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date: 02 July 2022

Whateley [née Wood; other married name Balfour], Dame Leslie Violet Lucy Evelynfree


Whateley [née Wood; other married name Balfour], Dame Leslie Violet Lucy Evelynfree

  • Roy Terry

Dame Leslie Violet Lucy Evelyn Whateley (1899–1987)

by Henry Lamb, 1943

© Estate of Henry Lamb; The Imperial War Museum, London; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Whateley [née Wood; other married name Balfour], Dame Leslie Violet Lucy Evelyn (1899–1987), director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, was born on 28 January 1899 at 63 Porchester Terrace, Paddington, London. Her mother was Ada Lilian Wood, formerly Hutton, and her father was Captain (later Colonel in the City of London regiment) Evelyn Michell Fitzgerald Wood, whose active service began with the Asante expedition of 1895. Leslie Wood was educated at convents of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in St Leonards, Sussex, and in Cavendish Square, London. After leaving school at the age of sixteen she became secretary to her grandfather Sir (Henry) Evelyn Wood VC, one of the army's legendary nineteenth-century field marshals, at his home near Winchester, where she received a thorough grounding in army administration and methods. She assisted Sir Evelyn during the period when he was writing his book Winnowed Memories (1918). Later she worked as a secretary for several district nursing associations. On 8 July 1922 Leslie Wood married William John Balfour (1893/4–1934), a brewer, at the parish church, Kensington, London. They had one son, who was born in 1923. Balfour, who had been a cavalry officer during the First World War and from whom Leslie obtained a divorce, died in 1934. Her second marriage, to Squadron Leader Harry Raymond Whateley (b. 1910/11), took place on 21 September 1939.

In September 1938 Leslie Balfour drove to the Territorial Drill Hall at Camberley, Surrey, to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in response to a BBC announcement about the formation of the women's army. 'With the Army tradition I had behind me … there was never any doubt as to how I should try to serve my country', she wrote in her book As Thoughts Survive (p. 11). She was commissioned as a ‘one-pipper’, with the ATS rank title of company assistant, inevitably abbreviated to 'coy ass'; this was equivalent to a second lieutenant. At the outbreak of war a year later she was posted to the War Office where she swiftly won a reputation as an outstanding administrator. She worked closely with Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, the first director of the ATS, whom she described as 'the old battleaxe'. 'We were all terrified of Dame Helen', Leslie Whateley later recalled. 'She didn't think I would be much good when we first met—I enjoy remembering that' (Terry, 126). At the War Office Dame Leslie worked alongside Lord Cavan's stepdaughter, Daphne Mulholland; Lord Gort's daughter, Jacqueline Vereker, who became Lady de L'Isle and Dudley; and Lady Trenchard's daughter, Belinda Boyle. 'I was the lowest of the low among Dame Helen's assistants. Dame Helen was a snob and she gathered all kinds of titled people around her', Leslie said. Of all Dame Helen's assistants Leslie Whateley was undoubtedly the most capable and the most efficient. When Dame Helen retired in 1941, she was succeeded as director of the ATS by the stunningly attractive Senior Commander (Major) Jean Knox, later to become Lady Swaythling, who at the relatively young age of thirty-three was given the rank of chief controller, equivalent to major-general. Leslie, then forty-two, was appointed Jean Knox's deputy with the rank of senior controller, thus becoming the first ATS officer to attain the equivalent rank of brigadier. Her rise in the ATS had been meteoric. Jean Knox's immediate task was to repair the damage to the ATS, which had suffered severe criticism from the press. Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express had led the attacks by printing exposures of maladministration and incidents of irregular conduct that had undermined the authority of Dame Helen. While Jean Knox spent most of her time as director 'absent at conferences, on tour and visiting the women's services of the Dominions and Allies', as the official announcement stated, Leslie Whateley effectively ran the ATS. This was one of the most crucial and active periods of the ATS, when membership expanded from a mere 40,000 to 204,000 as a result of conscription of all single women between eighteen and thirty years of age. Reading Leslie Whateley's book As Thoughts Survive one is left with the impression that Jean Knox rarely attended the numerous official functions at which the director's presence would normally be required. As a result Leslie had to stand in for her director, even at the official fifth birthday celebrations of the ATS in September 1943 when the queen took the salute at Westminster Abbey. The next month, on 31 October, Jean Knox resigned on grounds of ill health and Leslie Whateley was appointed her successor. On the eve of the official announcement of her appointment Leslie Whateley went to a party at Claridges with the Mountbattens, who, she said, 'were absolute angels to me' (Terry, 134). There the press laid siege to her, seeking the background to Jean Knox's resignation. Leslie Whateley was whisked away by General Sir Ronald Weekes, vice-chief Imperial General Staff. All her life Dame Leslie maintained a strict silence over the reasons for Jean Knox's premature resignation.

