The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS; often pronounced as an acronym) was the women’s branch of the British Army during the Second World War. It was formed on 9 September 1938, initially as a women’s voluntary service, and existed until 1 February 1949.
The ATS had its roots in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), which formed in 1917 as a voluntary service. During the First World War its members served in a number of jobs including clerks, cooks, telephonists and waitresses. The WAAC was disbanded after four years in 1921.
Prior to the Second World War, the government decided to establish a new Corps for women, and an advisory council, which included members of the Territorial Army (TA), the Women’s Transport Service and the Women’s Legion, was set up. The council decided that the ATS would be attached to the Territorial Army, and the women serving would receive two thirds the pay of male soldiers.
All women in the Army joined the ATS except for nurses, who joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMS), and medical and dental officers, who were commissioned directly into the Army and held Army ranks.
The ATS in action
The first recruits to the ATS were employed as cooks, clerks and storekeepers. At the outbreak of the Second World War, 300 ATS members were billeted to France. As the German army advanced through France, the British Expeditionary Force was driven back towards the English Channel. This led to the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in May 1940, and some ATS telephonists were among the last British personnel to leave the country.
As more men joined the war effort, it was decided to increase the size of the ATS, with numbers reaching 65,000 by September 1941. Women between the ages of 17 and 43 were allowed to join, although these rules were relaxed in order to allow WAAC veterans to join up to the age of 50. The duties of members were also expanded, seeing ATS orderlies, drivers, postal workers and ammunition inspectors.
The National Service Act
In December of 1941 Parliament passed the National Service Act, which called up unmarried women between 20 and 30 years old to join one of the auxiliary services. These were the ATS, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women’s Transport Service. Married women were also later called up, although pregnant women and those with young children were exempt.
Other options under the Act included joining the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), which supplemented the emergency services at home, or the Women’s Land Army, helping on farms.
There was also provision made in the Act for objection to service on moral grounds, as about a third of those on the conscientious objectors list were women. A number of women were prosecuted as a result of the Act, some even being imprisoned. Despite this, by 1943 about 9 out of 10 women were taking an active part in the war effort.
Women were barred from serving in battle, but due to shortages of men, ATS members, as well as members of the other women’s voluntary services, took over many support tasks, such as radar operators, forming part of the crews of anti-aircraft guns and military police. By VE Day, there were over 190,000 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service.
Famous members of the ATS included Princess Elizabeth, eldest daughter of the King, and Mary Churchill, youngest daughter of the Prime Minister.
After the cessation of hostilities women continued to serve in the ATS, the WRNS and the WAAF. The ATS was succeeded by the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC), which formed on 1 February 1949 under Army Order 6.
(Memories written by members of Forces Reunited)
Auxiliary Territorial Service, in 1946
Written by Lucy M Newbery nee GriffithsThe visit of the Princess Royal , in early Dec.to Craigiehall whilst we were doing typing lessons, I remember her as very nice as she spoke with each of us. The occasion meant that we acquired a rest room in camp, curtains on our hut windows, chairs with cushions etc. The lads had to do some white washing of edging stones around the huts. Oh we had a record player and one of two records was "Come back to Sorrento "