Sunday, June 25, 2023

British Women at War: The Role of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in WWII

  From the start of the war, British women were encouraged to volunteer for one of the three women's auxiliary military services: Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The oldest, largest and least glamorous, of the three was the ATS.


The ATS was officially authorized by Royal Warrant in September 1938 and was intended to bring together under a single structure a variety of voluntary organizations which sought to recruit women volunteers to support the military in time of war. Some of these groups had roots going back to the First World War or even beyond in the case of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), which had been formed as early as 1908. However, except for the FANY, the various women’s auxiliaries which had sprung up during WWI had been disbanded and so it was necessary to start anew. 

At its inception, the duties envisaged for the ATS were defined as driving, cooking, cleaning (orderlies), clerical work and managing stores. The idea was that women would take over these functions on the home front inside the army so that men would be freed to fight, particularly overseas. Although uniformed from the start and divided into "officers" and "other ranks," it was not until the ATS was recognized as a component part of the military by act of parliament in April 1941 that women officers received commissions and enjoyed an equal status (though not pay!) to men. As a rule, women in the ATS were paid two-thirds of what the men they were replacing had received. They also received just four-fifths of the rations of men. Only with respect to leave was there no discrimination; the women received the same amount as their male counterparts. Women between the ages of 18 and 43 were eligible, and women between 44 and 50 could enlist if they had served in the last war. 


Promotion was far less egalitarian. Practically all officers were upper class, many were titled, although they often lacked any other qualification. The right accent and an aura of "authority" were considered the most important requirements -- at least in the early years. 

The poor quality of the leadership probably accounts for the troubles the ATS initially experienced in obtaining adequate uniforms, billets and respect. Rumors of widespread immorality and unmarried pregnancy soon spread. Morale plummeted and by the start of 1941, more women were leaving the ATS than joining. Since it was then still a voluntary organization, this was possible without negative repercussions. It took a parliamentary inquiry to expose the allegations as fraudulent and malicious. Meanwhile, the leadership was rigorously overhauled and a new director installed.

Meanwhile, the women of the ATS were demonstrating their capabilities, and they were taking over an increasing number of jobs. One of the most important of these was manning anti-aircraft batteries. The employment of women on "ack-ack" batteries was proposed and advocated by General Sir Frederick Pile, the CO of the command early in the war. The driving force behind the acceptance of the idea was numbers: Britain's anti-aircraft batteries were short 1,114 officers and nearly 18,000 men at the start of 1940.  General Pile devised a plan to recruit 15,000 women by the end of 1941 -- and he was willing to pay the women at the same rate as men. Indeed, he wanted the women fully integrated into the Royal Artillery with the same ranks, rights, rates of pay and discipline. However, opposition by the ATS leadership prevented the implementation of his proposal. 

Then in May 1941 the Army Act ended the ATS' voluntary status, and the way was opened for the deployment of women in anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries. In March 1942, the conscription of women was legalized and thereafter the ATS was no longer an exclusively a volunteer force and its members became subject to the full weight of military discipline.  Public opinion, nevertheless, still opposed the idea of women "bearing" arms -- or shooting artillery. Instead, the army opted to create mixed anti-aircraft batteries with both ATS and Royal Artillery personnel working together. 

 Although not allowed to fire the guns, the women attached to an anti-aircraft battery  were responsible for operating and maintaining advanced equipment such as predictors, height-finders, plotters, and spotters.  ATS women also manned the searchlight batteries, a role some viewed as the "elite." Searchlights were radar directed and so they worked as plotters as well as operators, the latter had to maintain both the beams (not an easy task) and the generator for the lights, as well as be able to switch it on and off and swing it manually if necessary. ATS attached to anti-aircraft batteries also did driving, manned R/T and teleprinter machines, serviced vehicles, did sentry duty and carried dispatches.

The first mixed gun battery was deployed in August 1941 and the first mixed battery credited with downing an enemy aircraft was in Newcastle in December 1941. The commanding officer of this successful unit went on record saying:

As an old soldier, if I were offered the choice of commanding a mixed battery or a male battery, I would say without hesitation I would take the mixed battery. The girls cannot be beaten in action and, in my opinion, they are better than the men on the instruments they are manning. Beyond a little natural excitement...they are quite as steady if not steadier than the men. They are amazingly keen to go into action....

By the end of 1942, 170,000 women were manning Britain's "ack-ack" guns, which made up 77% of all ATS strength. Meanwhile, the number of other trades in which women were employed had grown from the original five trades to a total of 77 including postal workers, ammunition inspectors, translators and librarians. Furthermore, women were being sent overseas. From just 57 women in the Middle East in August 1941, the number of ATS stationed overseas grew to roughly 14,000 by the end of the war.  At its height, the ATS numbered 210,308 women. Casualties were modest. A total of 67 ATS women, most serving on the ack-ack guns, were killed due to enemy action in the course of the war. 

