Fulfilling a need – the role of the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
Though her own research for her doctoral thesis is focused upon the service of Yorkshire regiments, Tracy Craggs, as a researcher in the Centre,became increasingly involved with the study of women’s experiences in the war. Here she draws upon papers and recordings in the Centre to examine the wide-ranging work upon which Wrens were engaged.
The foundations of the Women’s Royal Naval Service were laid during the First World War, due to the efforts of Dame Katharine Furse as Director, who championed the rights and welfare of the Wrens tirelessly, following the formation of the Service in November 1917. The purpose of the WRNS was to cover the shortages in manpower, as the recruiting of more women for shore jobs would lead to more men being released for sea duties. The Wrens in this War, just as in the Second, would not always be welcomed with open arms. It took a short while before the Admiralty would agree to the inclusion of ‘Royal’ in its title, a term not afforded to the non-naval women’s services. Yet for all its great strides, the WRNS ceased to exist in October 1919, without the formation of a Reserve. Its usefulness had come to an end, at least for the time being and the members rewarded only by a certificate of service.
Dame Katharine was determined to maintain the spirit of the WRNS in some capacity and instigated the Association of Wrens in 1920 to represent the interests of its members.
At its height, the membership of the WRNS during the First World War had reached just over 5000 ratings and 400 officers. The importance of the WRNS during the First World War had been more the fact of its existence and the institution of a set of rules and regulations, rather than any impact of numbers involved. It was also significant that even before the outbreak of the Second, it was recognised that women would be needed to assist the Navy immediately war began; it was merely in regard to the numbers required that there was any dissent. From very humble beginnings, the WRNS would grow rapidly, despite having no uniform at first. In the meantime, Betty Hodges remembered,
‘we were issued with navy blue armbands with WRNS in white letters which we wore on our own clothes‘.
As Cora Jarman recalled, the uniform played its part in attracting recruits;
‘I would have been compulsorily “called up” into one of the Services when I was 18, so I volunteered to join the WRNS because the uniform had no buttons to clean and was the nicest to my way of thinking.’
Another factor in the decision to apply for the Wrens was often a naval family background. Beth Hutchinson‘s father was a master mariner and Joyce Openshaw’s father was Capt Lawford who later commanded HMS Pozarica in convoy PQ17 to Russia in 1942.
Most of the regulations followed in the Service during the Second World War were those laid down in the earlier conflagration, especially regarding training, which comprised an initial two week introduction to naval terminology as well as scrubbing the decks and sleeping in ‘cabins’. The women reacted to this initial training very differently, according to their experience of life up to that point. Edith Becker spent
‘a fortnight at Westfield, during which time I really thought they were trying to dispense of my services, for in that two week period I was called upon, with the others of course, to scrub stone corridors, de-clinker the boiler, heave buckets of coal up and down stairs, clean windows in the most inaccessible places etc. etc the list was endless. It was a rude awakening. I was just a slip of a girl and barely used to folding my pyjamas!’
Jean Gadsden underwent her two week training at Mill Hill,
‘Inside, the bare floors, cold undecorated walls, draughty corridors and uninviting atmosphere were as daunting as a penal institution’.
As to the introduction to naval terms,
‘the indoctrination was thorough and complete, as was our “preliminary” training in washing decks, serving food in the mess, washing up in the galley and tidying cabins! I hated the dreadful place and was overwhelmed by home-sickness’.
The women were also introduced to WRNS rules, no jewellery, hair off the collar and what constituted ‘proper’ behaviour.
Betty Thomson remembered the regulations as
‘very, very strict in the first days. I mean we weren’t allowed to talk to the officers or anything. . . We weren’t allowed to go down the same corridors as the officers in those days’.
Patricia Potton received a reprimand after entertaining at a naval establishment as a member of ‘The Glenmorag Follies’.
