Girls in Khaki: A History of the ATS in the Second World War

Girls in Khaki: A History of the ATS in the Second World War

by Barbara Green


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The story of the remarkable women of The Auxiliary Territorial Service, including such famous members as Queen Elizabeth the lorry driver and Churchill’s daughter, Mary 

The Auxiliary Territorial Service was formed in 1938 as Britain faced the threat of war. They took over many roles, releasing servicemen for front-line duties. This history describes how ATS members worked alongside anti-aircraft gunners, maintained vehicles, drove supply trucks, operated as telephonists in France, provided logistical support in army supply depots, and employed specialist skills from Bletchley to General Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims. It also reveals how they grasped their new-found opportunities for education, higher wages, skilled employment, and a different future from the domestic role of their mothers, and why ATS achievements forestalled any return to pre-war attitudes. Showing great skill and courage, the women of ATS were even among the last military personnel to be evacuated from Dunkirk, and this book reveals their extraordinary story through their own words and never-before published photographs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752463506
Publisher: Spellmount, Limited Publishers
Publication date: 05/01/2012
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Barbara Green joined the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) in 1961 as an Officer Cadet. In 1966 she trained, as a Captain, with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in O&M/Work Study. Since then she has had a successful civilian career in research, writing, and interviewing.

Read an Excerpt

Girls in Khaki

A History of the ATS in the Second World War

By Barbara Green

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Barbara Green
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7783-1



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.

So who was this woman who twice took a lead in the establishment of a women's section of the British Army?

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan GBE LLD DSc

First and foremost she was a Victorian, born as Helen Charlotte Isabella Fisher in 1879. This makes her achievements and her career even more remarkable, given the general status of women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when those who had the ability and the courage to do so struggled in all walks of life to achieve their potential and their ambitions.

To the horror of her parents, she took a science degree at King's College London – a BSc in Botany. By 1909, she was head of the Department of Botany at Birkbeck College, London. After the war she was appointed Professor of Botany at London University, when Birkbeck College became part of that university. In 1911 she had married a fellow botanist, David Gwynne-Vaughan, who died in 1915.

The full story of Dame Helen's many activities during the years leading up to the formation of the WAAC in 1917 is told in her autobiography Service with the Army, published in 1944.

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.

Her work during these years brought the award of DBE in 1919, enhanced in the twenties to GBE (Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire).

The Inter-War Years

Dame Helen returned to academia, concentrating on research in mycology, the branch of botany that specialises in the study of fungi. In 1922 Cambridge University Press published her book on this topic, the title of which has arguably only one word in it – fungi – that is either pronounceable or comprehensible for the lay reader. Interestingly, this is more than just an odd historical fact about Dame Helen's career. In 2010 the Cambridge Library Collection (Life Sciences) republished this book for researchers and professionals as part of their scheme for reviving books of 'enduring scholarly value'. Even in the twenty-first century she is still remembered as 'an influential mycologist', in which capacity she had been elected President of the British Mycological Society. Although she died in 1967, it is therefore possible to think of Dame Helen's work as spanning three centuries.

Despite the demands of her academic career during the inter-war years, Dame Helen still found time to get involved with the Girl Guide movement at the request of Lady Baden-Powell. She progressed from the executive council to the vice-chairmanship in 1925 under Lord Baden-Powell and then to chairman in 1928. During her earlier career she had always set great store by the value of training and considered the systems of training and voluntary discipline in the Girl Guides to be 'splendid'.

Dame Helen was also a woman who, in her own words, was 'convinced that, in any future major war, women would sooner or later be employed with His Majesty's Forces'. Her professorial status didn't diminish her interest in military matters and strategy. In 1924 she became the Territorial Army Association's representative on the Voluntary Aid Detachment Council and was also, until 1938, the chairman of the mobilisation committee. In addition she served on various departmental committees, unrelated to military matters but giving her varied and useful experience.

Discussions had been taking place since 1920 about the role of women in wartime and the need for some kind of peace-time 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.


Excerpted from Girls in Khaki by Barbara Green. Copyright © 2012 Barbara Green. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 6

Introduction 7

1 Organisation 11

2 Recruitment and Basic Training 23

3 Alongside the Royal Artillery 32

4 Alongside the Corps of Royal Engineers 56

5 Alongside the Royal Corps of Signals 62

6 Alongside the Royal Army Ordnance Corps 79

7 The ATS on Wheels 90

8 The ATS Band (and Other Musical Talents) 107

9 A Miscellany of Vital Activities 113

10 On Location Overseas 136

11 The ATS and Society 147

Epilogue 153

Select Bibliography 158

Index 159

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