps workers at Culford near Bury St Edmunds in 1942Women's Timber Corps workers at Culford near Bury St Edmunds in 1942 (Image: Joanna Foat)

The women, aged between 17 to 24, carried out work including felling, snedding, crosscutting, driving tractors and trucks, working with horses, operating sawmills, measuring logs and loading timber.

They were posted out into forests, including Thetford Forest, to carry out the heavy work and proved themselves just as good as the men they replaced, despite doing what was thought to be ‘a man’s job’ and being 'unable to cope with the tough work'.

The government had at first refused to employ 'the fairer sex' and instead tried to employ male British prisoners, dockyard workers, students and even school boys.

But its position became untenable when thousands of WLA members showed their determination to play their part in the war.

Eastern Daily Press: Lumberjills pictured working in the Forest of Dean in GloucestershireLumberjills pictured working in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire (Image: Journal of the Forestry Commission/ Joanna Foat)

Joanna Foat, an author who has spent two years interviewing 60 of these pioneering women, said they brought gender stereotypes "crashing down".

She first discovered the story of the Lumberjills while working for Forestry England in 2010. While many of these women have died their stories are remembered in her book 'Lumberjills: Britain’s Forgotten Army'.

Ms Foat said: "I was shocked to discover how the women were treated at the beginning of the war.

Eastern Daily Press: Joanna Foat spent two years interviewing 60 LumberjillsJoanna Foat spent two years interviewing 60 Lumberjills (Image: @JonHawkinsSurreyHillsPhotography)

"They were laughed at for their enthusiasm to offer their services, regarded as ornamental rather than useful and many timber merchants did not want women taking over the jobs of skilled men.

"In fact, the Lumberjills not only pioneered a new fashion for women in trousers, wearing jodhpurs, but they also proved that women could carry logs like weight-lifters, work in dangerous sawmills, drive huge timber trucks and calculate timber production figures on which the government depended during wartime.

"With their 80th anniversary, I hope to inspire women of all ages with the strength, courage and determination of the Lumberjills.

"Out in the forests away from the restrictions imposed on women by society, they realised they could sit astride a tree, smoke a pipe and fell 10-tonne trees just like the men, if they wanted to."

Eastern Daily Press: Women's Timber Corps workers on the Isle of WightWomen's Timber Corps workers on the Isle of Wight (Image: Joanna Foat)

In April 1942, WTC training camps were set up across England in Culford, near Bury St Edmunds, and the Royal Ordinance Factory hostel, near Wetherby in Yorkshire.

A month later, the Scottish Women Timber Corps established training camps in Shandford Lodge near Brechin in Angus, and Park House in Drumoak, Aberdeenshire.

Hundreds of young women were trained at each camp in felling, haulage, sawmilling and measuring timber.

In Culford, newly trained members of the WTC were drafted to help with one of the most successful responses to an emergency call for the clearing of trees during the war.

In June 1943 the Home Timber Production Department was told that 25 square miles between Thetford and Watton was required urgently by the War Office for battle training.

The area was covered with trees and a large labour force had been in full production there for two and half years, with four mills in operation.

In October 1943, 428 male fellers were joined by a draft of 110 newly trained Lumberjills and 65 schoolboys for a week to try to clear 80 acres of land as quickly as possible.

In that time they managed to fell and remove around 200,000 cubic feet of wood.

Eastern Daily Press: WW2 Women's Timber Corps 'Lumberjill' Fiona Kay builds a fire ready to cook sausages and bacon at Sheringham Park's annual living history weekend. Picture: KAREN BETHELLWW2 Women's Timber Corps 'Lumberjill' Fiona Kay builds a fire ready to cook sausages and bacon at Sheringham Park's annual living history weekend. Picture: KAREN BETHELL (Image: Archant)

Joan Hawkins spent three months in the Land Army but later swapped to forestry work and joined the WTC. She trained in Norfolk as a measurer in the sawmills and was later posted to Malvern Hills and Thieves Wood.

After serving for three and a half years, she left in 1944.

Speaking in 2012 at the age of 90, she described her time at WTC as "absolutely brilliant".

And Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse has a permanent gallery celebrating the history of WLA and WTC in Norfolk. Included in this is the stories of Doris Jones and Eve Attridge.

Ms Attridge joined the service in 1942 when she was just 18 and trained at Culford Camp in Thetford Forest. She learned how to find, measure and fell timber for telegraph poles, houses and pit props for coal mines.

She previously said: "We had bow saws and crosscuts and our axes and that was basically the tools of our trade, and billhooks for trimming smaller branches.

"We sawed them into appropriate lengths for pit props and telegraph poles, it was jolly good fun and hard work."

Ms Jones joined the WLA aged 18 in March 1942 with her sister Pearl and a friend.

The sisters were also sent to the Culford Camp to be trained as members of the WTC.

Following their training they were sent to Downham Market and later Cromer, where they worked in a saw mill helping to operate a circular saw. And later were sent to the Earl of Leicester's estate at Holkham, where they were the only two Timber Corps women on the estate.

Eastern Daily Press: Pen drawing of WW2 Timber Corps member sleeping in the lounge by the fireplace at Longlands, Holkham Estate, by Doris Jones (nee Tomasin), subject is her sister Pearl Tomasin.Pen drawing of WW2 Timber Corps member sleeping in the lounge by the fireplace at Longlands, Holkham Estate, by Doris Jones (nee Tomasin), subject is her sister Pearl Tomasin. (Image: Courtesy of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse)

Ms Jones previously said: "One time we were crosscutting outside, one of the men yelled ' to look out' and this huge, huge tree fell the wrong way, fell at an angle instead of straight, and I jumped out of the way but my sister just crouched down and left her hand on the tree we were cutting.

"So this huge tree rolled over her hand, she had a very nasty looking hand, swollen, badly bruised, she could not work for a while."

The WTC disbanded in 1946 and its members received no immediate praise or recognition at the end of the war, which resulted in the director of the WLA, Lady Gertrude Denman, resigning in protest.

While they received a letter from Queen Elizabeth, they were not allowed to keep their uniforms or attend Remembrance Day parades, because 'they were not part of the fighting forces'.

They went back into traditional roles of clerical and shop work, teaching, domestic service or got married.

It was not until former prime minister Gordon Brown finally presented them with a badge more than 60 years later that their service was officially commemorated. Most of the women were in their 80s at the time.

A memorial statue was also dedicated to them in Queen Elizabeth Forest Park in Aberfoyle in Scotland.

But Ms Foat said the disappointment of the WTC the badge bore a wheatsheaf - the emblem of the WLA - not a pine tree or a pair of crossed axes.

She added: "Many of the Lumberjills I met were still upset that they remained a footnote to the WLA, so I wanted to make sure they were remembered in history.

"Now their incredible feats of physical and mental endurance inspire women today, especially female forestry workers and arborists from across the world.

"Given the freedom and opportunity to work together in sisterhood out in the forest, naturally the Lumberjills were a huge success."

Rachel Kidd, curator at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, said: "We tell the story of rural life in Norfolk.

"The work of the Women’s Timber Corps and wider Women’s Land Army during the Second World War is a vital part of this story.

"We’re honoured to be able to tell some of their stories in the museum.

"They haven’t always got the recognition they deserved.

"In 2007, Mary Smith, a member of the Women’s Land Army who retried to Norfolk, was instrumental in campaigning for greater recognition and ensuring former members received a commemorative service badge.”

The museum's exhibition is still open, which displays the stories of Ms Jones and Ms Attridge and also the drawing created by Ms Jones of her sister.

Ms Foat's book was published by The History Press in 2019. For more information visit