Meet an ATS Girl

Amy Rhodes, actor and live interpreter, talks us through the process of creating and delivering a interactive costumed presentation, “Meet an ATS Girl”, and introduces the fascinating role of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in the Second World War.

Since 2012 I have been engaged by Griffin Historical, on behalf of English Heritage, to deliver a talk, ‘Meet an ATS girl and learn about many of the important roles women played in the Second World War’. The talk is part of a programme in a performance tent at the World War Two weekend at Dover Castle. Armed only with an aircraft recognition poster, a set of model planes and my trusty ‘37 pattern uniform, I love the challenge of enticing people away from the life size spitfire and the living history encampments to learn about the early history of women in the military.


When I started researching the ATS (women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service) I was fascinated by the subject. The ATS was formed by Royal warrant in 1938, but its origins can be traced back to the middle of the First World War. The Women’s Legion was formed in 1915 to enable women to volunteer their time and cook for the Army. By 1916, and with heavy casualties on the Western front, the British Government acknowledged that women could take over certain non-combatant roles to enable more men to go and fight on the front line. In 1917 this voluntary service became the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) who received Royal Patronage in 1918 becoming Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC).

Some of the cooks of the WAAC

In 1939 there were only five jobs suitable for ATS recruits: cooks, orderlies, medics, clerical staff or drivers. But as the war went on more job opportunities opened up. I chose to concentrate on the role of women in the Anti-Aircraft (Ack Ack) mixed batteries on the Home Front who worked alongside the gunners of the Royal Artillery. General Sir Frederick Pile of AA Command suggested that women be allowed to fill in the manpower gaps by undertaking all duties on the battery, with the exception of heavy manual labour and the actual firing of the Anti-Aircraft guns.

“With the talk beginning to take shape I had to consider how I could include the public. The talk was publicised as a ‘learning’ experience, and was taking place in a performance tent, so how could I make it interesting and engaging for all ages?”

 I settled on the idea of getting the public to have a go at aircraft recognition using the public warning poster. I prefaced the task by explaining about the importance of swiftly identifying any approaching aircraft. Then I issued the children with binoculars, and using either model planes or original playing cards – used for training by the ATS – I would endeavour to engage the public and provoke some audience participation. I asked them to think about the four key aspects of aircraft recognition: WEFT (Wings, Engine configuration, Fuselage Shape and Tail type). The response to this activity is always positive, with everyone having a chance to join in and be included without feeling coerced.

On to the next challenge! How to present this topic when there are many people, both men and women, whose military service during WWII, either as a volunteer or through conscription, is in living memory?

For the first couple of years I presented the talk in character as Private Whitfield, an ATS aircraft spotter and telephonist, but I found that being in first person made it confusing – people were believing I really was in the army! So this year, 2016, I decided to present the talk as myself – in uniform  – which instantly solved the problem of misleading the public. I amended all of my seemingly personal experiences, borrowed from accounts written by members of the ATS, such as Vee Robinson, author of ‘Sisters in Arms’, who recalled having to soak her badly blistered feet after her first day of square bashing with the drill instructor, to general observations and experiences of the ATS.  The result this year was that I only received one question about whether I had served in the military – prompted by a uniform faux pas.

In ATS uniform at Dover Castle

“These women were creating opportunities of higher wages, skilled employment and better education.”

The feedback I generally receive from the public is varied, from ex-servicemen having an opinion on working alongside women, to people who had mothers who served in the ATS. However, many people did not realise that women featured so prominently in the Second World War. Or that by 1945 the jobs available to the ATS had swelled from 5 to 100 – not only serving at home but also overseas in Europe, North Africa and the West Indies. These women were creating opportunities of higher wages, skilled employment and better education. They moved away from the domestic roles of their mothers and carved a brighter future for the women of Britain.

The ATS memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum

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