History of the ATS

Although the First World War finished on the 11th November 1918, Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (the Women’s arm of the army at the time) was to keep serving until its disbandment in September 1921. This brought to an end any official role for women in the Army, although a number of the volunteer groups still continued. It took another 13 years and the rise of Nazi Germany before there was thought to be a need for women to serve in the Army again, and in July 1934 the War Department asked Lady Londonderry to form a new women's service.

It was initially started as the (new) Women's Legion but due to the confusion with the original WW1 Women's Legion, the name was changed in 1936 to the Woman’s Emergency Service . The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) which where formed during WW1 were still going strong but had changed their name to the Women's Transport Service F.A.N.Y. in 1933.

In 1938 the government decided to establish a new women’s service, called the Women's Auxiliary Defence Service. An advisory council was set up which included representatives of the Territorial Army, the Women's Transport Service and the Woman’s Emergency Service. It was decided that all the organisations should be merged and attached to the Territorial Army, with recruits being paid two-thirds of the amount received by male soldiers.

This new organisation, renamed the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, was official launched on 9th September 1938, although its heritage could be traced back to women’s groups from before the First World War. Whilst the FANYs were disbanded on merger a few of the older die-hard FANYs re-launched it almost immediately and managed to keep it independent and running along side the ATS throughout the war and they still exist today.

In 1938 ladies who volunteered were sent along to their local Territorial Army units, where they learnt about army regulations and drill, even though at first there were no uniforms for them. These women received little or no training and just reported regularly each week, although there were occasions when they were allowed to go to 'camp'.

There were few trades available to the ATS at that time and the jobs the volunteers were allowed to do were based very much around the traditional civilian roles that women undertook at the time. After the initial influx of volunteers a system of basic training was established of about six weeks. It was during this initial training that members were issued with their uniforms, which followed the pattern of the woman’s uniforms of the First World War with the main difference being a shorter length of the skirt.

Initially the ATS was divided into five main trades groups: Cook, Clerk, Orderly, Store Woman and Driver, but as time passed, more and more trades were taken over, including some highly-skilled and technical work such as telephonists. On 3rd September 1939 Britain's declaration of war was transmitted by an ATS telephonist and 300 members of the ATS were sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force. On the evacuation of the BEF at Dunkirk in May 1940, the ATS telephonists were some of the last soldiers to leave France.

Very early on it was decided to dramatically increase the size of the ATS and a massive advertising campaign was launched. Women aged between 17 and 43 were allowed to join the service, although WAAC veterans of the First World War were accepted up to the age of fifty. By September 1941 the strength of the ATS had risen to 65,000 and their range of duties had also expanded.

On the 18th December 1941, the National Service Act was passed by Parliament. This legislation allowed the call-up of unmarried women aged between 20 and 30. Later this was extended to married women, although pregnant women and mothers with young children were exempt from the call-up.  Women were of course not allowed to fight in battle but as more and more men were called overseas to fight, the range of ATS duties extended to cover the lack of men. ATS duties soon included radar operators, military police, anti-aircraft gun command posts, and many other operational support tasks and by June, 1945, there were over 190,000 members of the ATS.

The ATS and the Royal Artillery had a special bond right from the start and one of the first trades for ATS with the Gunners was in the Gunnery Experimental wing. These women were specially selected from the ATS; the officers had to have a Science Degree and the Junior Ranks also had to meet a very high standard of maths. These special ATS had their own uniform of white blouse, blue blazer and skirt and were intitled to wear the Royal Artillery field service cap and white lanyard. It was not all plotting tables and maths, however, they also had to be able to operate the guns they were testing, and one of the less glamorous tasks was to go out onto the mudflats to recover the shells they had fired for examination (see colour photo below).

This was only the start of a long link between the Gunners and the ATS which was to last up until their disbandment. One of the biggest exponents of women in the Army at this time was General Sir Fredrick Pile who was to champion the use of the ATS with in the Royal Artillery to such an extent that by 1944 there were over 76,000 ATS were serving within in Anti Aircraft Command.

AA Command was responsible for all aspects of the ground war against the Luftwaffe using AA guns, rockets and searchlights as well as providing a pool of trained manpower for the field army, a problem that was to dog Pile throughout the war. During the Second World War almost a quarter of all men in the Army wore a Royal Artillery Cap Badge, and Ack Ack Command was the main reason for it. The biggest command in the Army it numbered over 350,000 personnel at its height, predominantly RA it was eventually to have a total of 76,000 ATS and over 100,000 Home Guard as well as all the normal support arms, it was however an Army of Gunners.

