An army of women: adventures in the Auxiliary Territorial Service
During World War II, thousands of women joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and proudly assisted Britain’s army on home soil. But, as Dr Tessa Dunlop discovered during interviews with a selection of ATS veterans, some personnel also had the chance to travel overseas – and embark on the adventure of a lifetime
In late 1944, the prime minister’s youngest daughter, Mary Churchill, gushed: “Finally... we have been chosen for service in North West Europe. Wild excitement and enthusiasm.”
What was the Auxiliary Territorial Service?
The poster girl for Britain’s largest military organisation for women, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), was front and centre of a concerted effort to encourage additional girls to sign up for overseas selection. More women were needed to support the 2 million men who were pushing across the continent towards Germany, including administrative staff and anti-aircraft defence.
ATS recruits, who had been operational on Britain’s gun-sites since 1941 and provided vital support in numerous other roles, were ideally placed to fulfil this mission. But if “wild excitement” was the overwhelming response of young women, elsewhere there was disquiet at the prospect of sending girls abroad.
Anne Carter (née Garrad) was a 19-year-old ATS clerk. During the build-up to D-Day she had been typing up top-secret reports on military manoeuvres, but once the Allies had landed in June 1944, priorities changed. ATS girls were now invited to apply for overseas service, and along with several colleagues, Anne put her name down. Few, however, made the final cut. “Their parents stopped them,” recalls Anne. “They wanted their daughters to be at home. Safety was the main reason.”
But Anne, whose own mother had been the very first ATS recruit in 1938 was an exception. She was given parental consent “without delay or hesitation”.
Anne CarterAnne Carter (née Garrad) was destined for the ATS. In 1938 her mother, Marjory, became W/1 – the first woman to sign up to the new service. In 1943, as soon as she turned 18, Anne volunteered for the ATS, with the press making much of W/1’s daughter following in her mother’s footsteps. After an early promotion to lance corporal, she spent time training ATS conscripts, before a clerical posting in Inverness. In 1944, Anne then went to Italy for overseas service, and was selected for an officer training course in Palestine. After the war, she briefly ran transit centres in Italy and Austria, before coming back to England in 1946, where she gained a degree, became a probation officer, and started a family with her husband. Anne died in July 2021, aged 97.
Winston Churchill anticipated a backlash. In a private letter, he acknowledged the gulf between the girls whose response to the prospect of overseas postings was “not ‘alf!”, and the troubles many of them had convincing their “Papas and Mamas”.
Despite unprecedented female service in Britain since the (reluctant) introduction of conscription for women in December 1941, mindsets hadn’t changed. The presence of uniformed women right across Britain did little to reassure the public about girls’ safety overseas.
The War Office was in a bind: until the end of 1944, female recruits needed a written letter of permission from their parents or a husband to serve overseas, and these were rarely forthcoming. Another former ATS girl, Daphne Attridge (née Williams), whose days as a searchlight teleplotter were numbered, shakes her head:
“The battery I was with split up. I became a teleprinter operator for the 21st Army group – Monty’s [General Bernard Montgomery’s] group. They were eventually sent to Egypt, but mother wouldn’t let me go. Absolutely not. I stayed in Didcot working on inventories. I never went abroad not until much later, after the war.”
Relationships with men in the ATS
In contrast, Anne was one of 200 ATS clerks selected to travel to southern Italy on the SS Queen of Bermuda in June 1944, a vessel where men vastly outnumbered women. Once on board, parental consent and clerical skills were not the only criteria required.
“We had to go through a sort of health check, which included finding out about our views on relationships with men,” explains Anne. “They didn’t want to send out girls who were going to find men and male advances very difficult to cope with.” Indeed, recruits were warned that “working with the military abroad, the female sex would be very much in the minority”.
The ATS was a strictly non-combatant service, and Anne’s arrival in Italy resulted in the removal of “existing male personnel who were duly dispatched to the front to fight”. During her downtime, Anne managed to visit the same Lovat Scouts she had travelled out with, who were posted north into the mountains. Her trip to their military hospital was deeply shocking. “We found so many of them in pain, some with missing limbs, blinded or unable to hear,” remembers Anne. “I was absolutely horrified by what I saw.”
Just a few weeks earlier, these soldiers – her friends – had been healthy young men, and now they were torn up and punctured like rag dolls. It was only then, Anne concedes, in the relentless Italian heat, that she fully understood the meaning of war.
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A moral question
Women were servicing a conflict that predominantly belonged to the opposite sex. The girls’ presence was essential, and therefore tolerated – but there were complications.
“All over the place there were far more men than women,” explains Anne. “The men were pretty desperate for female friendship quite apart from wanting sex.” Many of the soldiers in Italy had been fighting in North Africa; they hadn’t been home for months, sometimes even years. It was up to Anne to “morally” assert herself against male advances.
“After a dance or so forth, you’d be taken home in a lorry and it was specially arranged so the girls had to sit on the men’s laps; there’d deliberately not be enough room and men would love to explore your body, so you had to be very definite. I’d said, ‘I’m not having that’, to which the response was often a wheedling ‘Please, I haven’t seen a woman for ages. Please.’”
Anne’s recollections resonate with high-level exchanges back in Britain. In 1944, the secretary of state had tried to argue that “it is desirable to have as many British women as possible overseas”, as the policy of non-fraternisation between soldiers and civilians planned for German occupation was only going to be possible with the presence of “British and Allied women”. However, these projections were offset by fears that unsupervised girls would act “immorally”. The debate was unequivocally focused on female behaviour in an era when men were expected to dodge advancing bullets and women advancing men.
