The Women’s Royal Navy Service – WRNS
One of the key branches of the Royal Navy during World War II was the Women’s Royal Navy Service. The branch bore the abbreviation of WRNS but its personnel were popularly referred to as “Wrens.” Most of the women were volunteers, but as the war progressed and its demands became acute, some were called up. By 1944 there were 74,000 Wrens aged 19 to 43, some of them mothers and others of them widows of the war.
The jobs assigned to Wrens quickly began to include responsibilities that were originally considered to be beyond the capabilities of women. Besides clerical or kitchen work, Wrens became drivers, radar operators, communications specialists, meteorologists, and crypto analysts. The women who worked in cryptology often did so at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. The School was the heart of British intelligence where some of the most important enemy codes were broken. Wrens were also instrumental in the planning of naval operations that included the D-Day landings at Normandy. Although Wrens were not assigned to sea duty, more than a few operated yard craft in fleet support roles at the Navy’s various bases at home and abroad. Over the course of the war 303 Wrens were killed in service.
“I Am Proud to Have Served With Them”
Although the stories of former Wren Olive (Swift) Partridge are those of but one woman, her words reflect the experiences of many of the women who volunteered to serve in the Royal Navy. Partridge’s memories attest to the fact that the Wrens did far more than answer the call of a popular wartime recruiting poster encouraging women to “free up a spot for a man aboard a ship.”
In 1941, aged 19, I volunteered for the Women’s Royal Navy Service. I was accepted because I was healthy and well-educated, as in World War II standards were high, and I am proud to have served with them.
I did my training at Mill Hill, near London. It was indeed a testing time. We did a lot to keep fit and we were taught how to protect ourselves in an emergency … and what to do in a gas attack which was a threat throughout the war but, to my knowledge, never actually happened. The marching was the hardest part … the feet suffered in the heavy laced up shoes.
We were allowed to choose our future job and I cheerfully volunteered for maintenance work … I thought it would make a change from office work. In due course, five of us set off by train to Great Yarmouth. A more uninspiring sight can’t be imagined (than us) in our ill-fitting uniforms and our safari-type hats. Soon, I am glad to say, we were issued with the up-to-date hat, complete with band bearing the name of our base, HMS Midge.1.
We were billeted in a large former guest house, but found that it was bombed, so we were taken to a hotel near the sea front (which was) lovely. Most of the civilians were evacuated but we had a large number of service personnel (including) Wrens, the WAAF, and the ATS, 2. not to mention the frequent visits from American servicemen stationed at nearby Norwich. We were issued with bell bottom trousers, a boiler suit, and oil skins so we did wonder what we were getting into … We soon found out. The five of us were marched down to the harbor … where flotillas of motor gun boats and motor torpedo boats were moored … MGBs and MTBs, for short. There we were taken aboard and down the hatch into the engine room. I don’t know which of us was more astonished, the engine crew or us. The general reaction was possibly, ‘Oh, my God.’ The engines were hot, having just returned from sea, and the sailors were stripped to the waist. Daphne, a general’s daughter who had led a sheltered life, took one look and beat it back up the ladder. She went to Signals, a lovely girl, and we became great friends and cabin mates.
I never regretted my decision to stick with it. We were taught to change plugs, strip down gear boxes and distributor heads, and anything else needed to help (any of the) three Hall Scott or Packard American engines (installed on the boats) ready for action. We went out to sea on trials when the (repair or maintenance) job(s) (were) finished and stood on the deck, side by side with the men, as we sailed out of the harbor. A mutual feeling of friendship and great respect grew up between sailors and Wrens which lasted the whole four and a half years. We worked, danced, partied, and laughed together. We also experienced great sorrow when any of the boats were missing or damaged. I remember one in particular, No. 313, which limped home with a great hole where the engine room had been. The entire engine room crew had been killed.