‘Amid lots of laughter, we returned to the Wrens quarters in a naval van, singing the popular comedy song “The Cow kicked Nellie in the Belly in the Park( barn)”, with gusto. Somebody complained, we were given seven days CB (confined to barracks) for singing immoral songs’.
Patricia’s experiences as an Officers’ Steward, serving food and cleaning cabins, were to stand her in good stead in later life as a hotel owner. Penny Martin too, discovered how strict the rules could be, after she, and her friend, met up with two Canadian cadets.
‘Nobody minded if we went out with them in plain clothes to Torquay and went dancing (and God knows what else!) BUT we were FORBIDDEN to sit and chat with them behind the squash courts in uniform – because we were ratings! Poor dears – I think the Captain punished them rather severely – anyhow it was the end of our perfect friendships’.
Very quickly the women were absorbed into a wide variety of roles which were more diverse than those on offer during the First World War. The pressure on naval manpower became more acute during the Second World War, consequently the WRNS expanded quickly to meet the need, reaching a peak of almost 75,000 Wrens in September 1944. The clear divide between what did, and did not constitute ‘suitable’ work for women according to the Royal Navy, became increasingly irrelevant. As well as Writers, Messengers, Stewards and Cooks, there were now to be Wireless Telegraphists, Bomb Range Markers and Radio Mechanics. There was also a group of Special Duties (Linguist) Wrens, often with language degrees, who were drafted to Stations around the coast, intercepting signals. Joan Dinwoodie was based at Scarborough, listening to German naval signals
‘which were usually nearly always perfectly sent and rather dull, as might have been expected. One of the most important to catch was a short signal, called an E-Bar, sent from a U Boat that was about to attack a convoy. The operator receiving it shouted out “E-Bar” and the frequency, and the switchboard operator would quickly relay the information to the various Direction Finding Stations around the country to try to get the exact position of the submarine for anti-U Boat measures’.
‘once the Bombe was running there could be hours of inactivity. . . B-Block had a very distinctive smell of warm oil, some Wrens disliked the work and some found handling the drums difficult because they had small hands, but most of us got on with it without complaint’.
Of course many Wrens, including Cora Jarman, worked at Bletchley Park;
‘As a writer, or clerk, I sat with several other girls at tables as though we were in a classroom, we were given our sheets of paper to check through in a certain way, each one bearing the name of a fish. Thirty years later I discovered that the “fish” messages we were involved with, were messages sent by Hitler to his generals. If a message proved to be “significant” you had a group of boffins come around to look and take over, but this only happened to me once’.
Edith Becker worked at Bletchley Park for three years on Japanese super-enciphered codes, having undertaken a crash course in Japanese. She loved the work, but found it difficult when asked about her duties by her parents and
‘unfortunately my dear mum and dad died before they could be acquainted with what their younger daughter did in the war’.
The majority of the jobs available still fell into what had been traditionally classed as suitable for women, for example secretarial work and cooking, yet even these positions could enable the Wren to achieve promotion and recognition. Mary Jarvie started her WRN service as a Quarters Assistant, responsible for the care of the Wrens in her house, including sending their laundry and choosing the menus. She loved the work and was promoted to Chief Wren, one of only eight in the command. At Shelley House Mary took over the backlog of book-keeping, prompting the Captain to point his stick at her and tell the Third Officer, ‘She stays here until the war is over. I have been told she is the best book-keeper I have got’. As well as the book-keeping, Mary was responsible for six hundred Wrens living in and a further 120 coming for meals.
The work was often demanding and many Wrens were based in areas at risk of bombing. In a letter to her parents dated 9 April 1941, Rosemary Lyster described her near-miss following a night-time raid on Winchester;
‘Suddenly the house shook and I found myself under the bedclothes with my arms over my face and head in the approved style and the glass showering all round and on my bed while the house shook. I waited quite happily for the rest of the house to fall but nothing more happened. Glass kept tinkling about the place outside, then silence. So I thought I had better get up in case I had to dig out any bodies, slung my dressing gown on and tried my bedroom slippers but they were full of glass so I just walked barefoot across the room through piles of glass quite unscathed while I emptied my slippers on the way. I did not realise that I had no need to open the door then, but later found it blown off its hinges’.