Leslie Whateley's first task was to address a letter to each of the more than 6,000 officers in the service, an unprecedented step, and her contribution in restoring morale and the image of the ATS was immense. Although she lacked some of the traditional advantages of a military bearing, being of slight build, small in stature and quiet by nature, she ended the war as a capable and efficient head of an army that was larger than many generals have the opportunity to command. As George Ivan Smith wrote in the Daily Telegraph obituary:

Courage ran in her veins. She was a military person with a heart and great human understanding. She faced life with the discipline of a soldier's daughter. Dame Leslie was a splendid rudder guiding the ATS into the great contribution it made in a war in which the work of women was greatly needed, pre-dating the mode of modern feminism

During her time as director from 1943 to 1946 Leslie Whateley worked closely with the princess royal, who was controller-commandant of the ATS, and in 1945 was 'proud and honoured' when the nineteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth elected to join the ATS and underwent her training at the ATS Mechanical Transport Training Centre at Aldershot. The princess, later to become Elizabeth II, was commissioned as Second Subaltern Windsor on 5 March 1945. The achievement of the three wartime directors of the ATS is summed up by a saying in the ATS: Helen Gwynne-Vaughan dug the foundations, so deep that everyone fell in; Jean Knox put up the curtains, before the windows were in; and Leslie Whateley put on the roof, and finished the job.

Leslie Whateley was appointed CBE in 1943, and in 1946, when she retired as director, she was made a DBE. The French made her a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in recognition of her services in equipping and training French volontaires feminines during their stay in Britain. She was also awarded the Croix de Guerre with silver star. The Americans, whom she had advised on the enlargement of their women's services, awarded her the Order of Merit. In 1948 Dame Leslie became one of the first non-royal women to be made an honorary colonel of a regiment when she was appointed colonel of the 668th battalion of the heavy anti-aircraft regiment, Royal Artillery. She received the Territorial Decoration in 1951. Dame Leslie Whateley retired on 3 May 1946, to a farm in Devon where she and her husband set about restoring an almost derelict 500-year-old property. In 1951 she was appointed director of the World Bureau of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. During her thirteen years in this role she travelled the world encouraging the spread of the Girl Guide movement, especially in Asia. Her courage and indomitable spirit became evident in 1960 when attending in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a United Nations seminar on the place of African women in public life. She was in the chair during one session when gunfire from Ethiopian rebels interrupted the proceedings. Dame Leslie managed to keep the conference going smoothly, despite a bullet passing through her skirt. She was unperturbed by the incident, declaring: 'A miss is as good as a mile' (Daily Telegraph). In her mid-seventies Dame Leslie was still administering the voluntary services of Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, but found time in 1974 to publish a second book of reminiscences, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. She died aged eighty-eight on 4 July 1987 in Little Somerford, Wiltshire.


  • J. M. Cowper, The auxiliary territorial service (1949)
  • H. C. I. Gwynne-Vaughan, Service with the army [1942]
  • M. Izzard, A heroine in her time (1969)
  • L. Whateley, As thoughts survive (1948)
  • R. Terry, Women in khaki (1988)
  • Daily Telegraph (8 July 1987)
  • The Times (9 July 1987)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • L. Whateley, Yesterday, today and tomorrow (1974)


  • H. Lamb, portrait, 1943, IWM [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in Whateley, As thoughts survive, p. 48
  • photograph, repro. in Terry, Women in khaki, p. 129
  • photographs, IWM

Wealth at Death

£5345: probate, 3 Oct 1987, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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