Pat Fordham, 90, joined the ATS in 1943 as a 17-year-old who was still entitled to a daily milk ration. She worked as a teleprinter operator at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force under Goodge Street tube station and was on duty when Allied troops entered Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp for the first time.
Sign up for our email newsletter to get our latest news in your inbox
She said: “Women were necessary to the war effort but I’m not sure we got the credit we deserved. A lot of us were only 17, 18, 19 years old. Women certainly had something to prove. Unfortunately it took a lot longer that I hoped and even now I don’t think women have got the same rights as men. There’s still a glass ceiling. I find it hard to think how far we have come but how little we have actually gained sometimes.
“I was in the ATS Signals. I was 17 when I joined up – you could go in young if your parents would sign for you. We were very overcrowded at home. My mother died when I was about 14 and my dad had remarried a lady with a family. I had been living away from home for 18 months working as a clerk with the air ministry in Blackpool and there was no room for me to go home. Really I went into the ATS because I had nowhere to live. That was the end of 1943/beginning of 1944.
“I did my basic training in Pontefract Barracks and because I was under age I used to have to parade every day because I was still entitled to a third of a pint of milk a day because I was technically still a child. I used to have to march across the barracks square with my hand holding the mug behind my back. I was the only one!
“I had much fairer hair in those days. I used to suffer from psoriaisis on my scalp. The medical officer decided she could cure it and she put Gentian violet all over my head. As soon as I got out of the medical room I went and shampooed my hair and my hair turned purple! I used to have to push all my hair up under my hat until it wore off! They also couldn’t get any shoes to fit me because my feet were so narrow so they had to have some made. I was trotting around in a pair of red court shoes for a while!
“When you were on basic training for four weeks you were asked what you wanted to do. I said I would like to be a wireless operator and I was accepted. I had no qualifications from school so I had to have an intelligence test. We went up to the Signals school at Edinburgh but when I got there they said they didn’t want any more wireless operators so I became a teleprinter operator instead. I did eight weeks training then I was sent down to Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. It was the most boring place and we were not allowed out. Everything was gearing up for the second front by that time. There was no leave. The trains and the roads were full of vehicles and men going down to the south coast.
“One day a girl came in and said was there anybody who would like a cross posting. She was stationed in London and wanted to come up because her parents were ill. We decided that we would go ahead with the cross posting so she applied to her commanding officer and I applied to mine and she took my place at Chilwell and I went down to London.
“We were based under Goodge Street tube station where there were other tunnels that had been built before the war. By that time the second front had started. Where I was was the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Our call sign was GSN (Goodge Street North). All the teleprinters were for communication with the troops that had gone overseas. We were a centre for all the messages coming in from overseas. Everything came in there for onward transmission to the rest of the country.
“All the ATS girls were billeted in Sloane Gardens and it was quite a long journey to get to work. One day a church near Goodge Street station was hit by a V2 rocket. We weren’t hurt but the exits were blocked so we were stuck down there for about 48 hours. It got really hot but we had food. It was just one of those things.
“There was a system called clear down where we had to clear all the lines for something important. One day the message came in and they were asking for anybody with any medical knowledge, St John’s Ambulance, Red Cross – to get in touch with their local people because they were in desperate need of help. We thought the war had started again but it turned out our troops had just entered Belsen Concentration Camp. As the figures started coming in we could not believe it. It was absolutely horrendous. Later on the cinemas in London were showing the films that were taken at the time and I remember the placards outside the cinema as if it was yesterday. They said ‘Horror in our Time’. Even now when I think about it I can remember how I felt.
“I was still in London in November 1945. Goodge Street had closed down and I had been assigned to the War Office but we were still underground. We were in a Signals office quite near the Cenotaph and Whitehall. I was there right through VE Day and VJ Day until the beginning of 1946. I met my husband there. He had come back from Burma.
“We were being dispersed around the country at that point and of all the places they could send me they sent me back to Chilwell! If you got married you could apply for marriage leave and then the ATS would release you. I didn’t start going out with my husband until September 1946 and we got married in the December. When I applied for marriage leave the officer tried to persuade me not to do it and said I could probably get a good promotion but I was too much of a rebel!
“I think I sailed quite close to the wind once or twice by refusing to do things but I was only put on a charge once. It was when I threw a piece of bread in the pig bin because it was green with mould. They used to have someone on duty watching what was discarded. She told me to pick it up and eat it. I said it’s not edible – you eat it! Fortunately my commanding officer dismissed it so it didn’t go on my record.
I knew I didn’t want to stay on in the ATS. I was a bit disenchanted with it by then. I had to go to York to get demobbed in February 1947. I remember snow was piled high at the side of the roads.”