Other raids resulted in more serious injuries; Betty Hodges was hit by flying glass after a V1 rocket hit Greenwich and received serious wounds while Mary Jarvie was injured above the eye in a V2 attack in January 1945.
Memoirs are often reminders of the level of losses incurred during the war, but are very personal reminders and all the more poignant because of it.
Joyce Openshaw lost her brother 2nd Lt Peter Lawford in April 1942, a tragedy compounded by bitterness at having been refused leave to celebrate his 21st birthday just a few weeks before. Puck Duvall spent her Wren years at Hatston in the Orkneys and lost her first husband Ned Finch-Noyes when he was shot down while piloting a Skua over Norway. Puck’s recollections are punctuated by a series of deaths among friends in the Fleet Air Arm yet she still gained much from her time in the Wrens,
‘In July I left Orkney for the last time. I had had five extraordinary years, great happiness and much sadness – an interesting and responsible job’.
She was also awarded the MBE for ‘zeal and wholehearted devotion to duty’.
On the right: Section of a cartoon drawn by Wren Lynette Nicholson (nee Heynes), for ‘The Wave’, HMS King Alfred‘s wartime quarterly magazine. Lynette contributed regularly to this magazine during her service and the Centre is honoured to hold copies of many of her cartoons.
Penny Martin mentioned the demanding nature of her work as a Writer at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth,
‘I was one of the few ‘Day Workers’, but the hours were very long – 8am till done – sometimes this meant 10pm if a convoy was late sailing, and 7 days a week’.
The long hours were balanced by care for the physical well-being of the Wrens. Hilda Craven wrote,
‘Because we worked underground with air-conditioning and no sunlight, arrangements were made for us to have sunlight lamp treatment. This began with two minutes and gradually got up to ten in a series of one a week treatments. We were very well looked after, housed, fed, clothed and paid’.
Many Wrens feel privileged to have witnessed at first hand, and participated in at whatever level, the historic events as they unfolded. Charlotte Pippard, working at Western Approaches HQ, Liverpool, recorded in her diary the successful attack formulated by Captain E J Walker of 2nd Escort Group against the U Boats operating in the Atlantic in October 1943;
‘At about half past eleven a signal came down the pneumatic tube from the RAF wireless room. It was from an aircraft, saying it was over an enemy submarine and gave the position. We rushed the signal round and within about five minutes it had been logged, typed, checked and duplicated and taken round to the Staff Officers. A few minutes later the plane sent another signal to say that they’d dropped their depth charges and had hit the U-Boat in the middle. That signal was sent round in the same way. Next time I took signals round I had the satisfaction of seeing the fact that she was sunk chalked up on what we call the “Score Board” in the Plotting Room. This was a bumper day, and by the time we went off duty there were six “deaths” marked on the Score Board in red chalk’.
Many Wrens recall their work involved in preparations for D Day. Jean Gadsden, who typed signals for distribution, highlighted the atmosphere during the build-up,
‘Our watch-keeping duties were long and intense and as things became more hectic the tension mounted. . . (After the initial 24 hour postponement) the atmosphere was electric, people spoke in whispers, the troops were battened down in the landing craft, there was an eerie “calm before the storm” feeling everywhere and no-one spoke of what was to happen. I was again on watch when the final signal ordering all ships to sail on 6th June 1944 came through to our office. I can’t remember who gave the signal to me, but he just said “This is it: you’d better get it out straightaway’.
Jean was given permission to watch the last landing craft sail away and thought
‘I’m watching history being made and I am part of it’.