During the early phase of the war, like all the other arms of the Army, the Command was only using ATS in support roles as clerks, cooks etc but driven by a shortage of nearly 20,000 men General Pile needed to extend the role of the ATS. Even before the war he had believed that women could be used in an operational role and in 1938 he asked Miss Caroline Haslet - a distinguished engineer - to do a survey on the ability of women to take on the technical work carried out by the men. After many visits to various gun sites she assured General Pile that women could in fact do almost every job in the battery except fire the guns.

Not firing the guns was a political rather than a technical decision, the authorities at the time believing that women were not allowed to kill. A month after the war started Pile contacted the War Office asking them to investigate the possible use of ATS personnel for operational roles within Ack Ack Command.  The ATS senior command was very possessive of the position of the ATS; they were a woman’s service, run by women and were keen to ensure that no male officers should have seniority over them. Pile had always been a firm supporter of the ATS, but had often had run-ins with their high-ranking officers about their use.

As part of his campaign and to help with recruiting Pile suggested that they should change the uniform, which although fine for office work, was not very practical for more physical tasks. As such, a version of the men’s Battle Dress was issued to the ATS. The first Battle Dress used was in fact a small men’s size BD and they even had to use small pairs of brown officer’s boots at the start. It was not long however before the army issued a battle dress purpose designed for women and made in a finer material than the men’s, similar to the cloth used for service dress and nowhere near as itchy as the men’s.

Although most approved of the concept of mixed batteries, it was not supported on all fronts. One of the biggest hurdles to mixed batteries was that of Military Discipline, the ATS had a completely different discipline structure to the men. Pile felt that it would be imposable to run a mixed battery with two discipline structures in place. Most of the opposition to Pile's proposals were (again) raised by the ATS senior officers, one remarking “Women might smash valuable equipment in a fit of boredom”. Another said that “Care should be taken that restriction of privileges should involve punishment, For instance, stoppage of smoking should only be given to smokers and extra knitting to a proficient knitter is no punishment”.

However the need for more manpower won the day, and on the 9th May 1941 the ATS and QAIMNS were finally given full military status. This was then followed on the 19th May 1941 by the Charter being issued to allowing for mixed batteries to be formed. Up until this point the ATS had also been using a totally different rank structure; now with full military status it enabled at least the junior ranks to be rationalised with the men's,  even if senior ATS officer ranks still had different names. The ATS hierarchy fought tooth and nail to keep ATS serving in mixed batteries separate, even threatening to remove personnel at their whim. Pile fought this and even granted the ATS in Mixed Batteries the right to wear the white lanyards and the Artillery Bomb Cap badge on the jacket above the left breast pocket. This tradition of wearing the cap badge of the Regiment or Corps they were attached to was to be used by ATS personnel working with other regiments, and was continued right up to the disbandment of the WRAC in 1990.

If this use of the ATS was to be a success the command need to recruit an extra 100,000 women and with recruiting of young women tailing-off, a new advertising campaign especially for ATS to work with the Gunners was lunched. It included new posters, leaflets and some glamour photographs of ATS at work. Although recruiting picked-up it was never enough and eventually a number of the planned mixed batteries had to be abandon.

The roles of women on Heavy Anti Aircraft Batteries, beside the normal administration roles had become quite technical from using the ranging equipment in the command post. This equipment consisted of the Identification Telescope, the Height Finder, and the Predictor. Other technical jobs carried out by the ATS were operating in the Gun Control Rooms, manning the new Gun Laying Radars and those ATS with higher than average maths were used as kine-theodolite operators. This was an instrument (along with a lot of trigonometry) that was used in training to calculate whether a shell fired from a HAA gun exploded at the correct altitude.

The first Mixed Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery was to go into training in the spring of 1941. It was soon evident that the girls were more than coping with the training although a few did find it difficult to attune to real army routine. A small number of officers under whom they served also found it difficult, but were soon changed. The girls soon started to excel on the equipment, often out-performing the men, not just technically but in general soldiering such as turn-out as well, but always with a few feminine touches of there own.

The ATS Girls where quick to gain respect from the senior officers even if sometimes with a rye smile. One Divisional Commander commented after watching a training shoot.

A consistent and skilful shoot by the whole section. On the return run they achieved the anti-aircraft gunner’s reward of high training … a hit.

In peace-time there would have been polite clapping from the gunnery staff and spectators and a few shame-faced grins from the command post and guns. But the ATS abandoned their instruments and danced about hugging each other and crowing with delight.

