I Served in the ATS
Written By Ian Baylay
On October 13th 1944 I travelled to Pontefract Barracks to do my six-week's Initial Training in the Auxiliary Territorial Service.
We were housed in barrack rooms, which held twenty women. At one end of the room was a cubicle where the corporal in charge slept. The first week we were confined to barracks and vaccinated against smallpox, tetanus, cholera etc. Some of these shots caused fever so we remained under observation. During this week we were issued with the uniforms we were to wear for the next few years. The A.T.S., being a wing of the army, wore khaki clothing. We were a mixed bunch dressed in diverse civilian attire. I reported wearing a check shirt, a skirt, wool knee socks and lace up shoes. Some of the women wore high-heeled shoes and fashion dresses.
The stores had run out of suspender belts that month so those of us who arrived without one were given a length of elastic and told to make garters to hold up our khaki, lisle stockings. That was fine for those with firm fleshy legs and thighs, but with my long skinny shanks it led to disaster. The stockings refused to stay up. Though I was unlucky in this, I won out in other ways. I was so tall and slim that when it came to fitting me with a jacket the only one they could find to fit me was a beautiful fine worsted one, of a type issued to women officers back 1939. It was far superior to the utility type, rough, wool jackets, which were produced in wartime. We signed for each item and were warned that if we lost anything we would have to pay for it. As our pay was only ten bob a week, the thought of a debt was frightening.
We were given 3 pairs of artificial silk, khaki bloomers (knickers with elastic in the legs) 3 pairs of white cotton underpants. (we were expected to wear both pairs at once). 3 brassieres, which were more like breast binders. 3 pairs of khaki stockings made from lisle, 3 vests, 3 khaki shirts without collars, 6 collars, a wool pullover, 3 ties, a wool overcoat and khaki cap, 2 pairs of blue and white flannelette pyjamas, 3 white towels, a cotton bag, a comb and I think a face cloth. Two shoe brushes, a brass strip, used when cleaning buttons, and a housewife (pronounced hussiff) which was a white cotton wallet containing needles, thread, spare buttons etc for mending. Finally we received 1 military respirator (gas mask) and 2 badges.
We were expected to have our name and number marked on every item by the next day when everything was be inspected. My number was W 307782. We were taught how to barrack ( make it a special way) a bed, and were expected to do this every morning before leaving for breakfast. A sergeant and an officer inspected the barrack rooms every morning whilst we stood to attention at the bottom of our beds. If everything was not absolutely perfect we were told to do it again. The room received points for cleanliness and neatness, so anyone who shirked let down their mates. Barracking a bed was a hard task at first. First a grey wool blanket was folded length ways in four and placed across the head of the bed The other folded blankets were placed upon it with sheets sandwiched between. Then the first blanket was wrapped around this sandwich neatly. Pillows were placed on top. If a kit inspection was called for every item issued to us had to be placed upon the mattress in a specific order, so that the officer could tell at a glance if every thing was there. It took days to learn how to do this to the satisfaction of the corporal in charge of the room.
Each room had a strip of brown lino running down the middle. This was polished each day until you could see your face in it. The windows were washed and every surface dusted. Brass buttons were polished nightly until they shone like a tropical suns. Our shoes shone like mirrors. We spent hours every evening polishing shoes and buttons. In fact it became a mark of honour to have them polished to perfection. We covered our shoes with polish after first stripping off the original polish, then honed them with the handle of a tooth brush. Our aim was to have a beautiful brown hue, with a lighter yellow colour where our heels rubbed when we jumped to attention. We spent hours pressing our skirts to create a pleat at each the side. Once we were allowed out of barracks we discovered a Chinese laundry in Pontefract, where we could have our collars starched. They came back so stiff and hard that they that they rubbed a raw patch around our necks.
During the six weeks we learned to march. For hours each day we drilled on the barrack square. We learned to form threes with an equal distance between each person, to come to attention, to stand at ease, to march in step, and to turn as one, to the right or left or command. The leader was called the right marker and I was chosen for this task because I was the tallest. Alas I was so shy and self-conscious that I could never swing my arms correctly and this eventually lost me the role. One morning we were drilling under the command of the Regimental Sergeant Major, a man who instilled fear into all of us, when, to my horror, my stocking began to slide down my skinny leg. There was no way that I could reach down and pull it up. I had to keep marching. The stocking continued its downward glide until it wound itself around my ankle and beneath my shoe. The R.S.M. noticed and called the squad to halt, then to stand at ease. He then yelled, "Will that b----y soldier pull her socks up and let us get on with it!" No one dared laugh, but there were a lot of quivering shoulders as I pulled up my stocking up and adjusted the garter. Our male counterparts, who were standing watching the display, whistled and catcalled much to my embarrassment.
We attended lectures, on Army law and discipline, hygiene, I vividly remember being seated on the front row during a lecture on history of the A.T.S. when I fell asleep I was fortunate not to be put on a charge. The hours of marching and Physical Education wore us out. The hygiene lectures would be laughed at today. We were told we must bathe or shower once a week. We had to sign a book when we showered to proove that we really had. A weekly shampoo was also demanded. We were forbidden to go to bed wearing our daytime vest, it had to be left folded beside the bed as proof that we had obeyed. These rules were sensible as the girls came from diverse backgrounds, some homes from without baths. We were lectured on the perils of venereal disease and told to value our virginity.
We took various aptitude tests to determine just what our strengths were. Some were standard IQ tests, but others were to assess our mechanical or hearing skills. In one test we were given small models made from Meccano pieces. We had to dismantle and reassemble these in a given time. In another we donned earphones and listened to pips and beeps. I enjoyed them all.
Pay Parade, another ancient Army rite, was something new to us. We lined up in silence, marched forward as our names were called, came to attention, and saluted, before chanting our name, rank and number. The Paymaster issued the correct amount and we stepped to one side and signed for it. Then once more we came to attention, and saluted before turning and marching from the room. Afterwards we usually headed straight for the canteen to buy cups of tea, and sandwiches as well as shoe polish, Brasso, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, notepaper and envelopes, stamps etc. The ten shillings did not last long. When we were allowed out to go into Pontefract we discovered the Salvation Army canteen where there was always a fine welcome. For a penny we could buy a bun, or a jam sandwich dipped in batter and deep-fried. A cup of tea was a penny. If you were broke the lady would say 'never mind' and give you a cuppa and a biscuit free. The Sally officers who worked there never rammed religion down our throats. Occasionally one of them would ask "Have you written to Mum lately." If you said no he would provide paper, envelope and stamp free to encourage you to write home.
Towards the end of the basic training we were interviewed to determine what type of work we were suited for. I caused laugher when I asked to be sent to a Barrage Balloon site or an Ack Ack site (Anti Air Craft Gun Site). This was November 1944, our army was well established in Europe, and the bombing raids were almost finished, although at this time the Germans had begun to send rockets and doodle bugs (flying bombs). Most of gun and barrage balloon sites had been disbanded. However, the officer told me that I had shown aptitude in all the tests and asked was there any other unit I would like to join. Immediately I asked to be a driver and was selected to attend the Driving School at Camberley in Surrey.