Although the reputation of the ATS had improved after it's disastrous low at the start of 1941, it never managed to match the prestige of the other women's services and a higher proportion of ATS personnel were conscripts than in either the WAAF or WRNS, the latter of which was all volunteer. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Winston Churchill's daughter Mary joined the ATS in 1941, and in early 1945, Princess Elizabeth also chose to join the ATS, serving as an ambulance and lorry driver. 

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about them, their awards and read excerpts at:


Saturday, June 24, 2023

Liverpool's Role in the US Civil War

Liverpool in the 1860s


Unlike the rest of Britain, Liverpool’s population and economic status plummeted after World War Two. Go back 80 years further, though, and you have Britain’s second great metropolis, thriving off King Cotton and still benefitting hand-over-fist from the transatlantic slave trade. In modern terms, it would be a city of four million people, or nearly twice the size of Paris. A confident, arrogant world player grasping at city statehood.

Liverpool sucked money into its Cotton Exchange and banks directly from the trade winds and favourable currents from the new world. Traders got rich quick, but by 1863 something had stuck in the craw… those Damn Yankees. As a savage ground war ignited across the Eastern States of a still fledgling nation, the superior Union Navy blockaded all merchant traffic coming in and out of the South. Many leagues away in North-West England, a cotton drought set tempers boiling and the nouveau riche Illuminati of Liverpool rolled their stall out to scatter this blockade, by fair means and foul.

Britain’s official neutrality – Lincoln had explicitly warned the British Government against meddling – was flouted as the Confederate Navy was built, launched and crewed out of the city. Huge and notorious ironclad leviathans slipped out of the shipyard at Cammell Laird, steaming out into the Mersey bound for engagement. No expense was spared, and the South had been gifted the best technology of the day, with blockade runners like CSS Alabama and CSS Banshee becoming the scourge of the North. The Rebs suddenly had stock on water, and it came expressly from Liverpool.

Via deep-rooted trade connections, the city was deemed strategically essential to both sides in the war. The United States had long established a Consulate on Paradise Street, before the Confederacy – floated by local support – established its own base at Rumford Place and then Abercromby Square. A Cold War of espionage, legal challenges and sabotage began as agents (including a number of commissioned female agents) on both sides roamed the city and infiltrated the docks and ships.

Thomas Haines Dudley and James Dunwoody Bulloch

Two men infamously stood out in a growing ensemble American cast: Union Consul Thomas Haines Dudley, an erstwhile close aide of Lincoln who had a role in his election, and the formidable James Dunwoody Bulloch, Confederate Commander and Dudley’s counterpart at Rumford Place. Bulloch was the direct link in building the clandestine Navy, while Dudley challenged him in British courts and via his own network of agents who acted on the edge of local laws.

During the summer of 1863, in the run-up to Gettysburg, the pivotal battle stateside, Bulloch was succeeding in his charm offensive on the rich denizens of the city, via gentlemen’s clubs like the Athenaeum, which had a long association with slave traders. While anti-slavery campaigns were robust, former slavers had received vast sums in compensation and had reinvested their monies in the same dirty business, only at the import end of the supply chain. The CSS Alabama wreaked havoc on the blockade, and destroyed dozens of enemy vessels before finally succumbing at Cherbourg, more evidence that this war was fought on both sides of the ocean. 


The actions were not confined to the two senior rivals either. Key Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt hid out in the city for several months after the dirty deed, evading capture and extradition. Liverpool’s addiction to the vast wealth created by cotton drove the city’s fervent support of the Rebel Yell, and this included harbouring fugitives and spies like Surratt. Westminster did little to nothing in terms of disrupting this tryst, with rumours of collaborations between some senior politicians with investments tied up in Liverpool’s trading interests and the movement to back Richmond.


Irish Diaspora


An important backdrop to these events is that Liverpool’s dense population was swelled by the diaspora after the Great Irish Hunger in the 1840s, which meant that many of the commissioned agents and paid gangs originated from this generation of immigrants. Both sides in the war recruited vigorously in the city for their armies and navies. Irish fought on both sides and continued to build American cities as much as their labour built Liverpool. Ireland formed a bridge across the ocean, and Liverpool Irish were another essential link, taking up the lucrative but dirty work offered by Dudley and Bulloch at a time when any work was sought after. 


This nefarious cooperation of Liverpool and the Confederacy can be boiled down to an unerring truth; the American Civil War began with a shot fired from a giant gun built by a Duke Street ironmonger and ended in 1865 with the surrender of Liverpool-built CSS Shenandoah on the Mersey, with the last act of defiance coming with their acquiescing to the British rather than Union Navy.


