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ATS and WAAF in World War II

by Esther Herlitz

The Yishuv regarded the war against Nazi Germany (World War II) as its war. At the behest of the Jewish Agency thirty thousand men volunteered for the British Army between 1939 and 1946. Only when the Council of Women’s Organizations called for the recruitment of women as well, was an agreement reached with the British authorities to enlist women into the forces. The first to join, on January 25, 1942, were a small group of sixty women to be trained as officers and N.C.O.s for the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). Women for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) were drafted only on May 25, 1943. The call was for women between twenty and forty-five years of age. Altogether 4,350 Palestinian women volunteers joined the British Armed Forces “for the duration of emergency.” Most were discharged in 1946.

The subject of women serving in the British army was at first controversial in the Yishuv. Questions were raised about the moral issue as well as with regard to the appropriateness of leaving the country at a time at which the German General Erwin Rommel was advancing on Egypt. Considerable effort was invested in a large scale recruitment drive, which turned out to be successful.

Women of all walks of life and age groups, married and single, joined up. In some cases, both husband and wife joined. Some were illiterate and some were highly educated. A great many were recent young immigrants, mostly Youth Aliyah graduates who had no permanent homes in the country.

Basic training of a month took place in the central British military base at Sarafand in Palestine. The women were posted to sixteen ATS units in Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Toward the end of the war a number of ATS were sent to Italy and Austria. ATS camps were separate companies under women officers. The top echelon was entirely British; only two companies were fully under “Palestinian” command. The women’s army identification numbers ran as W/Pal and they wore the insignia “Palestine” on their sleeves.

Uniforms of the ATS were all khaki, from underwear to stockings, shirts, battle dress and skirts. Only the drivers wore trousers. The heavy material did not suit the Middle East climate. The blue WAAF uniforms were the envy of all, as were those of the United States and South African women contingents.

The ATS were employed in a great number of tasks. They did not carry arms, but worked in arms and ammunition depots and repaired various kinds of arms. The HAGANAH was keenly interested in these jobs since they provided vital training for later use by the Yishuv. Most of the women were storekeepers in the vast Army Ordinance Depots spread all over the Middle East. Many were drivers of heavy trucks, buses, staff cars and ambulances. They drove convoys into the Western Desert, often under aerial bombardment, as well as from Egypt through the Sinai Desert to Haifa port. Some were nursing orderlies (none were nurses), some were clerks and switchboard operators, some folded parachutes, some coded and decoded cables, some operated radar stations. The WAAF also worked in aerial photography, metereological services, spare parts, plotting, and in the operation rooms.

The ATS and WAAF officers and Other Ranks tried very hard to maintain a Jewish and Zionist atmosphere in their camps. First and foremost, they insisted on the use of Hebrew and the translation of orders and instructions into Hebrew. Attempts were made to celebrate Friday nights and Jewish holidays together with male units such as the Jewish Brigade and with Jewish soldiers from around the world. When it became possible, they undertook to extend help to Holocaust survivors, sending clothes and other gifts. Those who served in Europe helped in the Displaced Persons camps and the camp schools, and with the illegal immigration to Palestine.

It must be said that throughout their service most of the women served two masters, the British monarch and the Jewish authorities of the Yishuv. They smuggled arms and threatened to quit the armed forces when the British carried out massive searches and arrests in Palestine. The contacts the women established with Jewish communities were of great importance. In Egypt, the Jewish community ran clubs for Jewish soldiers from all over the world. The women’s organizations opened and maintained hostels for the enlisted women in Egypt, as well as children’s homes for the children of the enlisted mothers in Palestine.

Altogether, the service in the army, though not always easy and often far away from home, was a valuable experience for most of the women . Many learned a trade, most learned the English language. They experienced the “big world,” meeting women from all walks of life and people of other nationalities. On return home after four or five years of service they were helped to readjust to civilian life; a considerable number benefitted from the British Government’s program of assistance with interrupted studies.

The experience of service in the British army was ultimately of great importance in the establishment of the ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES (IDF) and the Women’s Corps (“CHEN,” Heb. lit. “charm,” acronym for Hel Nashim). The first five commanding officers of the Chen had all been officers in the ATS. Most of the ATS and WAAF officers were called up for active duty in the IDF as soon as the War of Independence broke out.

A large number of lasting friendships were formed during the army service. An ongoing relationship with the young women of the Hen is maintained to the present day.

A lavishly illustrated book entitled We Volunteered for the British Army: Jewish Women from Palestine in World War II was published (in Hebrew) in 2005.

Bibliography

Bachi, Ruth. The Josephine File (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1994.

Cohen, Zivia. ed. We Volunteered for the British Army: Jewish Women from Palestine in World War II (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 2005.

Habas, Bracha. Women of Valour: The Story of Palestine ATS (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1964.

Website – www.veterans.org.il

10 Comments

My mother whose name was Tatiana Waldenberg say she was with the ATS attached to the Brish Army in Palestine WW2.She married my father who was with the New Zealand army Norman(Mack)Nash.She left for NZ in 1945.I am trying to find out any information that may assist us.

