Fulfilling a need - the role of the Women's Royal Naval Service.
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"Wrens, it appeared, might become
wireless telegraphists, radio or air mechanics, members of boats'
crews, teleprinter or telephone operators, visual signallers, or
coding experts, parachute packers, cooks or stewards, cinema operators,
ship mechanics, torpedo-men . . the list seemed endless".
Though her own research for her doctoral thesis is focused upon the service of Yorkshire regiments, Tracy Craggs, as a researcher in the Centre, has become 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", 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'.
Mary Moore was stationed at Eastcote in Middlesex operating the Bombe machines invented by Alan Turing. Very sensitive to the secrecy of her job, she remembered that
'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.
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