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The history of the Auxiliary Territorial Service


The history of the Auxiliary Territorial Service – the ATS – really began in the middle of the First World War. As early as 1916, in the face of heavy casualties on the French battlefields, the British government was forced to acknowledge that women were needed in the army to take over non-combatant roles from soldiers, who could then be released for front-line duties.

Consequently, in early 1917, a new voluntary service was formed – the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The corps received Royal Patronage in 1918, becoming Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). The precedent was set.

Mrs Mona Chalmers Watson was appointed as head of the corps. Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was appointed Chief Controller WAAC (Overseas), responsible for the organisation and running of the corps’ operations in France and Belgium. She left for France on 19 March 1917. Twenty-one years later, as Dame Helen, she became the first Director of the ATS.

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan’s work overseas in the QMAAC was so highly thought of that, in 1918, she was asked to become commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force to carry out a thorough restructuring of that organisation. She continued in this appointment until December 1919, when the demobilisation of the WRAF was almost complete. The QMAAC was disbanded in 1921.

The Inter-War years

Discussions had been taking place since 1920 about the role of women in wartime and the need for some kind of peacetime corps of women who would be trained and ready to serve with defined ranks and military status. Progress was slow and decisions were delayed, partly through lack of funding for any new organisation. An anti-women attitude amongst all ranks of the male army probably played its part as well. Dame Helen kept in touch with discussions and developments at the War Office in relation to the employment of women in emergencies. From 1934 onwards such discussions began to take on a more formal character. As the threat of war grew ever more serious, plans for the formation of a single female corps intensified; she, however, had always argued strongly that each of the three services (army, air force, navy) should have their own women’s section, subject to military discipline.

Although the ATS was brought into existence by Royal Warrant on 9 September 1938, it was the evening of 27 September before this was made public in a broadcast by the BBC. Following a tradition of Royal Patronage, HRH Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, then accepted the position of Controller ATS in Yorkshire. In 1941 she officially became Controller Commandant ATS. Her subsequent interest in the ATS and its role within the British Army, together with her visits to ATS companies, did much to raise morale and establish the value of the service. Royalty was held in high regard at this time. Queen Elizabeth (later, the Queen Mother) was Commandant-in-Chief of the ATS from 1940 until 1949.

As the first Director of the ATS Dame Helen must have felt a degree of satisfaction in both having prophesied a formal role in the armed forces for women in any future major war and being selected, probably after some political lobbying and intrigue, to lead the female side of the army.

In her new role she was variously described as intelligent, formidable, intellectually sharp, severe, tactless, thrusting, overbearing, dowdy and an outstanding organiser who couldn’t tolerate fools gladly and made juniors very nervous. Later Dame Leslie Whateley, who became the third Director of the ATS, sought to mitigate this harsh opinion of Dame Helen after working on her staff. Dame Leslie attributed to her predecessor the foundations upon which the ATS was built over subsequent years.

Yet Dame Helen’s own experiences had taught her that leading the ATS wasn’t going to be easy; she’d been exposed during the First World War, and afterwards, to the way in which many traditional males viewed any competent and determined women who wanted to invade their select circles.

Indeed it wasn’t overwhelming admiration of female qualities that was the prime reason for the establishment of the women’s services and the eventual introduction of female conscription during the Second World War; and it certainly wasn’t any push from the then unknown ‘equality’ lobby. It was simply the need to release ever greater numbers of fighting troops for the front line amidst the continuing shortage of manpower.

Britain wasn’t the only country to recognise this requirement. Russia had to relinquish its traditional objection to women serving in the army because of the heavy losses suffered by its Red Army after the German invasion of 1941, known as Operation Barbarossa. American senior commanders had also had similar doubts about women serving in the armed forces, but any opposition was eventually overridden by General Eisenhower.

In addition to outside opposition to the idea of women in the armed services, Dame Helen was also aware that her age, and perhaps her old-fashioned views, might exacerbate existing difficulties. After all, she was 60 when the ATS was formed and at that time, although not today, that would be considered to be a fairly advanced age.

