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Auxiliary Territorial Services in World War Two
The origin of Women entering into the war in an active role with the Royal Air Force in World War
Two owes much to the Women’s Royal Air Force (W.R.A.F.) of the Great War. After 1919 women
were disbanded from all military activity in the three services. However, they had enjoyed their time
and formed a W.R.A.F. Old Comrades Association they met for annual Dinners. The Great War had
produced First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (Later known as Women’s Transport Service) (F.A.N.Y’s) and
Voluntary Aid Detachments (V.A.D’s) In 1934 there was much concern that a second war was looming
and so an idea was born to bring together an existing organisation - the Women’s League, F.A.N.Y’s ,
V.A.D’s , and W.R.A.F. Old Comrades Association to form a single organisation, the new Women’s Legion,
that would be able to help in the next national emergency.
The new Women’s legion was deemed to have two functions.
a) Officer Training and b) Anti-gas training.
Sadly, anti-gas training was something that was almost impossible to achieve because there was no real
consistency by those providing it.
In 1936 by the Home Office decided that it would only recognise those organisations that could give full
training in anti-gas preparations.
This left the Women’s Legion in a quandary and they withdrew.
The Officer’s Training Section became renamed the Emergency Service in 1936 by the formidable Jane
Trefusis-Forbes and set up methods to evaluate those women who would make high quality officers.
They persisted and in 1938 the Army Air Council formally recognised them.
We often hear the term “Old Boy’s Club” but the recruiting for the women to become officers was slightly
slanted into an ”Old Girl’s Club” since you had to be personally invited to join. The annual fee was ten shillings
which excluded the vast number of women. Those invited tended to be mainly upper and middle classes.
Women cadets went on summer camp and were drilled at various places. The interest of government in
the organisation was somewhat tempered in 1936 when a specially commissioned report stated that a
women’s organisation was not necessary or even a concept that was desired by the Armed Forces.
Luckily the Air Ministry was not in agreement with this stating that a women’s organisation would be very
helpful in the event of war.
In 1938 Hore-Belisha was Secretary of State for War and in May 1938 asked the women to meet with the
War Office, Air Ministry and Territorial Army to discuss how they might help. He met with the Women’s
Legion, F.A.N.Y., V.AD., and the Emergency Service.
A positive outcome was the formation of the Auxiliary Territorial Services or the A.T.S.
Every county was expected to form and recruit several A.T.S. companies affiliated to the local territorial
unit that would help training. Interestingly the Air Ministry insisted that one company was to be a R.A.F.
company and would wear a unique armband.
London had an overly successful recruitment and the London Territorial units found they had too many
A.T.S. companies and suggested that these be affiliated to No. 601 Squadron and to the Balloon Barrage
Squadron at Kidbrooke. Jane Trefusis-Forbes was the first Commanding Officer of No.20 R.A.F. (City of London)
Company at Kidbrooke.
The “Old Girls Club” issue rose into public view once again in November 1938. The newspapers reported that
Miss Ellen Wilkinson, M.P., told a reporter in Leeds that the newly formed Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service
was being run as “a snob show.”, adding that she intended getting some satisfaction when she raised the matter
in the House of Commons on Thursday. “My information” ’ she said. “ is that women belonging to the
salary-earning classes, however intelligent and anxious to serve, are being overlooked when It comes to
the question of commissions. I say that commissions ought to be given on merit, and merit is not the
prerogative of the titled people. Miss Wilkinson added; “ If the domestic servant or the typist proves to
be a more efficient organiser, titled people ought to be prepared to serve under them."
Miss Wilkinson added that she “intended to raise the matter in the House of Commons this week and would
ask Mr. Hore- Belisha, the Minister for War, How many commissions have been given to titled women, and
what qualifications have these women for Auxiliary Territorial Service duties, and how many commissions
have been given to women wage-earners?”.
The newspapers quoted one of the most influential and most prominent members of the Service in Yorkshire.
“There is no class distinction whatever, she said. simply choose the women who are most suitable —those
who are most fitted for the job. We naturally find that certain standard of education is desirable, but if
working or middle-class women have had secondary school education, say, and are otherwise suitable, there
is no reason why they should not be considered for a commission. In the West Riding, owing to the short time
the Service has been in existence, most of our commissions have not yet been allotted.”
In November 1938 there were reports of questions in the House of Commons by Miss Ellen Wilkinson, M.P.,
to Mr. Hore-Belisha, the War Minister, suggesting that some county commandants in the Auxiliary Territorial
Services were appointed because of titles or because of qualifications possessed by their husbands. Miss Wilkinson
promptly rose to press her point with the remark questioning the qualifications of Mayfair hostesses for the posts.