 

 

My mother Tatiana Waldenberg was attached to the ATS British A m in Palestine in tWW2 She marries my father Norman Mackenzie (Mack)Nash who was with the New Zealand Army in 1944She left for NZ by carrier ship

My mother, Meira Beres from Tel Aviv, served with the WAAF in Egypt. I am currently translating Anat Granit-Hacohen's excellent book: ÌÑåÌщã¢ÌÑå©Ìщ۝ ÌÑå¢ÌщÛ÷ÌÑå¬Ìщã¢Ìщã¢Ìщ۝ ÌÑåÌÑÒ Ìщ۝ÌщÛÏÌщ۪ÌсÒ-ÌÑåÊÌÑå©ÌщۢÌÑå» Ìщ۝Ìщã¢ÌÑå©ÌщۢÌщÛ÷ ÌщÛ÷ÌÑå©Ìщã¢ÌÑå¬ÌщۢÌÑå» Ìщ۝ÌщۼÌщۢÌщÛÓÌщۢÌÑå» Ìщ۝ÌщÛ÷ÌÑå¬Ìщã¢ÌÑèÏÌщã¢Ìщã¢ÌÑå ÌщÛ÷Ìс_ÌсÒÌщÛÓÌс_ÌÑå» Ìщ۝ÌÑå¢ÌщۢÌсÒÌÑå Ìщ۝ÌÑå©ÌÑåÊÌщã¢Ìщã¢Ìщ۝ The book will be published by Vallentine Mitchell under the English title: Hebrew Women Join (the) Forces

My husbands grandmother served in the ATS in Palestine and Cairo, her name was Elinor Kellner (birth name) though her name could have been Stern whilst in the ATS. She had a son whilst in Palestine called Michael and later went onto Kenya (Tangineyka) Does anyone remember Elinor at all, if so I would love to hear from you :) sadly Elinor passed in 1996 and we have no information left of her time in the ATS (she was an Austrian born and Jewish)

My mother also proudly served in the ATS of the British Army. I am lucky I've heard many tales, seen photos and memorabilia - many - from her and my father, who served in the American Army Air Corps. They were both stationed around Cairo, Egypt, and there they married in 1946. Both of my parents are still alive, mother 93, and dad 92. Time is ticking and I'm trying to learn, hear the stories, the names and all and get it all written down before it'll be too late.

My mother was stationed at Tel El Kabir. She grew up in Palestine, now Israel, and drove tanks and trucks and everything else in between. I would love to locate anyone who was with her or knew her or hear from anyone knowing anything about these soldiers.

My mother Shari Sarah Schmidt served as an ambulance driver in Egypt and Palestine with the ATS. She had come over from Germany in 1936 on one of the last transports of young people. She died in 2001, and my father in 2005, so we do not have many details to add to this request for information. She certainly had a great many stories to tell from her ATS days and left the army with rank of corporal and 'first class mechanic'. My father was beginning to research the background to her unit before he died but didnt get very far. It had a nickname 'Fearfully 50...?' and was one of the units with British officers. Any information would be helpful Many thanks Ruth Facey (nee Whatley)

My mother Hannelore Josephs, later married as de Beer, also served proudly as an ambulance and truck driver in Egypt and Palestine with the ATS from '43 to '46. She died in 2008 leaving us with very little information on this important time of her life. No dates of recruitment, no name of unit no date of release (sometime in 1946).

She arrived in Palestine from Germany via Sweden in 1941 and joined the A.T.S. with the hope to get certificates from the British Government to be able to get her parents and brother out of Germany. She was not aware that they had already been moved in October '42 from Hamburg to Theresienstadt.

Anecdotal information she had shared with us was that Sonia Peres, spouse of Shimon, was with her in the A.T.S.

my Mother; Esther Davidovitch, (later Aharonovitch) served as an operation room nurse in the ATS. she married in 1947 to Chaiim Aharonovitch and had her first born daughter Rina on May 14 1948, on the same day David Ben-Gurion, first prime Minister announced the establishment of the nation of Israel. she passed away in 1969 of stroke. if you knew her, I would be happy to hear from you.

Sara Aronovitch Karpanos (her youngest & 2nd daughter)

My mother, Patricia Kilner born 1921, was recruited into the ATS in India, where she was living at the outbreak of WWII. She was sent to Sarafand as 'Corporal Kilner' to help train the women you describe above. My mother died in 2009 but during her life told me some amusing anecdotes about working with the Jewish women who arrived in the camp from all over, including refugees from Europe. I have a little note that accompanied a gift to her (I don't know what that was)which reads "ATS Training-(illegible), 24th August 1942. We wish that this little gift will be a constant memory to you, and will remind you of us who, though we were very troublesome and tiresome, thank you very much for everything you did to turn us into real soliders. Yours truly, Hut 9". The writing is in a very European hand, possibly German. It is possible that I have some photographs but would have to ask my brother who keeps the albums.

Israela Oron and Esther Herlitz at "Dor l'Dor Yabia Omer" in Sarafand, June 19, 1996
Full image

Brigadier General Israela Oron, O.C Women's Corps, and Esther Herlitz, presenter, at "Dor l'Dor Yabia Omer," a meeting held on the occasion of a visit of Women Veterans of ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) and WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) to the Chen Training Camp in Sarafand, June 19, 1996.

Institution: Esther Herlitz

How to cite this page

Herlitz, Esther. "ATS and WAAF in World War II." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 30, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ats-and-waaf-in-world-war-ii>.

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