The Motto ‘Never at Sea’ was something of a misnomer since a few Wrens did indeed serve on boats, as Stokers, Boats’ Crew and coxswains. Lady Rozelle Raynes had always loved the sea, learning to row on the Serpentine and saving up to buy a compass. It is one of the characteristics of the WRNS that strenuous attempts appear to have been made to match the women with jobs suited to them, and in 1943 Rozelle Raynes went on a Stoker’s course in Portsmouth, one of the first available, together with five other women and six hundred men. Her second draft was to HMS Tormentor, a Landing Craft Infantry Base at the top end of Southampton Water and involved supplying the craft with stores, signals and bringing the men ashore during the evening. For the crew, returning the men at the end of the evening, ‘when they were rather boozed up’, could be an adventure in itself,
‘we used our boat hooks quite a lot and sort of fished them out by the seat of the pants very often’.
Rozelle thoroughly enjoyed her posting here, despite the elements,
‘it was very cold sometimes in midwinter with the ropes frozen up, and, you know, you almost needed a hammer to get the ropes off the shore sometimes, but somehow it didn’t matter because it was so wonderful, you know, being on a boat’.
She found the build-up to D Day to be both intensely exciting and worrying, having made many friends among the sailors, who offered the women ‘sippers’ when especially cold, a small tot of their daily rum ration. On D Day Rozelle was involved in bringing in a landing craft which had broken down in the Channel, and witnessed the arrival of some of the first German POWs, who looked ‘sort of shabby and sad…’
Another unusual role was that undertaken by Claudia Lennon, who served at the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre near Amersham from 1943. She compiled weekly intelligence reports, based on the interrogations of high-ranking prisoners, mainly captured U-Boat officers. As a German speaker, Claudia would study the transcripts of the interrogations, searching for information regarding the U-Boat bases and also everyday ‘gossip’ which could be transmitted by radio to the German forces for the purpose of damaging morale. On a lighter note, Claudia’s recollections also demonstrate an important fact of service life in the WRNS, that of the number of marriages which resulted; at the CSDIC Claudia recalled three marriages taking place between Wrens and interrogating staff, a feature which also extended to other naval bases.
During the First World War a small number of Wrens had already served overseas in Malta, Gibraltar and in NW Europe. The numbers serving abroad would increase rapidly during the Second. It was a widely held belief that the overseas Wrens were there to be decorative and a source of comfort for troops. On first reading, Joyce Deacon‘s letter home to her mother from HMS Phoenix (Fayed), a transit camp, dated 12th December, apparently reinforces this belief:
‘Generally speaking we keep up the men’s morale in the afternoons and the officers’ in the evening’.
However this was the excited response of a young girl to the adventure offered her in foreign climes, away from parental control and awash with invitations from men to dances, parties and daytime swimming, before her coding work began. From the same letter it is clear Joyce was keenly aware of the situation from the male stand point;
‘I seemed to get monopolised that evening by a soldier called Sid (English) who’d been out here four years, not spoken to a girl (English) for a year, hated his job, wanted action (Italy) or England and was generally pretty desperate. There’s no getting away from it they don’t have a very good time. They’re not allowed in any decent place and consequently no girl will go out with them but goes with the officers. He said this particular part of the desert was called the place or part or something that England forgot. They simply hate it and get very bitter and cynical. The censor will probably cut this out as being damaging to morale but it is true. . . .’
She was also clear of the affect that serving abroad would have on her long term;
‘Everyone’s so good to us and give us such a wonderful time that I’m afraid I shall be very spoilt when I come home. I haven’t been so happy for years. I think you and I must definitely have an Egypt complex. I understand exactly how you felt when you had to come home. . . .I simply love it here. I can’t think how I shall ever be able to come back and live in England. . .’
Life was not all play but letters focus on an active social life since descriptions of working life were not permitted. It is also important to stress that ‘comfort’ for the troops would mean companionship rather than the ‘Comfort Women’ term applied to the appalling treatment of those women taken by the Imperial Japanese Army. The Wrens were lectured on appropriate behaviour and the days of condemnation of unmarried mothers and lack of effective contraception meant that most social activities were innocent pleasures, although as Mary Hall remembered, her friend was offered this unforgettable advice by a Chief Petty Officer,
‘always beware of a sailor who asks you to walk with him on a fine day, and carries his raincoat. He’s up to no good’.
