Women's Auxiliary Services during the Second World War

Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) during her wartime service in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, 1945; Princess Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in February 1945 at the age of 19. She trained as a driver and mechanic, although she slept at home rather than in barracks with her fellow recruits. The princess reached the rank of Junior Commander. Mary Churchill, Winston Churchill's youngest daughter, was also a member of the ATS.

Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) during her wartime service in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, 1945

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Princess Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in February 1945 at the age of 19. She trained as a driver and mechanic, although she slept at home rather than in barracks with her fellow recruits. The princess reached the rank of Junior Commander. Mary Churchill, Winston Churchill's youngest daughter, was also a member of the ATS.

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Women were conscripted in December 1941. They were given a choice of working in industry or joining one of the auxiliary services – the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women's Royal Naval Service (...

Women were conscripted in December 1941. They were given a choice of working in industry or joining one of the auxiliary services – the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

The ATS was formed in 1938. Initially, the only jobs available were cooks, clerks, orderlies, store women or drivers. But eventually there were over a hundred different roles in the ATS, including serving in anti-aircraft batteries. This expansion allowed more men to be released for front line service. More than 250,000 women served in the ATS during the Second World War, making it the largest of the women's services.

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force was founded in June 1939 to free up RAF personnel for front line duties. By 1943, the WAAF had 182,000 members. WAAFs undertook a variety of roles, including compiling weather reports, maintaining aircraft, serving on airfields and working in intelligence.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was reformed in April 1939. Women were recruited for shore-based jobs to release men for service at sea. By 1943, there were 74,000 WRNS (or 'Wrens') serving in the UK and overseas. Wrens played a major part in the planning and organisation of naval operations. From 1941, Wrens served at Bletchley Park operating machines used in code-breaking.

Women also volunteered for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) or served in Civil Defence, the National Fire Service, Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) or in military nursing.

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  • The NAAFI in a mixed Ack-Ack Battery

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    The NAAFI in a mixed Ack-Ack Battery; The NAAFI in a mixed Ack-Ack Battery, 1941, by Anthony Gross. The first mixed anti-aircraft battery, where men and women served together, was formed in 1941. The work in these batteries was highly regimented and generally organised on a four-day rota, although there would be some time allowed for recreation. This drawing by Anthony Gross shows servicemen and Auxiliary Territorial Service women taking part in a table tennis match at a Navy, Army, Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) canteen.
  • Jamaica's first Auxiliary Territorial Service unit, 1944

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    Jamaica's first Auxiliary Territorial Service unit, 1944; Women from Commonwealth countries also served in the auxiliary forces. Four Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) non-commissioned officers were sent to the West Indies to raise companies of local women to serve with British troops on the islands. Thirty West Indian women also served with the ATS in Britain.
  • Join the ATS, 1941

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    Join the ATS, 1941; In 1941 Abram Games was commissioned to design recruiting posters for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) to help shed its dowdy image. This first poster was withdrawn from circulation as it was thought that the 'blonde bombshell' image might make the ATS seem immoral. The second poster was also withdrawn as it was considered too 'Soviet' in style. The final poster, issued in 1944, featured a middle-class, respectable-looking woman.
  • Motorcycle messenger at the ATS training centre

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    Motorcycle messenger at the ATS training centre; Motorcycle messenger at the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) training centre, Camberley, 1941. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was founded in 1907 and was the first women's voluntary corps established in Britain. When the Second World War broke out the FANY formed the nucleus of the Motor Driver Companies of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Both of the ATS women in this photograph are wearing the FANY 'flash' above their corporal's chevrons indicating that they were former members of the FANY.
  • Private Papers of Miss J D M Pearson GC

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    Private Papers of Miss J D M Pearson GC; Daphne Pearson, a corporal in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), rescued a pilot from his crashed aircraft at RAF Detling on 31 May 1940. She describes the incident in this letter to her mother, dated May 1940. The director of the WAAF also wrote to Corporal Pearson's mother praising her daughter's bravery. Corporal Pearson was later awarded the George Cross for her bravery. She was the first woman to receive this award.
  • Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force

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    Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force; Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) wait to be demobilised at RAF Wythall, 1945. Age and length of service determined the order in which servicewomen were demobilised. They received four weeks' pay and clothing coupons in exchange for their uniform. Many women feared that technical skills they had learnt in the forces would not be useful for civilian jobs. Women were encouraged to go to university or to retrain for another occupation, although there was also pressure on women to return to domesticity as wives and mothers.
  • Bloodstained briefcase carried by Yvonne Cormeau

    Bloodstained briefcase carried by Yvonne Cormeau; Bloodstained briefcase carried by Yvonne Cormeau, a wireless operator with Special Operations Executive (SOE), 1944. Yvonne Cormeau was recruited by SOE while serving with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She was carrying this briefcase when she was shot in the leg while evading arrest. Most of the female agents sent to France were given membership of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. Though a uniformed service, its members had civilian status and could carry arms, which was forbidden to members of the women's forces.
  • WRNS at Southsea

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    WRNS at Southsea; WRNS at Southsea, 1940, by Edward Ardizzone. Some women relished the freedom and new opportunities offered by the auxiliary services, but others found that their experiences were less positive. Many young women living away from home for the first time struggled with homesickness or found it difficult to adjust to the monotony and restrictions of service life. Accommodation and food were often poor quality, and women in the services were paid on average only two-thirds of the wages of their male counterparts.
  • Patricia Turner WRNS

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    Patricia Turner WRNS; Patricia Turner WRNS, 1942, by William Dring. Women serving in the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) were not allowed on warships, although some Wrens served as Boats Crew. These Wrens delivered supplies and signals, and ferried officers to and from their ships. Patricia Turner served as a Boats Crew Wren during her wartime service in the WRNS. She became the first female coxswain of a Naval Harbour Launch and was the first woman to receive a fee for piloting naval ships.