As Features Editor of British Vogue 1937-45 during the Second World War, Lesley Blanch was on the front line of women journalists covering a wide range of topics with the aim of raising the morale of women. Ack-Ack A.T.S. & others is the second of three special features written by Lesley Blanch documenting the lives of women in the forces, originally accompanied by the photos of her friend the photographer Lee Miller.
The scene is a wild stretch of coast. There are mountains inland, glimpsed nebulously through the icy, blanketing mists which lie low over the ragged, sodden fields. The cold appals. The most leathery-looking sergeant shudders. I am huddled inside a wigwam of topcoats. Stamping and shuffling in their battledress, the A.T.S. are blowing on their hands, waiting for the command to take over the gunsites.
This is one of the big practice camps where the Mixed A.A. Batteries, or gun teams, receive their final training before being sent to man the many defence posts. On the edge of the cliffs stand the great guns. Low overhead a practice or target plane rolls, swoops and spins with show-off brilliance. In the lee of a little glass-walled lean to hut where some remotely, beautifully academic-looking kine-theodolite girls are at work recording and checking the gunfire, a group of gunnery officers argue a point of tactics. Their scarlet capbands are sharp against the prevailing khaki of place and personnel.
Down the hillside from the encampment of tin huts comes a mixed detachment, swinging along in the jaunty, pump-handle Army manner. They march well together, husky toughs, hobgoblin girls . . . all manner of faces, all manner of people. Here they come, man, woman and child — yes, that little tich-tot is hardly more. Animal, vegetable, mineral. Lusty faces, stolid faces, flint faces: pretty ones and plain. Mars and Venus. Caliban and the Ugly Sisters . . . A cross-section of Britain. Side by side, Amazons and Spartans go, identically dressed, in battledress, leather jerkins and tin hats. On operational work the A.T.S. now wear trousers, and it is interesting to learn that this has made them 100 per cent more slick and efficient. Which goes to prove once again how profound an effect clothes have upon women.
The men wear their tin hats rakishly, at the correctly protective forward tilt. One and all, the girls wear theirs on the back of their heads, with calculated charm. “The possibility of shrapnel appears to be unimportant beside an undisturbed coiffure,” said the adjutant, ironically. “No doubt you’ll be able to wear your ‘alos as you please, young ladies,” said the sergeant pontifically, “But them tin ‘ats is to be on straight. Eyes right!” he snapped. And everyone saluted smartly, did a right about turn and marched off, correctly extinguished by their metal mushrooms.
The great sleek guns rear up out of the concrete, manned by their gunners. A few yards away, the A.T.S. are at their post. There are three at the range-and height-finder, two at the telescopic identification instruments; four or five more grouped round the predictor. The plane is sighted, identified — the range-and-height-finder team pipe up with their verdict. The predictor team now come into play with their elaborate calculations of timing and fuses. More numbers are shrilled, (the women’s voices sounding oddly thin and childish in this moment), the sergeant, (once a publican), roars it on; it is caught up by the gunners. The guns nose higher, menacingly. The plane approaches . . . More calculations; a moment of rigid tension, violent suspense, and “Fire!” yells Pte. Rose Smith, her cry lost in the ear-boxing bark of gunfire.
And so it goes. Practice. Classes. Drill. P.T. More practice. More classes. This is an intensive period of training. A month is not long in which to perfect so new a job, though two days of watching and questioning were enough to convince me that I should prefer this work above all the many open to the A.T.S. Drivers would probably go for the open-road life of the transport girls.
Before visiting this Practice Camp, I was at one of the biggest Training Camps for the A.A. Mixed Batteries. Here the recruits come, raw from the depot, to learn the rudiments of their technical training, army drill and life, before going on to the Practice Camp. It is at this particular camp that Mary Churchill, the Prime Minister’s daughter, is training. Here the Mixed Batteries are formed, and learn to work and live side by side.
Here are instilled in them those principles of comradeship and co-operation so essential to good team work. I watched them drilling, three hundred or more at a time, wheeling and marching across the bleak, gritty expanses of the parade ground. The timing has had to be adjusted. Women recruits tend to pitter-patter too fast. Men lumber-lope too slow. But by making the women take longer, slower steps, and the men shorter, faster ones, a smooth and almost symbolic unity has been achieved.