The conditions under which the Wrens lived were varied in the extreme; at a Transit camp outside Suez Penny Martin and seven others slept in a tent on canvas cots with straw palliasses.
‘These were all full of bedbugs so we cast them out and slept on the canvas. The showers only had cold water (which ran very hot if you chose the right time of day) and latrines in the outback’.
In Singapore Joan Dinwoodie worked in the intense heat
‘which really had to be experienced to be believed. We were in a concrete building with no windows, no air-conditioning (we were told that it had been sunk on the way out to the station), constantly manned 24 hours a day so that it was never aired, additional heat from the sets and a haze and smell of smoking that could almost be cut with a knife. No wonder that we went on watch armed with giant flasks of ‘aya lima’ (lime water) and small towels to wrap round our necks to mop up as much as possible of the constant sweat’.
Not all men were appreciative of the efforts of the Wrens. Joyce Deacon‘s Journal entry for December 11th Saturday, is rather terse;
‘The C in C Levant is coming today. No work, but quite a bit of talk with the P.O. For the sake of argument or perhaps genuinely he believes that woman’s place is in the home and likes a Jane Austen girl who goes about dropping handkerchiefs. Lunch early and tidies ourselves and cabins and lined up only to hear that he wasn’t interested in the Wrens, so dispersed thankfully’.
Another visitor, as recalled by Betty Hodges, was looked upon more kindly;
‘In the Spring there was great excitement as the Superintendent told me that she was bringing the Duchess of Kent, Commandant of the Wrens, to inspect our Wrens. Consequently we practised our marching, left turn, right turn, about turn, left wheel, right wheel . . Oh, I was so proud of my girls! The Duchess arrived with the Superintendent and it was left to me to show her round, and for her to inspect the Wrens in their various categories and Divisions. She was so glamorous. Her Lady-in-Waiting, Lady Herbert, told me that she always kept a spare pair of black silk stockings in the car in case she laddered the pair she had on. . . She had, of course, lucky soul, “cheated” a bit with the uniform, having higher heels to her uniform lace-up shoes, and a rather differently -blocked and more becoming hat. . .All the Wrens were on “cloud nine” for days after her visit.’
Clearly the work of the Wrens received official recognition and this meant a great deal to the women. As in other Services, the women experienced great and lasting comradeship and memoirs are littered with references to staying in touch with each other post war. Despite the disadvantages of physical discomforts, danger and fear for the safety of loved ones, there was a feeling of pride in their achievements and a sense of belonging, described by Mary Hall;
‘Quite often, especially in winter when I would not otherwise have seen daylight, I took sandwiches mid-day and went on a ferry across the Mersey and back. It was fascinating to see the ships one had been plotting, some looking a bit battered. One stormy day I was the only passenger on the top deck and the dear ferryman came out of his wheelhouse for a chat. “Real sailors’ weather isn’t it miss”. I loved that’.
Many were not thrilled at being demobilised. Rozelle Raynes regretted leaving;
‘You know I loved being in the WRNS, and when I had to go for my final interview with the Commander of the base when I was being demobbed, I remember him being very kind, and, you know, telling me about a job he would recommend me for, and saying how wonderful I would find civvy street, and I remember bursting into floods of tears and rushing from his office in a terrible state’.
Yet most greeted demobilisation with equanimity and the recognition that their roles would be taken up once again by the returning men. The Wrens had, by and large, won over those sceptical about their abilities and this time their achievements would not so easily be overlooked. In February 1949 the Service became permanent with twenty four categories of work available, a proper career structure and a pension. The groundwork of the Wrens in the First World War, cemented by the large numbers of women efficiently employed in the Second, had at last paid dividends.