Women On Active Service in the Battle of Britain

The War Illustrated, Volume 3, No. 59, Page 408-409, October 18, 1940.

Since the War has come to the homeland, active service for women's organizations attached to the fighting forces has taken on an even more military aspect. Here Miss Peggy Scott describes the work, often under fire, of A.T.S., W.R.N.S., W.A.A.F. and W.F.P.

The Battle of Britain has brought women for the first time into the front-line everywhere.

Even when several hundred of the Auxiliary Territorial Service the A.T.S was in France in the spring of 1940, they were confined to areas on the lines of communication. The "Soldierettes" as the French people called them, took the places of men, except in the fighting line; there, the men had to cook and drive for themselves.

As a matter of fact, being in the front line has made less difference to the A.T.S. than to women in the civil services. They did everything for the men before, except fight. The only difference now is that when the men who usually work in the cook-house and orderly room at night go to their Action Stations, women take their places. At one unit in the South where women work in the cook-house during the day and men at night, some of the A.T.S. clerical staff take the places of the men in the cook-house when they go to their action stations. Certain commanding officers have had the A.T.S. trained to work the stirrup-pumps for fire-fighting.

The Battle of Britain has also perhaps speeded up the recruiting of the A.T.S. Over 30,000 women are already at work; practically wherever there are soldiers in the British Isles, there are A.T.S. helping them; but still more are wanted-about 10,000.

One of the best aids to recruiting occurred when the A.T.S. Unit returned from France. The Director A.T.S. inspected them after church parade. The remark of a man at the crossroads, obviously an old N.C.O., when Dame Helen Gwynne Vaughan was Parliamentary Candidate for South London, came to mind as D.A.T.S. went carefully down the lines: "It's something to have a soldier, even if she is in petticoats!"

The woman, who was Chief Controller of Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps, British Armies in France, from its formation 10 February 1917 until she was appointed in September 1918 to lead the Women's Royal Air Force, is in her element in the Army. She is a soldier's daughter.

Proudly she looked at the A.T.S. who had proved themselves. They seemed indeed old soldiers with B.E.F. on their tin hats and recruits who were present were tremendously impressed by their smartness.

They had the experience of old soldiers, for they had been bombed and machine-gunned as the men had been in France. They were women picked for their efficiency before-they went to France.

The success of the A.T.S. cooks has made the demand for them the greater. There have been complaints about the Army cooking since war began, but never of the cooking that the women do. It should be even better now that a woman Inspector of Catering to the Auxiliary Territorial Service has been appointed. Senior Commandant M. S. Froode will visit the cookhouses where women are working and see that the best use is being made of the rations. Until recently women were getting four-fifths of the men's rations, which were found to contain too much meat and too few eggs, milk, and vegetables for women's health.

Most of the caterers in the A.T.S. have domestic science certificates, but some ordinary cooks have done so well in the cook-house that after further training they have been promoted to officer rank. There is a Messing Officer, for instance, whose husband before the war was in charge or a block of flats where she did the catering.

It has been found that women cooks work better with their own section leader. There was a sergeant-cook who thought that the women should do the same shift as men, which was from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., whereas the women worked in two shifts. There was also a sergeant-cook who did not like having women in his cook-house because he "couldn't swear at them!" Incidentally, the women liked working for this man.

Experts in other directions than cooking have been promoted to the charge of a platoon, including teleprinters and telephonists. Pay Experts have emerged, as women who are good at figures have learned the special system used in the Army. In the Records Office also women have proved themselves worthy of promotion. Many women in the A.T.S. were trained for this office before the war, so that they have been able to help with the extraordinary work which the evacuation from Dunkirk alone involved. Special arrangements had to be made for dealing with the large number, of men who could not be traced for a time.

The new A.T.S. Selection Board, which consists of the Director and the Assistant Directors in all the Military Commands, will consider in making promotions besides good service, special qualifications, for example in domestic science, languages, driving, and business experience. When the promotion concerns drivers or caterers, both the Inspector of M.T. Companies, and of Catering, will also be present.

The F.A.N.Y.s who became A.T.S. drivers have as their Inspector and Commandant of the Training School, Miss Baxter Ellis, late Chief Commandant of F.A.N.Y. These drivers still have the privilege of wearing the name F.A.N.Y. underneath "Women's Transport Service" on the sleeve.

Among the changes in the A.T.S. organisation approved by the Army Council which have already taken effect are the following: (1) An Auxiliary Territorial Service Council has been formed under the supervision of the Adjutant General, and consists of the following officers: (a) The Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, president. The Director is on the staff of the Adjutant-General and will be responsible under him for the administration of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. (b) A senior A.T.S. officer attached to the staff of the Quartermaster-General, who will deal with the clothing, feeding, and accommodation of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. (c) A senior A.T.S. officer attached to the staff of the Director of Military Training, who will be responsible for all branches of training in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. (d) A woman doctor attached to the staff of the Director-General of Army Medical Services, who will be responsible for the health and general welfare of the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

The Women's Royal Naval Service W.R.N.S, although the Senior Women's Service has only a strength of about one fifth of the A.T.S. This Service, which is employed at the ports has been on Active Service more or less since the war began. When cooks have fed the shipwrecked mariners all the time, and seen the ships gathering for convoy in the harbour. Always the Wrens are releasing men for service at sea, and when the evacuation from Dunkirk came, that release was greatly valued.

Their friends sometimes think that they go to sea themselves, because they talk of "going aboard." Every fleet shore establishment is considered to be a ship, and the Wrens talk of the floor as the deck, and the kitchen as the galley. At first the Wrens were mostly girls whose homes were at the ports, so that nautical terms came easily to them, but recently a recruiting officer has been seeking the sea-loving girls inland, and they have more to learn. Because the W.R.N.S. is a small service, careful selection of personnel is possible, and some of them have called it the "snob-service." Discipline is stricter perhaps than in the other Services. When a W.R.N.S. Commandant saw a W.A.A.F. smoking as she walked along the front, she said: "I would not allow a Wren to do that outside, in uniform."

Active Service for the Women's Auxiliary Air Service the W.A.A.F means much repairing of balloons by the fabric section, which is composed largely of dressmakers and tailoresses, cooking for the men at Balloon Centres and Field Kitchens, and taking the places of the men in practically everything except flying. The W.A.A.F substitutes the men in the R.A.F. in small groups as the airmen are required for other work; they do not move about in companies like the A.T.S. In each of the Services there is hush-hush work for women to do in the Air Force these girls are called" plotters." They are all well educated, some having University degrees.

The girls who cook at a field kitchen really know what Active Service conditions mean. The kitchen is probably a shack, the boilers are outside, and the mess-room is an open pavilion, boarded up.

There are about half as many W.A.A.F. as there is A.T.S. on Active Service, but recruiting is usually open.

Splendid work is being accomplished by the Women Ferry Pilots. R.A.F. pilots have other things to do than to fetch and deliver aeroplanes from factories to R.A.F stations, and the Air Transport Auxiliary was formed when war began by British Airways. Men only were invited to join the A.T.A. at first, but very soon eight women were included, and Pauline Gower was appointed First Officer of the Women Ferry Pilots.

There are 25 Women Ferry Pilots flying every day with training machines for the R.A.F and they hope soon to ferry also repaired aircraft from maintenance units to Squadron headquarters. Added to weather difficulties, the women pilots, who are unarmed, have to keep a sharp look-out for raiders: but that is Active Service.

The women who are also serving in the front line include the Women's Land Army, the Mechanized Transport Corps, the Nurses and the V.A.Dís, and all the A.R.P worker First Aid workers, the ambulance drivers, girls of the Auxiliary Fire Service, munitions workers, clothing and equipment makers, canteen workers, and those who escort children to the Dominions.

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