Newspaper articles appeared regularly emphasising the crucial importance of the work women undertook in the Ordnance Depots, to say nothing of Royal Ordnance Factories, manufacturing companies and indeed just about every walk of life.
On 15 June 1942, The Yorkshire Evening Post reported on the role of the ATS at Chilwell which had the largest such unit in the country. The Chief of the ATS stressed that ‘it has never been the the aim of the ATS to turn girls into mere weak imitations of men. Girls are individualists and throughout the organisation there must be the individualistic touch.’ The article highlighted the range of tasks undertaken: machine shop, drawing offices, stores and, of course, the 14 cookhouses that keep the depot operating 24 hours a day. ‘More specifically women undertake the Articisation of tanks bound for Russia and the Desertisation of those bound for Africa and the East. To counter the effects of condensation in tanks being delivered to hot climates, a ball of lime is suspended inside. All parts are ‘sozzled’ with oil and grease.’ Not surprisingly the article finds ATS who in their former lives were in the public eye such as the first woman to cross the desert on a motor cycle and who later competed against men in Army trials. No wonder men were scarred.
A similar theme emerges from The Sunday Times on 1 November 1942 of a visit to ‘Woolwich-in-the-country’ described as being in the north but more probably Donnington in Shropshire. The special correspondent tells how, ‘in that radiant summer of 1940 when the sunshine seemed to mock our anxieties as France tottered to capitulation’, he visited a ‘new Woolwich buried in the countryside many miles from London.’ He marvelled at the size of the place but also the many innovations that had been introduced adding that, ‘the American authorities were so impressed by ‘Woolwich-in-the-country’ that they sent an ordnance expert across by bomber to study its methods.’ In relation to women he wrote:
'There are girls wherever you turn and most of them are in the ATS…in one of the huts in the training section a slim 18 year old ATS corporal was lecturing officers, soldiers and ATS on the identification of wireless components…later in the instrument repair shop a good looking young woman with sergeants stripes pinned on her overalls paused for a moment from measuring thousandths of an inch to talk rather diffidently about her civilian studies at five British and foreign universities and to admit that she was a BSc Edin (First Class Hons)…in terms of facilities he saw the hall with a loan collection from the National Gallery on show.'
The work of the ATS prompted an exchange that paints a contrasting picture of the time.
Early in the war, Dame Helen Gwynne Vaughan was the officer commanding the ATS at the War Office. Betty Perks’ diary tells that she was a ‘real old battle-axe’ with many pre-conceived ideas about women and their role in the services. Many of the younger ATS at Chilwell pleaded to be allowed to wear trousers whilst driving army vehicles, firstly because they were warmest and secondly because it was very difficult to sit in an army vehicle in a tight skirt without showing ‘everything’! Dame Helen wouldn't hear of it - she was horrified that her young ladies would even suggest such thing. A cartoon of a ATS girl climbing into a lorry revealing frilly knickers changed her mind.
The idea of joining the ATS and working with the RAOC was not always attractive at first sight. Margaret Sherman, for one, was not at first inspired:
'We were given our posting instructions and gathered round with excitement. A lot of us had hopefully asked for London District or South Eastern Command. Would we get it? Mary and I heard with a good deal of dismay that we were going to a Central Ordnance Depot somewhere in Northern England.
Perhaps it won’t be for longer than the initial three months,” Mary said comfortingly. “Ordnance, who’d want that?” I said with the nightmare vision of millions of issue and receipt vouchers. I didn’t know then that the only thing I’d hate about Ordnance would be leaving it.'
The ATS did change lives. Gwendoline Walker joined up in 1942 and after initial training had to sit an intelligence test. She was summoned by the senior ATS officer at COD Derby and asked what job she wanted to do. She replied that she had thought of becoming a cook. Her grandparents had been in service and this was the life she had expected to lead. She had left her job in a shop and without telling her parents had ‘escaped’ to join up. She remembered the shock at the officer telling her that she had a high IQ and could do anything she wanted. She had no idea what an IQ was, but suggested that she might work in stores. She went from Derby to Greenford and was a very effective store-woman before moving toward clerical work and accounting after the war. ‘The ATS was where I found myself.’