The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was formed in September
1938. The ATS was made up from three organisations – the Emergency Services, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the Women’s Legion. All three were combined into one organisation known as the Women’s Auxiliary Defence Service, which was itself, absorbed into the Territorial Army. A decision was made to change the name of the organisation to the Auxiliary Territorial Service as it was felt that the initials WADS would leave the unit open to derisory comments. The first commandant for the ATS was Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan. She served until July 1941 when Jean Knox who was commandant until October 1943 replaced her. Between 1943 and 1946, Lesley Whateley commanded the ATS.
The role of the ATS was clearly summarised in one of their own advertisements:
“Auxiliary Territorial Service (for women). Non-combatant duties with military units. Motor driving, clerical and other services calling for energy and initiative”. (Autumn 1938)
When war was declared on September 3rd 1939, there was a great desire by many to ‘do their bit’. For women this meant volunteering for the ATS so that men could be released from day-to-day tasks. An early and contemporary account of the work of the ATS was a direct reflection of society as it stood at that time. Written by Sir John Hammerton, it describes ATS women as working in the cook house, cleaning, acting as kitchen maids and waiting on officers as parlour maids in the officer’s mess. Hammerton also recounts ATS women as drivers, including light lorries, and in their spare time learning how to do basic vehicle repairs. In keeping with the time, Hammerton also wrote that ATS women got smaller rations (by 20%) to men in the Army and just 66% of the pay of a man of the same rank. ATS recruitment was aimed at women aged between 18 and 43 but the upper age was increased to 50 for ex-servicewomen.
Those women who joined the ATS found that their initial drill work was done by male instructors – many of whom were far from sympathetic to their cause. The first women who enrolled also found that they had no uniform and had to make do with an ATS badge (not unlike the early months of the Local Defence Volunteers). Their accommodation was also very basic – so much so that a number resigned from the ATS in protest. In August 1940 those who left the ATS represented 26% of the total. By December 1940, the figure had risen to 29%.
However, a desire to serve your country meant that by 1940, despite the resignations, the ATS numbered about 34,000. As a voluntary organisation the ATS was not subject to military law in its first years. For example, desertion could only be punished by being thrown out of the ATS, which is almost certainly what the person would have wished for anyway! However, in 1941, the ATS was incorporated into army regulations. While this gave the ATS a greater scope for military-style discipline, it was also a sign of the status that the organisation had achieved. After July 1941, all non-commissioned ranks in the ATS could call themselves ‘Auxiliaries’ as opposed to ‘members’.
Between 1941 and 1943, the ATS underwent major expansion. At the end of December 1943, there were 200,000 in the ATS with 6,000 officers taking part in more than 80 trades.
In 1944, the ATS received a boost when Princess Elizabeth joined. This was important to the ATS as to some, they were still a focus for ill-mannered comments. While the first few years may have been somewhat chaotic, the need for manpower shortages to be reversed was such that the ATS fulfilled this vital role. To a few, the women in the ATS were “officers groundsheets” but to the large majority the ATS had proved their worth and value by the time the war in Europe ended.