The life of an ATS ‘Ack Ack’ Girl

A member of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) serving with a 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun battery, December 1942.

A member of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) serving with a 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun battery, December 1942.

An ATS spotter with binoculars at the anti-aircraft command post. A 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun can be seen in the background.

An ATS spotter with binoculars at the anti-aircraft command post. A 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun can be seen in the background.

ATS girls operating the height and range finder.

ATS girls operating the height and range finder.

ATS girls using an identification telescope.

ATS girls using an identification telescope.

Some time during December 1942 the War Office photographers were out with their colour film again. Given the difficulty of their subject matter, including gunfire, they made a pretty impressive job of it.

From 1941 all unmarried women between 20 and 30 years old were called up to join one of the auxiliary services. These were the Auxilliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women’s Transport Service. Later this conscription was extended to some married women. They were not intended to serve in the front line of battle – but for much of the war the front line was indistinguishable from the home front, especially with regard to Anti Aircraft gunnery. 731 women died serving in these Auxilliary units during the war.

Mary Latham was just one of hundreds of thousands of young women who suddenly found their lives completely transformed:

The year was 1942. I was a hairdresser in Chorley, Lancashire. As hairdressing was considered to be a luxury trade in wartime and I was 18 years old, I was given the choice of munitions work or joining one of the forces.

My friend May and I travelled to Preston to sign up in the forces and received the King’s Shilling. Two weeks later we were notified to go to Lancaster. We were met at Preston station by a sergeant, taken to Lancaster and fitted out with our uniforms.

How different my life changed in the next 4 years. We moved from Lancaster to Arborfield, where we did 6 weeks of intensive training all at the double. Each one was assessed for:
* Fitness
* Hearing
* Eyesight
* Nerves (in Ack-Ack action)
It was necessary to pass all the tests.

A battery of 4.5 inch anti-aircraft guns in action at night. In the foreground is an ATS section operating the height finder.

A battery of 4.5 inch anti-aircraft guns in action at night. In the foreground is an ATS section operating the height finder.

Fortunately I passed as a Predictor operator No.3 – which involved looking through a telescope, keeping the target on the horizon line. This demanded steady nerves under gunfire and we needed a lot of practice. At the end of the day, we were mentally and physically exhausted. We lost our voices as all orders were shouted as loudly as possible.

The Predictor team of ATS girls at work.

The Predictor team of ATS girls at work.

The procedure was as follows:

The predictor (Kerry – called after its inventor) [Major A.V. Kerrison at the Admiralty Research Laboratory, Teddington] passed the information we put in on to the guns (3.7) then the gunners fired the shells. We worked in 2 groups – A and B. I was in B group – 5 on the predictor, 3 on height-finding.

Plotters were on duty for 24 hours underground. The plotting room was always ready for any aircraft flying overhead.

Auxiliary Territorial Service plotters at work at 428 Battery, Coast Defence Artillery. The plotting table is covered and a false coastline has been drawn on the cover by the photographer to allow the censor to pass this photograph. Dover, December 1942. (This comes from a different photographic sequence - this was not AA but coastal defence).

Auxiliary Territorial Service plotters at work at 428 Battery, Coast Defence Artillery. The plotting table is covered and a false coastline has been drawn on the cover by the photographer to allow the censor to pass this photograph. Dover, December 1942. (This comes from a different photographic sequence – this was not AA but coastal defence).

We were well looked after with health inoculations every 3 months, regular dental care, F.F.I. (Free From Infection) each Friday.

We (14 girls in each hut) were confined to our billets on Friday nights. We had to clean all our equipment, even to the studs on the bottom of our boots.

After 6 weeks practice in Arborfield, we were sent to Bude in Cornwall. This was our first Gun-Site this was not operational, but it gave us a taste of what was to come.

The only description of the gunfire (4 guns firing in a semi-circle with the predictor 20 yards away) was like hell let loose. However, we got used to it.

Our battery was moved to 36 different sites along the East and South coasts of England.

During our time in Hull we shot down one of our own aircraft (a Wellington). The crew gave us the wrong signal. Fortunately they landed safely – just the tail missing. We were commended for our accurate firing but the crew were not impressed. Hull was badly hit at the time.

At Caister, near Yarmouth, 25 A.T.S.s were killed by machine-gun fire. The enemy aircraft flew over in the early morning at sunrise, when it was impossible to see them and peppered the coast with gun-fire. It was a frightening sight to see Focke Wulfs diving down while we tried to pay our respects, standing to attention during the playing of the Last Post, to those who had been killed.

