David Atcherley and his twin Richard were born on 12 January 1904, and were the sons of Major General Sir Llewellyn Atcherley, Chief Constable of the West Riding of Yorkshire, and his wife 'Nellie', Eleanor Frances (1871–1957), daughter of Richard Mickelthwait, of Ardsley House, in the valley of Deane near Barnsley. Their father was a grandson of David Francis Atcherley of Marton Hall, High Sheriff of Shropshire, Serjeant-at-law, Attorney-General of the County Palatine of Lancaster and County Durham. David Atcherley and his brother, first cousins of William Empson, attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire.
Atcherley entered Sandhurst Military Academy in 1922 after being rejected for the RAF due to medical grounds. In 1924 he was commissioned into the East Lancashire Regiment. His wish to fly succeeded when he was seconded to the RAF in March 1927. Proving to be an excellent pilot he was able to have his secondment converted into a permanent transfer on 1 October 1929.
At the start of the war he was Commanding Officer of No. 85 Squadron. He commanded No. 253 Squadron in May 1940 and more postings followed rapidly. His gained his first aerial successes as a night fighter when in command of No. 25 Squadron, which was equipped with Beaufighters, early in 1941.
On 28 August 1941 he fractured his neck as a result of a crash after a take off. However, this did not stop him flying, although it did require six ground crew to get him into and out of his aircraft.
Group Captain Atcherley became the Commanding Officer at RAF Fairwood Common in 1942 and was responsible for collecting Oberleutnant Armin Faber from RAF Pembrey when he landed his Focke-Wulf 190 there on 23 June 1942.