The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was established in September 1938 as the threat of war increased. ATS recruitment was aimed at women aged between 18 and 43. But the upper age limit was increased to 50 for ex-servicewomen, including veterans of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
The first recruits worked as cooks, bakers, clerks and storekeepers. After initial training, women were 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 typist, she would be assigned clerical duties. Many early recruits found their accommodation very basic or discovered that they had little or no uniform.
‘We only had the absolute minimum of uniform. We were not allowed to cut anything to fit us, and there were only three sizes of everything: small, medium, and large. I was too big for the small, the medium was too long, and the large was far too big. So we could only turn things up, we couldn't cut or make anything to fit us.’
Mary Coomer, ATS, 1938-45
As more men were needed for combat roles, it was decided to increase the size of the ATS to take over other support tasks. Numbers reached 65,000 by September 1941.
Women were not allowed to fight, but the range of duties expanded.
They worked as telephonists, car mechanics, drivers, despatch riders, mess orderlies, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and military police.
Female conscription was introduced in December 1941. Women were given a choice of working in industry or farming, or joining one of the military auxiliary services. The ATS was the largest of these, but women also joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and the Women's Royal Naval Service.
Any women joining the army entered the ATS except for nurses, who joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
ATS personnel operated searchlights, range finders and sound detectors. They even aimed anti-aircraft guns, although army rules meant that only men were allowed to fire them.
‘Until my experience in London I had been opposed to the use of women in uniform. But in Great Britain I had seen them perform so magnificently in various positions, including service with anti-aircraft batteries, that I had been converted. Towards the end of the war the more stubborn die-hards had been convinced and demanded them in increasing numbers.’
General Dwight Eisenhower, 1948
The ATS also took on most women of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). This provided the unit with ready-trained drivers.
Nominally, FANY continued as an independent unit to provide a cover for recruitment to the Special Operations Executive. Many female agents were parachuted into enemy territory.
By June 1945, there were around 200,000 members of the ATS from all across the British Empire, including the Dominions, India and the West Indies. They served in many overseas theatres of operation as well as on the Home Front. 335 ATS women were killed by enemy action and many more injured.
Despite their vital contribution, ATS women were not treated the same as men. On average they received two-thirds the pay of male soldiers of similar rank. They also received 20 per cent less rations.
ATS women were also subjected to many derogatory comments, even being called ‘officers' groundsheets’ by some male soldiers.
Black women from the West Indies had to overcome the additional challenge of institutional prejudice. Initially rejected as recruits by the War Office on colour grounds, they later faced the dubious argument that they would find it difficult to adapt to the climate and culture of Britain and so would be unable to discharge their duties effectively.
However, the growing demand for service personnel and Colonial Office pressure for a non-discriminatory recruitment policy - on the grounds that it would improve relations between Britain and the Caribbean - ended this. In 1943 the War Office agreed to recruit black West Indian women into the ATS.
The ATS outlived the Second World War, but was eventually disbanded in 1949. Its remaining troops were transferred to the newly formed Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC). This included all women serving in the army except medical and veterinary orderlies, chaplains and nurses.
The available roles for women continued to expand. Eventually, they worked in over 40 trades, including as staff officers, clerks, chefs, dog handlers, communications operators, drivers, intelligence analysts, military police women, and postal and courier operators.
At first the WRAC inherited the ATS’s unique system of commissioned officer ranks. For example, a controller was equivalent to a colonel in the male army, and a second subaltern to a second lieutenant. However, in 1950 these were changed to ordinary army ranks.
'Most of the service women went into trade training. Drivers had to be over 5ft 5ins and went to the Royal Corps of Transport. Policewomen over 5ft 8in went to the Royal Military Police. Some women went to the Royal Corps of Signals.'
Angela Rose, who served in the WRAC 1978-80, 2017
By 1991, many WRAC personnel were serving with other regiments and corps. And by the end of that year they were formally transferred to those units.
What was left of the WRAC was mainly made up of pay clerks. When the corps disbanded in 1992, these became part of the Staff and Personnel Branch within the new Adjutant General’s Corps.
For some, the demise of the WRAC was a cause for regret. But it marked the beginning of women's full integration into the British Army. They were no longer restricted to a single, separate unit and their opportunities would continue to grow.