It was revealed that 21 of the County Commandants were titled.
Lady Astor intervened when Miss Wilkinson asked how many of the country commandants in the Auxiliary
Territorial Service were titled, and how many were appointed because of their husband's qualifications.
Mr. Hore-Belisha replied that 59 had been appointed and 21 were titled.
Lady Astor asked: ” May I ask the Honourable Lady (Miss Wilkinson) if she is doing anything to induce a
woman of the Socialist Party to join this service? Miss Wilkinson replied: ” Not while it is in the hands social set
The reality was that 21 were titled and many others were married to officers in the armed services.
It is hard to argue with this view for instance as some of the women appointed as Commandants were:
Lady Trenchard for City of London, Mrs. Edith Maud Cell, wife of Colonel W. C. C. Cell, of Dorridge, for
Warwickshire, The Lady Harris, for the County of Kent, Lady Apsley for Gloucestershire, the Hon.
Mrs John Kemp, for East Lancashire area.
In December 1938 the Air Ministry realised that to be really efficient the R.A.F. Companies of the A.T.S
needed a specialised training more suited to a war in the air than a land or sea campaign. Consequently,
the Air Ministry deemed that all R.A.F. Companies of A.T.S. were to be affiliated to Auxiliary Air Force
In June 1938 recruitment had reached two-thirds of the anticipated number of R.A.F. A.T.S. personnel.
Forty-eight R.A.F. A.T.S. Companies were formed and each one was attached to either a Flying Squadron
or a Balloon Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force.
Each Company attached to a Balloon Squadron has an establishment of 72 women and most Companies
attached to a Flying Squadron had an establishment of 67 women. This was because the Balloon Squadrons
had five extra Fabric Workers in addition to the 6 Officers, Eleven Non-Commissioned Officers and fifty so called “Volunteers”.
In July 1939 Mis Wilkinson was once again asking about the perceived snobbery in the A.T.S. and asked if
Mr. Hore-Belisha was aware that, except in one case, no qualifications other than the possession of a title
or an 0.B.E. are shown in the list of county and senior commandants of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in
the latest available Army list, and whether he would issue a list of the full qualifications these ladies possess
for the information of persons seeking to qualify for these positions?
In November 1939 the Auxiliary Territorial Service (for women aged 18-43), was to be doubled, and recruiting
was opened, applicants had to be 5 foot 2 inches minimum height. A denial of snobbery in the A.T.S. was made
in an interview given by Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughn denied claims of snobbery in the A.T.S. saying; “It is quite
true that we have number of recent debutantes and women with handles to their names," she said, "But nearly
all of them are in the ranks. Only the other day saw a well-known debutante working in a regimental cookhouse
preparing food for 500 men, and I can tell you she was working very hard, too. One other thing, we do not want
to be called ladies. We are all proud to be known as women."
The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force A.A.F. was created on 28 June 1939, absorbing the forty-eight RAF companies
of the Auxiliary Territorial Service which had existed since 1938. Conscription of women did not begin until 1941.
It only applied to those between 20 and 30 years of age and they had the choice of the auxiliary services or factory
work. The first W.A.A.F. nursing orderlies selected to fly on air-ambulance duties to France, 1944. Women recruited
into the W.A.A.F. were given basic training at one of five sites, though not all of the sites ran training simultaneously.
The five sites were at West Drayton, Harrogate, Bridgnorth, Innsworth and Wilmslow. All W.A.A.F. basic recruit training
was located at Wilmslow from 1943.
In September 1940 Mr Eden announced changes in the organisation of the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Services, which
were hoped to make for the greater efficiency and welfare of this important body. The most widespread cause of
complaint was how officers were selected. A selection board was set up to assure the promotion of suitable candidates for
commissions nd also, to assess the qualifications of those at present holding commissioned rank. Allegations of class
snobbery in the granting of commissions had been common. The whole service was to be put under a new Council
under the supervision of the Adjutant-General and it was hoped, guarantee of the thoroughness of the reorganisation
planned and its effectiveness when completed.
A travelling Selection Board went around to interview those seeking a Commission in the A.T.S. If you review the
appointments made by that Board you sadly cannot escape the fact that most of the Commissions were given to
women who came from backgrounds that were privileged. It is likely that such women candidates had been through
a classical education, which included public speaking and thus due to their education came over much better at interview.
Ref: R.A.F. Form F63510.
There were four areas in which women were employed in connection with balloon work:
Balloon Parachute Hand. Parachuting was taught by jumping from a balloon.
Fabric Worker (Balloon).
Fabric Worker, Rigger (Balloon).
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