I watched them at their classes, the scholastic atmosphere of blackboards and notebooks mitigated by a benign authority which permits smoking in class. Lining up the bombsites. Calculations of speed and angles of height . . . the chalky problems cover the blackboard. “Now we’ve got the scales aligned, and we know about the quadrant elevation, so we’re not worried, are we?” asked the bland-looking sergeant instructor, reassuringly, facing a sea of stunned-looking faces. I am told that most women go through these first weeks in a daze of difficulties and doubt that they will ever grasp the varied and strange intricacies. But it suddenly clarifies, (in the manner of car driving), leaving them confident and efficient.
In another hut there was a class for aircraft identification, with an apparently innocent nursery-fresco decor of puffy sky-blue clouds, dotted over with the various types of aircraft, and an elaborate arrangement of mirrors and projectors, to distort the silhouette and sharpen the eye. Within a month they learn to identify fifty types of aircraft, so whether it’s all done by mirrors or not, it’s thorough.
I have dealt at some length with the working aspects of the A.T.S. life in this specialised branch of the service, for more domestic details of their life in camp can be obtained from any Recruiting Centre. But in passing I should like to stress such aspects as the many extraneous lectures which are given on languages, literature, music, etc., all the dances and entertainments, as well as those unessential, yet valued concessions such as electric irons, hot-water bottles and elevenses which are a considered part of the regime.I cannot say, with my hand on my coupon card, which is I suppose, the new stance for oath-taking, that I thought the big barrack rooms anything but disagreeably communal. (Officers have their own rooms, which is one of the plums of promotion. N.C.O.s are two or four to a room.) No, to me, the proximity of thirty strange sleepers and all the daily ritual of kit inspection, with mug, fork, knife and spoon neatly mustered, and possessions stowed away in a kitbag, would be bound to irk, at first. But then war is no peach-fed, plushlined picnic, anyhow. (And the possible alternative of life in a slave labour camp as Polish women know it, does much more than irk.)
Meantime, food is good and plentiful, (“Ever so ‘eavy on the starch, the young ladies are. We ‘ad to increase their flour ration,” said the messing sergeant surprisingly), and there are boiling hot baths day and night, for the having. So, since in Cromwell’s words, which are plastered all over this camp, it’s no longer disputing, but out, instantly, all you can — or flat out, colloquially, this is perhaps no time or place to quibble over the luxury of cubicled privacy.
One thing is certain. The work of these batteries is a proven success. The women are doing their job magnificently. In some cases they are even ahead of the men, though this might seem to stress a rivalry which, actually, does not exist. It is one battery pitted against another, rather than a Thurberesque state of men versus women. In the words of the Colonel commanding one of these training camps, a man who is at once visionary and administrative, “The personal, or sex-equality angle is giving place to the comradeship of human beings, fighting side by side for the destruction of the common enemy.”
All the instructors and senior officers to whom I talked agreed, however, that you cannot apply precisely the same methods of discipline and instruction to men and women. Men are generally more docile, and not resentful of discipline. Women can be led, but never driven; and if their commonsense and curiosity is not satisfied, they will go on and on until they are; or contemptuously lose interest altogether. You cannot hurry them, or bully them, but you can trust them.
And this is where the need for really hand-picked A.T.S. officers arises. Not necessarily the school marm, or purely administrative type. Not necessarily the older, or married woman. I suspect some despots can cause a good deal of friction. But rather, the poised, experienced younger woman, who is well educated and a good mixer. Who has both a sense of humour and proportion, who can work well with men, who knows how to interpret one type of person to another. Who can differentiate between orders and views; who can see both sides of a question; who is broad minded as well as high minded; who knows when to be tactful, when to be tough; who has, in short, the graces as well as the guts.
And where, you may ask, is this paragon? She is everywhere. In cities and villages. In the bus; at the Ritz; on a bicycle; at the canteen; buying the groceries; trying on a hat. She is the many-sided yet typical English woman . . . you, me, them, us . . . The A.T.S. still need 100,000 more such women on A.A. operational duties alone. Deserved promotion comes through the ranks — and is swift. Well, what about it?
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