Subsequently she admitted that ‘the ATS got off to a bad start’. This view was confirmed by the Princess Royal in her capacity as Controller Commandant of the ATS. She wrote a preface to As Thoughts Survive, a personal account of the ATS in wartime by its third director, Dame Leslie Whateley. In HRH Princess Mary’s own words, ‘The ATS started with many disadvantages of inexperience, but with the great advantage of enthusiasm. From out of this there grew a solid regimental discipline and true military adaptability.’

In Dame Helen’s view the bad start could be attributed largely to the inadequate selection and training of the first officers; many were unsuited to the task of leadership and, conversely, those who might have been were fully occupied elsewhere. Early problems in general were often euphemistically described as ‘teething troubles’; but what did that mean?

The first factor that led to initial confusion was the existence of three women’s organisations involved in army functions in the thirties.

These were as follows. The Women’s Legion, a new successor to the Women’s Legion of the First World War. That original, private society had been formed by Lady Londonderry to provide cooks for army cookhouses that lacked sufficient staff. The girls were all volunteers but the Army Council did pay for those it hired through the Legion. It continued in existence into the thirties, by which time it had a Mechanical Transport Section. In 1934 Lady Londonderry was asked to set up a new organisation for women who might be trained in some way that would prove useful in any future emergency. She became president of this, assisted by Dame Helen as chairman, but, confusingly, they kept the title of Women’s Legion. After much discussion they decided to concentrate on anti-gas training (which only lasted for a couple of years) and officer training. In 1936, for various reasons this ‘new’ Women’s Legion was disbanded. The original Legion, still in existence, provided a Motor Transport Section.

The Emergency Service: this took over the work of training female officers under Dame Helen’s leadership. She had already set up a training school in Regent’s Park Barracks in London. Subsequently she was made responsible for setting up a more formal School of Instruction for Officers at the Duke of York’s headquarters in Chelsea.

The Women’s Transport Service – the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry): this service had been in existence since 1909 when its original purpose had been for female horse-riders to enter war zones to rescue and treat wounded soldiers. Horse riding was naturally superseded by vehicle driving so that by 1938 the FANY’s main role lay in producing motor driver companies.

Originally these three services were to form the basis of a joint army service that would be called the Women’s Auxiliary Defence Service – a title that changed on the realisation that WADS would not be a suitable acronym! The search for a title for the new women’s service proved to be difficult – either because the title could be abbreviated in an unsuitable way, such as WADS, or because the acronym was already in use if the ‘W’ was removed, leaving something like ADS – the Army Dental Service. It seemed to be a feature of military bureaucracy that whenever any new organisation was planned there would be arguments about names, titles and allocation of ranks before its actual purpose was defined. ‘Auxiliary Territorial Service’ eventually emerged as the chosen option. Unfortunately and unlike the other two women’s services, the omission of the ‘Women’ still led to some initial confusion; but as the war progressed ‘ATS’ became well known because of the contribution that its girls made to the war effort.

The second factor that led to problems, although it was thought initially to be the best option, was that the ATS was established as part of the Territorial Army (TA).This meant that it was organised, like the TA itself, on a county basis. Right from the start this caused chaos when women, hearing the calls for ATS volunteers, turned up as requested at their local TA headquarters or drill hall demanding to be enrolled. Some TA officers hadn’t even been warned about this possibility and didn’t know what to do with their new recruits. Sometimes they were told to turn up for only a couple of hours a week for basic training and to carry out secretarial and clerical duties. Disillusioned, many left at that point because they were volunteers and free to do so – exactly why Helen Gwynne-Vaughan wanted ATS recruits to be enlisted on a more formal basis.

Then there were the problems, already mentioned, with the appointment of officers. Helen Gwynne-Vaughan had always believed strongly in the need for leadership training for officers, that was why she had organised it in the Emergency Service. So what was the difficulty in the early months of the ATS? Again it related to the link with the TA. When they realised that there was a need for ATS officers they thought that the easiest source would lie in the county structure of titled ladies and wives of local dignitaries and landowners who, with many other ladies, were well known in the county for their voluntary and charitable work. In the TA’s predecessors – the Militia and the Yeomanry – this had been the method of appointing male officers for as long as those military formations had existed but this solution obviously had pros and cons for the ATS. None of the above criteria could guarantee leadership potential or any of the other qualities required for officers. So there was justifiable criticism of the competency and efficiency, or lack of it, amongst the officer community of the ATS. As one ATS veteran described it, ‘They were useless and only got an immediate commission because they were society girls’. However, there were many officers who quite rightly felt that generalisations like this were grossly unfair. Such comments were resented by the leaders of platoons and units that were well organised, active, smart and gave a good impression of the service in front of the general public. These officers probably had some kind of previous experience that could be developed into leadership with more specific training.