Read more of Mary Latham’s story on BBC People’s War. See also the experiences of Phyllis as an ATS girl on Ack Ack, and Frank Yates on operating an Anti Aircraft gun.

A battery of 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns firing at night.

A battery of 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns firing at night.

ATS girls working the Kine-Theodolite which photographs the shell burst, thereby checking the results of the Predictor crews.

ATS girls working the Kine-Theodolite which photographs the shell burst, thereby checking the results of the Predictor crews.

ATS Kine-Theodolite operators viewing the developed film taken by the Kine-Theodolite.

ATS Kine-Theodolite operators viewing the developed film taken by the Kine-Theodolite.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Maud Lane August 22, 2014 at 4:53 am

Thank you for such wonderful photos, I have searched a long time to find a photo of the Barr & Stroud No 10 Height and Range Finder on which I served in 350 HAA Battery in New Eltham, South London. I wanted it to put in my story for my family.
It is so interesting reading the comments and when you come to think of it, the ATS did such a wonderful Job. I am proud to have served with them.

Editor April 17, 2014 at 3:44 pm

See my FAQ about using photos, almost every photo on the website is freely available from Wikimedia Commons.

Kimberly April 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Hello,

Lovely photo’s, where did you find them?

Kimberly

Lin Treadgold March 19, 2014 at 1:00 pm

I am an author looking for any information on ATS women in 1940 in Aberystwyth. Mum passed away before I could ask her more about her time, they never talked much about it. My mother was stationed there having moved from Catterick Camp. I am writing a romance novel and have some wonderful letters from my father to his mother when he joined up and eventually became a POW.

I am also interested in the concert parties that may have taken place. Mum was into acting and dancing and she did a lot of performing during her time in Wales with the ATS. Any information for the novel would be useful.
Thanks

claire January 30, 2014 at 9:36 am

We have a photo of my grandmother Caroline Davidson in what appears to be an ATS ack-ack uniform and badge. We hope to find out more information about her and her life during 1944-45. We are also trying to gain some information as to who she may have been friends with male and female during that time. If anyone can help we would be ever so grateful. We have a photo of her in uniform if anyone thinks they might know her.
Thankyou, Claire

Philip OHearn January 30, 2014 at 5:34 am

My mother was in the ATS during the battle of britain and during the buzz bomb period. I have no information on units or anything at all. She married a canadian soldier who was also on the ack ack guns before shipping out to invade sicily with the canadian army. My mothers maiden name was Mary Mckenna and she was from Glasgow. If anyone might be able to help me find out her history in the ATS or perhaps if they can even remember her, then i would be most appreciative.
Sincerly…. Philip O’Hearn

Janet Borgen November 3, 2013 at 7:04 pm

My Mum served in the ATS Auxilary Unit in England from 1940 – 1945….I have a picture of her and the other girls in her unit. Is there anyway that I can find out who the ladies are in the photo.? Mum will be 93 the end of this month….thx Jan

Andrew Wright October 2, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Carol & Peter,
My mother and her sister served with 478 Battery Royal Artillery B Troop Heavy Anti Aircraft. Mother served in Lound nr Lowestoft and Hastings also spent time in Wrexham and Nottingham.My Aunt married one of the men from there Battery who is still with us and one other lady from there Battery. I am also very interested in there history.

Carol Price September 21, 2013 at 2:27 pm

My mother was in the ATS and spent time in Essex and at some point in London (doodlebug Alley). She spent time in a predictor team sending info to the gunners and also did special training before working on radar although I have no idea of her actual role. Her name: Elsie Dorothy Whitwick, if there is any info out there I would appreciate hearing about it.

Editor March 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Peter

Thanks for getting in touch. I am afraid I am not much of an expert in that area, I have really concentrated on finding official photographs which are now out of copyright. However somebody else out there may well be able to help.

Do get in touch if you can. Is anyone putting old copies of Picture Post online?

Martin

Peter Curry March 16, 2013 at 7:13 pm

I wonder if you could help me. My mother was with the A.T.S. during ww2 and operated on the height and range finder, her group appeared on the cover of Picture Post and I can’t find the picture anywhere. I am hoping you could tell me were I might be able to find either the magazine or a picture of her. Thank you for your time

Mary January 6, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Incredible pictures. Thank you for posting these.

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