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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Auxiliary Territorial Service


A member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service operates a telescope
A member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service operates a telescope©
Women had served with the British Army during the First World War in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, founded in 1917 but disbanded in 1921. In the autumn of September 1938, when war seemed possible again, the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was established, organised on a regional basis in the same way as the Territorial Army. It incorporated members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the earliest women's voluntary corps, which had served with distinction in the First World War.

In April 1941, the members of the ATS were given full military status, although they continued to be paid two-thirds of the wage of a man of the same rank. As well as Britain, recruits were sought from the Dominions, India and the West Indies. Six hundred West Indian women volunteered of whom half stayed in the Caribbean while 200 served in the USA and 100 in the UK.

In December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act which allowed the conscription of women into war work or the armed forces. Women could choose to join the ATS or its naval or air force equivalents, the WRNS and the WAAF.

The first women who joined the ATS had no uniform and received little training, working in traditional female roles as cooks, clerks and storekeepers. After the initial influx of volunteers a system of basic training was established lasting six weeks. New recruits were issued with their uniform and asked to carry out trade tests to establish which area they should go into. Experience in civilian life was usually crucial – for example, if a woman had been a shorthand typist she would almost certainly be assigned clerical duties. During the course of the war the range of duties undertaken by the ATS expanded and women worked as telephonists, drivers, mess orderlies, butchers, bakers, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and military police.

The women of the ATS also made a significant contribution to Anti-Aircraft Command of the Royal Artillery, known as 'ack-ack'. They made up mixed batteries, taking over some of the tasks formerly performed by the male crew, including finding enemy aircraft and controlling the direction of the gun, although officially they never fired the guns. Others operated searchlights. Some ATS members were at permanent Anti-Aircraft camps and others were mobile. These mobile units were particularly busy during the V1 and V2 rocket campaigns against southern England in the summer of 1944.

As well as home defence, women from the ATS served in most theatres of war, as well as other important locations such as Washington. Following the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, some mixed Anti-Aircraft batteries were sent to France but the speed of the advance meant that the batteries were soon dissolved and the ATS women moved into general clerical work.

At its peak, 210,308 women were serving with the ATS. 335 were killed.

Queen Elizabeth II served in the wartime ATS as 2nd Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor, as did Mary Churchill, the youngest daughter of the Prime Minister. In 1949 the ATS was absorbed in the Women's Royal Army Corps, which was itself disbanded in 1992.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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