As the number of ATS recruits grew rapidly from the initial 17,000, the question of officer competency had to be tackled officially. Those who were plainly unsuited for the positions were discharged as quickly as possible, thereby making room for efficient junior ranks to be promoted; this also had a beneficial effect on morale. Confidential reports were instituted for all officer ranks. The number of ATS Officer Cadet Training Units (OCTU) was expanded to provide the hundreds of officers, both technical and regimental, who were needed. Reactions to the subject of ‘officers’ vary. Many ATS weren’t interested in the squabbles and politics of higher command; for them the most important event involving a senior officer would be a visit by the current director, especially if she was accompanied by royalty. Their platoon or unit officer would have the most influence in their day-to-day lives. Most of them were ‘quite nice’ or ‘very helpful’; but one obviously failed the test – after more than sixty years she was remembered by an ATS veteran as simply ‘a bitch’!

Equally important was the training of NCOs; one aspect of a first promotion to the single stripe of a lance corporal was how to cope with the move from being one of the crowd to having some authority, albeit slight, over that crowd, without alienating anyone. Another reason for the urgent need to recruit and train officers and senior NCOs was to enable the hundreds of ATS recruits to be trained by female instructors rather than by men.

On top of all the practical problems of organisation, administration and training there was the relationship between the long-established FANY and the newly formed ATS. This, inevitably, proved to be a very difficult situation, not helped by the deep personal animosity between the leaders of the two organisations. Mary Baxter-Ellis, Commandant of the FANY, and Helen Gwynne-Vaughan were both veterans of the First World War but despite that, or perhaps because of it, they now appeared to be sworn enemies.

In addition, members of the FANY thought themselves to be far superior to those girls who were joining the ATS. They wanted to remain independent of the ATS and continue to run their units as they always had done. Indeed, for a while they did do this while the ATS was trying to sort out its own problems. The FANY, with all its experience of motor transport, was training drivers within its own organisation virtually independently of the ATS. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the ATS was run according to military tradition and regulations, which meant a strict division between officers and ‘other ranks’; the FANY had no such restrictions, which absolutely infuriated Dame Helen. She brought certain beliefs with her into the new era but she had to fight hard for her ideas. She wanted enlistment for her women, not enrolment as volunteers. (This was one of the few areas in which she had the support of Miss Baxter Ellis of the FANY.) She also wanted payment, which she saw as an essential element of being able to impose discipline on those who were simply volunteers. It’s not too difficult to imagine all the squabbling that took place, even while the country remained under the threat of war.

When the FANY realised that they were not to remain as an independent body within the ATS they raised the issue of whether or not they would still wear the FANY flash on their ATS uniforms. Resentments and disputes were silenced when the newly formed ATS was recognised formally as the women’s service of the regular army, and the FANY were officially incorporated into it. Further progress in the status of the ATS followed the demands of the country as the war continued. On 10 April 1941 the Secretary of State for War announced that the ATS, in view of their achievements so far and due to the need to increase their numbers, would be given full military status. This meant that the service would be subject to military discipline and required to extend its roles even further to meet the army’s needs. Adjustments would be made in the application of the regulations of the Army Act to the service – for example, ATS members would not be required to fight and, although they would be subject to a court martial for certain offences (as were the men), the system would ensure that a female officer would be available to assist in the disciplinary procedures.

There were quite a few changes at this time which met with approval; the rank structure was brought into line with that of the male army introducing, for example, the rank of Warrant Officer Class 1 and 2 and pay for trade qualifications; officers were commissioned – i.e. they now held the King’s Commission.

The next demand made by the government on the female population was that of conscription in December 1941 because of the continuing shortage of manpower. Some groups of women and some professions were exempt of course. Mothers with small children or responsibility for the care of elderly relatives, and teachers were examples of the exempt groups. Others had the choice of doing factory work and other essential civilian jobs, as ‘directed’ by the authorities, or joining one of the services.