After the War


Dunwoody Bulloch settled in the city after the war and is interred at Smithdown Road cemetery. Today, Liverpool redefines itself as a city of tolerance and as a proud, ancient melting pot with a strong urge towards social justice. City historians like Lawrence Westgaph and Malik Al Nasir have opened up long-closed archives that detail what happened before and after the war, particularly in terms of slavery, by following the money and proffering reparations for the middle passage Holocaust. Myths hang tight, and while the ideas behind the Confederacy maintain an allure to the alt-right in the US, the frequent appearance of a Confederate saltire on Bulloch’s resting place reminds us that maybe a few in Liverpool still wished that war had ended differently. The fundamental difference is that now they’re in a tiny minority.


About the Author


John Maxwell is the author of the Civil War thriller “Water Street”. 


Set in Liverpool in 1863, the American Civil War comes to the British Empire’s second city and the world’s richest port. Confederate Commander Banastre X. Dunwoody has a plan to turn the conflict by securing advanced warships, but the U.S. Government is one step ahead of him. It seeks to sabotage his efforts through its covert agent – Harriet Dunwoody – Banastre’s pregnant wife.



Water Street



Wednesday, June 14, 2023

British Woman at War: The Contribution of Factory Girls to Victory in WWII

As in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and, indeed, the United States, by far the largest number of women mobilized in support of the war effort went into the civilian labor force to replace men called to arms. Yet whereas women in U.S. factories were all volunteers and the Germans relied heavily on slave labor from the Concentration Camps, POWs and occupied Europe, Britain conscripted women into the munitions and aircraft factories from 1942 onwards.

Already by 1941, it was obvious to the British government that there was a serious shortage of manpower both to fight the war and to produce the instruments of war, particularly munitions, ships and aircraft. The British government recognized that the only solution was to bring women into the work-force both by enabling them to fulfill a wider range of support roles in the armed forces, thereby reducing the number of men that would have to be conscripted, and on an even larger scale employing them in factories producing essential war materiel. 

In the spring of 1941, all women between the ages of 18 and 60 were required to register. By December, a shortage of 1.5 million factory workers in essential war industries was identified and the decision was taken to conscript women to fill this gap. Although women were given the option of joining one of the women's auxiliary services, doing civil defense work or working in industry, fully half of the 1.5 million women called to national service, 750,000, would be directed into the munitions factories. The legal basis for female conscription was included in the National Service Act passed 18 December 1941, which made all widows without children and single women between the ages of twenty and thirty subject to conscription.

By the end of the war, women up to the age of fifty were liable for national service and already in 1943, 90% of single women and 80% of married women were in one way or another contributing to the war effort. The bulk of these women worked in factory jobs, and three-quarters of them full-time. Yet even though many of these women were called up to fill the place of men going into the armed services, most were paid a lower wage then the men they had replaced. The exceptions such as the Air Transport Auxiliary and the railways were the rare exceptions that granted women equal pay for equal work, the later due to a national union agreement.

Furthermore, wartime demands meant that working conditions deteriorated dramatically. In 1940, after Lord Beaverbrook took charge of the specially created Ministry of Aircraft Production, factories assembling aircraft or producing the component parts for them started to work around the clock. The shifts were extended to twelve-hours and weekends and holidays were cancelled. In the crisis atmosphere created by the Battle of Britain and Blitz, workers began sleeping in the factories and soon accidents went up and productivity declined. Such a pace was not sustainable, and inevitably things settled into a wartime "normal." This was on average a 58 - 60 hour workweek for men and a 45 to 55 hour workweek for women. (Below, women workers assembling an aircraft fuselage)

In addition to the shorter workweek, other concessions were made to the female workforce. Where men had stood, women were often provided with stools to sit. Tea breaks became regularized, and canteen food improved. Yet the work still had to get done and while women were shielded from combat, there was no comparative effort to protect them from dangerous jobs. 

Most notably, nearly a million (950,000) British women worked in munitions factories, then known as the Royal Ordnance Factories or ROF. These jobs were better paid and required fewer hours than in other sectors such as transport, but the risks were enormous. The women worked filling fuses, detonators, bullets, shells, mines and bombs with explosive materials, particularly TNT. Health and safety practices were minimal. The women often suffered from side effects such as skin discoloration and stomach illnesses from handling toxic chemicals, often with their naked hands. The risk of explosion was always present, and in addition to 134 fatalities, many more workers lost limbs in accidents. (Below women working in a munitions factory.)

Other vital industries that relied heavily on women were the railways where 105,000 women were employed doing all tasks necessary to keep the trains running. Women also built tanks and other vehicles and produced and packed parachutes. The latter job had the perk of being able to keep the scraps of silk for personal use. Substantial numbers of women were employed by the Post Office as "engineers" laying and repairing telephone lines. Women served in the merchant navy as stewardesses aboard troop transports, and worked as conductors or ticket collectors on public transport buses and trams. 

Their contribution to the war effort is all to often ignored, forgotten or simply dismissed.

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about them, their awards and read excerpts at: