WW2 People's War

An archive of World War Two memories - written by the public, gathered by the BBC

An Account Of Life In The ATS (Part One)

Contributed by artisticwestwood
Article ID: A8425055
Contributed on: 10 January 2006

An account of life in the Auxiliary Territorial Service
From 25th August 1939 to January 1946
Abridged from diaries and letters.

Notes on the progress of the war are taken from:
"Chronicle of the Second World War" — A Longman's Chronicle
published by the Longman Group UK Ltd.


At the beginning of 1938 I joined the newly formed local company of the Tonbridge Auxiliary Territorial Service which met once a week in the drill hall. In the last week of 1938 our company was called to report to the Buffs Barracks in Canterbury. From then until demobilisation in January 1946 I moved through twelve different units and from volunteer to Junior Commander (Captain).

A surprising summons to the War Office came and secondment to the Special Communications Unit headquarters (MI6) dealing with clandestine operations in Occupied Europe from a manor house deep in the Buckinghamshire country-side; and finally, when the war in Europe ended, still with MI6, a journey by Sunderland flying boat to Calcutta to continue the clandestine war against the Japanese.

In recent years I have written several books, viz:

I was called down to Canterbury Barracks during the last week of August 1939 where I have stayed since the outbreak of war during the first week in September. I had to leave the Baileys very suddenly, and on his return Mr Murray wrote:

"I fully realise that there was nothing you could do when you were called up last week. You were probably just as surprised as I was when I got back and found you gone. However, this is no time to get worried about that sort of thing.

"I am going to suggest that we call this sudden interpolation of the hand of fate as the culmination of the job, as from all standpoints it is best for us to allow new things to take place as obviously they are doing. I am setting about getting a new secretary straight away and in the meantime I am being helped out by Marcia Ford, who has come down here for that purpose.

"I hope the future holds much for you in every way. Somehow I feel that it does, and I am confident that you will find just what you want in London. I am most grateful to you for the way in which you have always done your job here and for the manner in which you adapted yourself to the work which is quite exacting. My good wishes are with you always and please let me know when and where I can be of assistance in the matter of your future work."

* * * * *

Letter from Daddy: Last Week in August, 1939 Tonbridge

The French children returned yesterday. The boats, running in duplicate, were crowded with French folk returning. They all seemed happy enough. For how long?

* * * * *

25th August, 1939

This afternoon we had a foretaste of what we shall be doing if we do have a war. We were put to work at trestle tables in a long Nissen hut. At each end are funny coke stoves where in winter those nearby roast while everyone else freezes. From each side window we gazed over parade grounds where pale and weedy young men were being drilled by a merciless sergeant major.

I was allotted a table half-way down the hut on which was a machine which I thought must be one of the original Olivettis for it had a disconcerting way of raising its metal levers vertically, pausing for a moment and then dropping them down suddenly to strike the paper underneath. A refractory old monster who was my enemy.

* * * * *

Letters home: 25th August, 1939 Canterbury

Dear Mum,

Here is the address, if you can read my writing with this frightful pen from Messrs. Woolworth.

We have just had an afternoon in the Pay Office and been shown our digs. This seems very clean and the woman is a homely sort of person with a husband who is sand-bagging the Canterbury water works and two children who are helping her move a bed upstairs.

I only have breakfast here apparently and lunch at the Naafi, and supper out in Canterbury.

30th August, 1939 Canterbury

Dear Mum and Daddy,

Thanks very much for the letters, clothes and bathing suit. The order has been revised because Mrs. Bates protested that never changing our uniform was most unhygienic, so we may now become normal people after 4.30 p.m.

I haven't written before because I thought you would be coming over. Still it was lucky you didn't as we had to work late the day you would have come. We have an awfully full day which begins with Mrs. Stokes outside the door saying "Miss Watts — it's quarter to seven". I have to crawl out of bed and polish my buttons, which takes a good 15 minutes. After that comes the awful morning wash and struggle with uniform. Then breakfast, trying not to listen to Mrs. S. who is most talkative, and evading the enthusiasm of her daughter, aged eight. I then collect various people at the end of the road and walk five minutes to the Barrack gates. Once inside of course the army closes in. It is simply vast — I can't imagine how many square miles there must be. And it all looks alike — immense parade grounds with three sides of low red-brick buildings, and soldiers everywhere — either in twos and threes or in squads, being put through it by the RSM. The awful problem is who to salute, and how to avoid the fearful breach of etiquette which occurs when one smartly salutes a corporal and ignores the colonel.

Everyone, I must say, is kindness itself and apart from the inevitable grumbles I think we are all rather enjoying ourselves. Certainly one is much further from the "war" here than anywhere else. No-one thinks anything will come of it, although we talk of the general mobilisation and the extra work in the pay office if it should happen. No-one is in the least perturbed and it's all treated as rather a joke on Germany, although a very necessary one. In Canterbury itself we are objects of interest, and one is occasionally stopped by civilians who ask what the latest news is, feeling that because we wear khaki we therefore "know". However, we don't. Yes, we get žd [a farthing] a day and billets paid, but Mrs. B. is agitating and signing petitions so that we may get more, only this is not general knowledge and must be kept dark. I imagine we should automatically become section leaders in the event of hostilities. The first few days we were swept round from section to section and instructed in this and that by the tommies, which I must say was a joke, and the number of minor flirtations which must be nipped in the bud, so to speak, is perfectly astonishing. I must say, we are decidedly the youngest and best looking of the three ATS Companies here. Besides us, there are General Duties and Cooks. Now, however, we are allotted to sections, and I, to my bewilderment and indignation, am doing book-keeping. Vast balance sheets are spread out before me, and I spend the day totting up — as I believe it's called — impossible figures such as Ģ119.17.3ū plus Ģ237.6.5― etc. etc. Quite appalling, but there seems to be no hope of doing anything about it. As we shall apparently be here 3 weeks in any case, life during the day seems quite fearful. I expect by the end of it I shall be able to whiz through 6 columns in 5 seconds and get correct balances whenever they appear — at the moment, though, it's somewhat of a labour.

I have been on the river one evening and to see the Cossack Riders and out to a nice old pub on the river at Fordwych. Tonight I have to buy some toothpaste and shall have to depart to meet someone in half a minute as it's 6 o'clock.

Kay has written and apparently it's all right, and Uncle Alan is back. Mrs. Bailey is having some brown paper put round all the windows and getting worried about Gordon. They are getting in someone to do the work. Very likely I shan't go back there after being here, though it depends on how long we stay. No-one seems to know yet.

Today we had a medical exam and were pronounced sound in wind and limb. According to the doctor I am in excellent condition and have a good sound heart. So that's OK.

* * * * *

In August 1941 the ATS Training Company at Tilehurst near Reading was closed down and the NCOs, of whom I was one, were transferred to Queen's Regiment Barracks near Guildford as the Regiment had left to fight in North Africa.

Tuesday 19th August, 1941

This morning was commissioned by the RSM to meet a sergeant friend of hers at St. Pancras. Set off just before eleven and met Sgt. Bowerman with all Plummer's luggage which we took by taxi and left in Waterloo cloakroom. Walked back over Waterloo Bridge and along the river. London looked and felt almost pre-war, with white buildings, blue sky and the river dancing and sparkling. We were both delighted to be there again, like coming home after a fantastic journey. In spite of blitzes London always seems so sane. Had a 4/6d lunch at "The Curb" of mushrooms, tomatoes, chips, real fruit salad and coffee. I don't consider The Curb a "low dive" at all, and they're pretty hot on good behaviour. Came back in the afternoon in time for tea and after that Edwards arrived looking very distinguished with her hair cut short and beautifully dressed. Am immensely attracted to her partly because of her appearance and partly because she is sympathetic. Discussed the novel with her which she does like and thinks good, though the first part is too long winded. She suggests cutting it down and sending it to a magazine, and when I protested, said, well send it to someone who really knows something about it. We talked for hours after lights out about the total cultural eclipse which one suffers in the army and which she, of course, hates. Were joined today by Corporal Joseph, send down from Craigmillar. They failed 50 cadets out of 200 — 17%.

