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:


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