Directors of the ATS (DATS)

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was asked to retire in July 1941. Although she was not in a position to object she accepted the decision with outward equanimity, particularly in the light of what she saw as her achievements since 1938. And these achievements were recognised by many senior officers – even those who didn’t always see eye to eye with her.

There was certainly a need to improve the image of the service in the eyes of the public and the press. This needed somebody who was competent but younger, preferably an officer who was attractive and could show off a smart uniform to advantage. Although such qualities would not normally be the exclusive basis for a senior appointment the authorities had recognised an urgent need for image-building in view of the adverse publicity the ATS had attracted.

This new role fell to the then Senior Commander Jean Knox (the equivalent rank of major in the army). She was in her early thirties, attractive and wore her uniform well – partly because she had made small changes to the design. The most obvious of these was that she had the skirts shortened – still below the knee but not the mid-calf length of the earlier pattern. The service jacket was also given a full belt at the waist and slimmer breast pockets. So the public image of the ATS improved, but Jean Knox resigned after two years on health grounds.

Senior Controller Leslie Whateley was Jean Knox’s deputy for the two years of her appointment as DATS. The two officers shared the opinion that the image of the ATS had to be improved. Leslie Whateley, although she had recognised some of the worthy qualities of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, believed that one of her failings was that she viewed the female members of the ATS as just another version of the male soldier. Although as few as possible concessions were made to their femininity, Leslie Whateley and her senior officers did recognise that some allowances should be made wherever possible, especially in ‘comfort’ areas like accommodation and ablutions. Needless to say, there are plenty of examples where this good intention failed! Nevertheless, the relationship between Jean Knox and her deputy had worked out well.

Leslie Whateley’s move to the top as DATS in October 1943 went smoothly. She had already dealt with, and taken responsibility for, most areas of administration at the War Office while Jean Knox was away inspecting ATS units and the conditions under which they operated. She obviously valued her association with the higher echelons of civilian and military society and, in her own words, did a lot of ‘dining with’; but it must have smoothed her path as she toured the country, attended parades and visited overseas locations in the Middle East, Italy, Athens, Cyprus, Greece, Nairobi.

Leslie Whateley faced a difficult situation in what turned out to be the closing months of the war. In December 1944 the government decided that overseas postings for the ATS would become compulsory, which caused an outcry. Then, as DATS, Chief Controller Whateley obtained permission (and supplies) to write a ‘personal’ letter to every member of the ATS commenting on the situation, the reasons for it and the exemptions that would apply to this new regulation. She explained that although there had been hundreds of volunteers for overseas duty it was a question of whether the qualifications and trades of those volunteers matched the overseas vacancies.

Her second explanation covered that old topic, shortage of manpower in the army, especially in front-line infantry divisions. She gave various valid reasons but left out one or two causes of the perceived need for more ATS to take over duties from male troops. Although it seemed obvious by then that the Allies were going to defeat Germany, there was a lingering question mark over whether or not there would be some kind of final push by the German forces. The British military, from a political point of view, also wanted to have enough strong infantry units to hold their own in the agreed division of Germany between the Allies; and even if victory came soon in Western Europe plans had to be drawn up to reinforce army units in South-East Asia. There war against Japan continued and might well have done so for a couple more years, with increasing losses of Allied manpower.

Dame Leslie, as she was by the time of her retirement in 1946, had been giving some thought to her successor. Although there would be three nominations she herself had decided that the best candidate was Mary Tyrwhitt. Mary had organised training courses in the ATS, including those for officers and this in itself was a valuable experience. She then served as Leslie Whateley’s deputy, giving the DATS an opportunity to pass over to her a lot of responsibility during her absences. Mary Tyrwhitt had been born in the early part of the century, putting her in her mid-forties at the time of the handover; this gave her the degree of maturity that would be needed to carry on the ATS and negotiate its future now that the war was over. She subsequently projected the image of a new, more modern women’s army, when she took the ATS through a reorganisation into the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) in 1949 – a regular corps of the British Army.

Extracted from Girls in Khaki by Barbara Green

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