Research in the time of Covid-19

BWAW1941 ATS at ASE cropped

So here we all are. Stuck at home to prevent this ghastly virus spreading too far too quickly. No access to archives and often not even to the archivists either. So what does the lover of historical knowledge do?

She indulges herself in a spot of online retail therapy and goes shopping for secondhand books from independent booksellers.

BWAW cover

I got this delightful-looking, but slim, volume from Treasure Chest Books – British Women At war (1941). This is a very brief introduction to the many facets of women’s war work in World War 2, both civilian and military, with some nice official photos. The book was produced to raise funds for service charities.

Ever on the look-out for hints of women in unusual technical work I found the text at the head of the blog. This snippet, from the chapter about the Auxiliary Territorial Service, shows that  women with science or maths degrees were diverted to support the Army’s research work at an establishment called the “Army School of Experiments”.

 

Since these elite ATS women sounded a bit like the sort of women who were working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and other government research organisations at the time, I was immediately intrigued. Here I should add a Health Warning: this blog is another one of my ‘works in progress’ blogs as I have yet [10th April 2020) to get to the bottom of what/when/where exactly this Army School of Experiments actually was.

My obvious next steps were to go Googling, which only produced a poster at the Imperial War Museum, which included a shortened version of the above text and no further clues. This poster was evidently produced as part of the ATS recruitment drive in the autumn of 1941 as similar texts appeared in various news papers when the local recruitment events were on. Each of these snippets were almost identical variations on the text from the British Women at war book. Nothing in The National Archives about such a school and no Google searches produced any images of women in this unusual uniform.

So I turned to the many military historians, amateur and paid, to be found in Twitter and put out a plea for help. First to make contact were the WRAC Association who promised to look in their archives. Then a wee stream of historians of this and that made contact until now I know something about what these specialist ATS women (usually referred to as girls then) were doing but am none the wiser about the Army School of Experiments. I strongly suspect it was a very short-lived title for a temporary unit which was soon absorbed into the training functions of various Army research establishments.

What I know now is that quite a lot of ATS other ranks and officers worked with the Royal Artillery at its experimental ranges at Shoeburyness. Photos from the Imperial War Museum show ATS girls in thick double-breasted peajackets and wellingtons or waders, retrieving spent shells from the Shoeburyness sand/mud at low tide, watched by very clean, posh-looking Royal Artillery men on horses. Others were operating the most massive slide rules I have ever seen, in front of a beautifully made panel of instrumentation that looks like a steampunk dream:

 

This image is labelled by the IWM as “The ATS signal room at the Royal Artillery Experimental Unit, Shoeburyness, Essex.” It may indeed have been a signal room but these women are not sending or receiving signals – they are doing complicated ballistic calculations with those slide rules. I wonder if any of them stayed on in such research after the war?

So the Royal Artillery Experimental Unit seems to have been where these specially recruited bright young women were sent and probably the location of the short-lived Army School of Experiments.

Unless you know better? In which case please contact me, especially if you know of any named women who served there.

 


Many thanks to the the following folks from the Twittersphere for guiding me to this point:

Sally B McGlone

Nick Sturgess

Lucianna Harrison

In the cheap seats

WRAC Association

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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