On the 21st August 1941 the first mixed battery was deployed in Richmond Park, London to some fanfare. They instantly became a holiday attraction, women marching, drilling and generally working as men. It was as good as a trip to the zoo, and crowds gathered every time the girls were to be seen. And it was not only the public that was to pay them a visit, the site was constantly visited by dignitaries and politicians including Sir Winston Churchill (whose own daughter was an AA Gunner) and even the King and Queen. Gradually, though, the novelty of women doing a 'man's job' wore off and the women soldiers of the battery could get back to being that, soldiers. But it would be true to say that the ATS were the first girls to take their place in a combatant role in any army in the world.

Once the Government had decided that women could be in Mixed Batteries of Heavy Anti Aircraft Guns it was agreed that this could also include searchlight duties. A secret trial called the Newark Experiment was carried out in April 1941 to see if women were capable of carrying out the tasks required of Searchlight Regiments. On 23 April 1941 54 ATS members aged between 19 and 35 were sent for training at Newark. The experiment was a great success, and resulted in  recommendations that ATS be attached to Searchlight Regiments.

Due to the way searchlights where deployed, singly and often miles from any where concerns had been raised that the girls would not be able to cope with being on desolate and lonely sites. Also there were worries that they would not be able to defend themselves and that they would not have the strength to turn over the huge generators that were needed to power the searchlight. The girls again proved themselves more then capable with all these difficulties and more. However once the experiment had finished the ATS girls were sent back to there units while a decision was made.

In July 1942 the first searchlight troops was formed with ATS members. There were six detachments to each troop, four troops to each battery. Each detachment had 10 to 14 girls commanded by a sergeant with a corporal as assistant. Each troop was commanded by an ATS subaltern. 301 Battery was formed in early 1942 and attached to 26th (M) SL Regt RA. During the period a number of other troops were formed and attached to 339 Bty 79th SL Regt and a Bty in 77th SL Regt RA.

The problem of starting the heavy generators was sometimes solved by the allocation to a site of a 'token man' who would arrive when the alarm was sounded, start the generator and then disappear into the night. Some troops, however, had ATS who could start it themselves and these girls became known as Lister Twisters, Lister being the manufacturer of the generator. Later on during the war electric starter-motors were put on generators which saved a lot of the problems.

The consequence of their success was, in October 1942, the formation of the 93rd Searchlight Regiment RA. This was the only predominately all female regiment in the history of the British Army with over 1,500 women and fewer than 200 men. The strength of a searchlight regiment normally being 1,680. At the start all the key appointments (CO, BCs, and BSMs etc) were still staffed by men, and although the CO and BCs where to remain male prerogatives, all other positions were eventually taken on by ATS personnel. Perhaps the most interesting result of this was the appointment of ATS BSMs, as this was the first time male gunners might have found themselves commanded by a woman.

Up to this point the ATS had no requirement for the rank of RSM and although officially this did not change just before the Regiment disbanded a senior ATS WO2 was given the task. The girls often found the duties more interesting that the jobs they had been doing. They learnt about electricity, radio circuits, radar, mechanics, Morse code, plotting and they had to be able to recognise enemy and friendly aircraft in all weathers, however it was reported that this was the one task the girls never seemed to best the lads at.

The searchlights used by the regiment were of two main types the 150cm SLC or Elsie as it was affectingly called and the standard 90cm. The Elsie was Radar guided and very secret and some girls didn’t talk about them even after the war. The Searchlight girls were issued special clothing to cope with the cold at night some good like the teddy bare coat as it was called which all the girls loved and which you can see here a genuine one, and of course some not so good like the male long johns.

93rd (M) SL Regt RA commenced disbandment at, The Copse, Hamble on 1st July 1945, and was completed by the 29th, thus dispatching the only female regiment ever in the British Army into history. The ATS served in every theatre of operations during the Second World War and the ATS even served with Mixed Battery’s in Northern Europe after D-DAY.

During the period of hostilities 335 members of the ATS were killed, 94 were reported missing, 302 were wounded and 20 became prisoners of war. On talking to a number of ATS veterans a number are embarrassed to say that for them the worst thing about the war ……was it ending, as it meant back to the drudgery of women’s life. 

Women were still registering to join the ATS after the war had ended and continued their service in many supporting roles. It had been decided that, in recognition of their work, the ATS should be designated 'Royal'. However, it did not take them long to realise that the Royal Auxiliary Territorial Service was the RATS so the decision was taken to change the name of the service completely to the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) In 1948 the Secretary of State, Mr Emmanuel Shinwell, made a formal submission to the Crown for permission to raise a Corps of Women for the Regular Army and Territorial Army.

This received the Royal Assent on 1 February 1949 the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) came into being members who wanted to continue their service were 'discharged' from the ATS and re-enrolled in the WRAC.

For lots more information on the ATS please visit the ATS Remembered Web site