Given the moral hoo-ha back in Britain, it is perhaps unsurprising that by December 1944, just one in 30 girls had received parental permission to serve abroad. Initially, a team of 4,000 ATS volunteers were sent into liberated northwest Europe, Mary Churchill included. But it wasn’t enough. Demands for additional girl power were not welcomed by the exhausted British public, and in early 1945, the government once more resorted to conscription. Indignant parents lambasted MPs; in the words of one politician, they “did not visualise their daughters being compulsorily sent overseas”.
“Perhaps not,” chuckles another former ATS girl, Joan Awbery (née Stittle). “But, by that time, I was 25 and could do what I liked!’
Born and brought up in the small town of Soham, Joan couldn’t wait to spread her wings. She had been stationed for most of the war in nearby Cambridge working for the Army Kinema Service and, an accomplished clerk already promoted to corporal, was ideal material for the British Liberation Army. But like so many others, Joan’s parents weren’t keen on the prospect of their only daughter going abroad.
Fortuitously, the law was on her side: in February 1945, women were drafted into service overseas, excluding those who were married or aged 19 and under.
Joan AwberyJoan Awbery (née Stittle) longed to sign up and serve early on in the war, but her parents – who had lost siblings during WWI – weren’t so keen. It wasn’t until late 1941, with conscription for women pending, that she got her way. A shorthand typist, Joan spent the majority of the war working for the Army Kinema Service in England, followed by selection for overseas service in March 1945. As a corporal, she worked in the legal aid department in the British Liberation Army in Belgium and the British Army of the Rhine in Germany until June 1946. After coming home, Joan became a secretary in a jam factory and settled down with a husband and children. She is now aged 101 and still an active member of the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association.
Brussels to Bielefeld
In March 1945, after “parading and marching with full equipment”, “a sleepless night rocking about on the North Sea” and an “unspeakably awful train journey through war-ravaged countryside”, Joan finally arrived in Prinz Albert Barracks, Brussels. Her wish to experience a different sort of war had come true, and proof of its impact lie in the 70 letters she wrote home over the subsequent 18 months.
In a small country where around 375,000 Belgians were taken to Germany as prisoners and conscripted labourers, the end of the occupation and the Allies’ arrival brought untold joy. According to one of Joan’s letters, there was “a parade of returned Belgian army prisoners complete with band... one day, a short parade of about three bands went along past the office and quite an hour before it was due, the streets were so thick with people that the police had to clear the way for trams to pass.”
Joan marvelled at Belgian emotion, but it was not her victory. War in Britain, a country never occupied or morally compromised in the same way, meant something very different. She admitted to her parents: “When all these things happen, and everybody is wagging flags and bursting into tears and getting thoroughly het up, all the men in the office and Mary and I get all the more stolid and just look on with a solemn face, which must be annoying!”
Joan was British; she waited eagerly for the continental edition of the Daily Mail, and even today – a wise, gentle woman of 101 – she is unrepentant about the Germans. “We hated them,” she hisses, “in their awful grey uniforms.” The truckloads of German prisoners, many of whom would not see their homeland for several more years, elicited no sympathy. Joan noted: “The reaction from the [local] population was frightening.”
Her next posting was occupied Germany. Having spent years as an ATS clerk in southeast England, she was now catapulted into what war looked like for the losers. Over 5 million Germans had died in the conflict, 400,000 of them as the result of Allied bombing, and the stench of rotting matter hung in the air:
“The whole place looks like a rubbish dump and the smell is something fearful. I expect if the truth were known, there are still some remains underneath all the rubble... there can’t be a single undamaged building in Bielefeld.”
The maelstrom of humanity in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s devastating war saw radical measures introduced to prevent anarchy and violence. Initially, Joan could not leave the British compound and go to the other side of the barbed wire unless she was in a party of six ATS girls, each accompanied by an armed guard.
Nowhere and no one was deemed safe, and yet Joan and her ATS colleagues were not allowed to carry guns. As restrictions were gradually lifted, she noted: “It’s strange the men have to be armed to go out, but the ATS are allowed out in pairs with no arms and no escorts.” Thankfully, Joan had no need to defend herself in an environment where dealing with Allied soldiers was her primary concern: “Apparently the ratio of girls to men out here is one to a couple of thousand. I’m sick of parties and men. Especially the latter. I begin to wish I wasn’t so pleasant to them.”
Now in ripe old age, she laughs heartily. “They were an absolute pest. I should have been much firmer if it were today!”
Like Anne, Joan was a pioneer; they were two of several thousand British women who served in Europe at the end of World War II during an era when traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity complicated the inclusion of girls into a military support role for Britain’s army. Despite the contradictory rules, double standards and naysayers, both women emerged from the war proud soldiers. They enjoyed the discipline, camaraderie and routine, and for Joan, even relations with the local Germans gradually improved.
Given the level of public concern, it is ironic that in both cases, the hardest aspect of service life was returning home. Even today, 75 years later, the disappointment is palpable. Joan missed the ATS; it had briefly blown her out of a small corner of England into a much bigger world where she had excelled, before she was dropped back into a Britain that prioritised the return of war’s conventional heroes – men.
Anne concurs: “There was an intensity that was missing. Britain was very different after the war, and it wasn’t easy emotionally.” But of one thing, Anne is certain. “I was very, very proud of having been in the ATS. It was one of the proudest moments in my life.”
Dr Tessa Dunlop is a writer, historian and broadcaster. Her latest book is Army Girls: The Secrets and Stories of Military Service from the Final Few Women Who Fought in World War II (Headline, 2021)
This article was first published in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed Magazine