Wednesday 20th August, 1941

Had a medical at 9 a.m. so missed the RSM's 8.30 drill. Am still not quite sure whether I'm going to Craigmillar on the 25th or not, but apparently no confirmation has come through about it. Spent the morning with Edwards and Elphick in the barrack room and canteen, this afternoon asleep and the evening walking. At 1.30 we had an hour's drill — with the RSM — in which he took us through right and left turns, about turns, standing at ease, open order marching and slow march. He is very methodical and won't let any signs of slackness pass. In going about the camp we have to look as though we're getting to where we want to go in two minutes and aren't allowed to stroll anywhere.

It's no wonder that the Queen's Regiment is renowned for smartness and precision, no wonder either that their sergeant major should bitterly resent it when his Regiment set off to fight in North Africa, leaving him behind to drill women.

Eventually he called us to a halt, stood us "easy" and surveyed us with an unfriendly eye.

"Squad! Pay Attention! You are going to learn how to take drill. Corporal Watts! Atten-Shun! Ten paces forward, quick march!"

Galvanised by surprise and shock I marched and found myself standing beside him.

"About turn! Bring the squad to attention."

With quavering voice I did so. Facing me in this small segment of the enormous parade ground were three rows of khaki clad women, eight abreast: twenty-four minus one, which was the unhappy me. With brown flat-heeled shoes and brass buttons shining, service caps set firmly on their heads, hair the regulation length above their collars, they tried to look solemn.

"Now! Turn them about. March them fifty yards. Turn them about. March them back. Halt them where they are now. SHOUT or they'll never hear you."

He marched off himself a few yards away and stood at ease to watch me make a fool of myself.

At first while they were stationary all went well, but when they marched briskly away from me, trouble began. The command "About turn" had to be given on the correct foot or the squad would be thrown into confusion and I could not work out how to do it. Left-right, left-right — those legs, like pistons, continued to march away from me into the distance. An Army joke flashed into my mind of a similar situation when the squad was approaching the edge of a cliff and someone shouted, "Well, SAY something even if it's only GOODBYE!"

The squad by now was so far away that no-one could have heard me and I looked despairingly at the RSM. He came to attention and from a square hole in a red face emitted a mighty roar. The retreating squad turned smartly about and came marching back.

But this was even worse! Their left was my right and vice versa. The command "Halt!" had to be the other way round and on the correct foot and again it was impossible to get it right. I thought I would be knocked down, but when the squad was a few feet away the RSM came to the rescue and, with ignominy, I was allowed to withdraw.

After tea we had a short talk from Miss Plummer, saying that this Centre was going to be the show place and that the recruits and ourselves are "the show". The poor woman is nearly dead with all the organisation. The four of us went for a walk round the camp and over heather, through bogs and barbed wire, and ended up about three miles from the camp drinking shandy in a pub. During the walk I managed to sit down by myself and read a delightful letter from George.

* * * * *


Moscow: 20th August, 1941: The Red Army, pursuing its scorched earth policy, has blown up one of the great achievements of the Soviet Union, the Lenin-Dnieproges dam at Zaoarihe on the Dnieper - this will deprive the Germans of much of the riches of the Ukraine.

* * * * *

Thursday 21st August, 1941

An address by the Commandant, Senior Commander Wagstaff, who shook hands with each of us in turn and discussed any questions we had. She is young, with blue eyes and fair hair and a strong, alive face — very charming. The three of us went, after this, to HQ Company Office to see if there were any jobs and Elphick was made orderly sergeant for the day. Drill again with RSM until 12.30 after which I was quite exhausted. After that I went to see if I could get Abrahams to change my shoes and uniform, which she did, so now have a complete new skirt, tunic and shoes to go to OCTU with, if I do go

With much love, Evelyn.

P.S. What price the Second Front now?

* * * * *

At the end of May 1942 the Chief Instructor of the ATS Clerks' School in Strathpeffer, Scotland, told me that the Brigadier in charge of the North Highland District had telephoned to ask if she had a sergeant who could be transferred to act as his personal assistant. It would mean promotion to CQMS and was an opportunity not to be missed. So I moved to Inverness.


Germany: 26th June, 1942: The RAF's third 1,000 bomber raid caused widespread devastation in Bremen last night. A total of 48 aircraft out of 1,067 despatched failed to return.

Britain: 30th June, 1942: A campaign to save fuel in the home has been launched. It urges householders to turn off all unnecessary lights, use less bath water — five inches of bath water is suggested as a maximum — and stop taps dripping.


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