I worked with a petty officer most of the time and, after the war, we were married. We saw a lot more action before that, though. We were regularly shot at by low flying German planes as we marched down to the base to work. We ran for cover, they weren’t very good shots, nobody was hit. I must say, though, the bombing was devastating … a lot of service quarters were razed to the ground, including our own. I was sleeping in a top bunk but, found myself blasted from my bed, lying on the floor at the far end of the room amongst a lot of rubble and glass … There were seven of us in the cabin, and … nobody panicked … we had great faith in our naval friends … they dug us out alright … if they hadn’t got a spade, they dug with their hands. Fire broke out and, being short of fire engines, we formed a chain and passed buckets of water along … We found many of our friends injured or in shock and (they) had to be sent home. Worst of all, seven Wrens and our officer were killed, but war is no time for brooding, and we survivors attended a memorial service for our dead comrades and went back to work.
… When VE Day came, we were immediately given passes to go ashore … my fiancé was stationed on the Isle of Wight at that time, and I went across on the ferry, but he was coming this way, so we missed each other. I ended up dancing and singing round Piccadilly Circus with thousands of people celebrating. VJ Day quickly followed and we had truly won the Second Great War along with our gallant allies. With pride, I think we could all say, “Well Done.” 3.
Two other Wrens, Margaret Boothroyd and her friend Laura Mountney met on the very first day of training and went on to serve together for the duration of their enlistments. The two women were assigned to ANCXF, the Allied Naval Combined Expeditionary Force at Southwick where they worked in communications during the planning and execution of the D-Day invasion. Operating teletype machines that had been connected to the beach heads by means of underwater cross channel cables, the young women handled important and secret messages relevant to the landings as well as the subsequent push into France. The War Room in which they worked received regular visits from luminaries that included King George VI, Winston Churchill, and Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery.
After a time in service, Boothroyd and Mountney applied for, and were granted, permission for duty on the continent. Because Mountney was not yet 21 years old, she was required to get signed permission from her parents before the Navy would post her outside of the United Kingdom. The two Wrens were to follow on the heels of advancing Allied troops from Caen, to Paris, and to Belgium where they continued to work with highly sensitive military communications by teletype and field telephones. Boothroyd said of her experiences,
I don’t remember myself or my friends expressing any fear whatsoever. Our age, the job we had been called to do, and the excitement all played a part in our being completely confident. The thought of going into the unknown, or death never crossed our minds … we always thought we were on the winning side.
Boothroyd also recalled hitchhiking throughout France and Belgium which, in her later years, she looked back upon as, “amazing.” She said,
(W)e worked hard, played hard, and that was the order of the day. Discipline abroad was being in your cabin at the proper time, being on watch in good time, and being neat and tidy with hair off the collar. 4.
Boothroyd left the service shortly after the war and was married at the end of 1945. Her wartime and lifetime friend, Laura Mountney, married Bernard Ashley in 1948 and became the world famous fashion designer, Laura Ashley. 5.
“I Was on Duty … and Feeling Very Sorry for Myself”– One Wren’s Christmas
Onetime Wren Grace Goodfellow remembered her Christmas of 1942.
… I was stationed at RNAS Sandbanks, Dorset and billeted in the Red House, a lovely property, and was lucky enough to occupy the largest bedroom with five other girls. We had the luxury of an en suite bathroom, very rare in those days. The ceiling of the bedroom was decorated with a moon and stars, and we would shine our torches on it after lights out looking for imaginary aeroplanes.
I was on duty over the Christmas period and feeling very sorry for myself as it was the first time away from my parents and home. We had our Christmas lunch and a party of us who were off duty in the afternoon had been invited to an ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association, established in 1939 to entertain service personnel during WWII) concert on Brownsea Island. It was a most beautiful day and we donned our best blues and did not need our greatcoats. We were ferried to the island in a motorboat, but as we approached the shore, we saw to our horror, a line of soldiers, all obviously well-fed, watered, and full of ‘Dutch Courage,’ and clutching sprigs of mistletoe, waiting to greet us. ‘We’ll run for it,’ we said, and we did. Not very sporting of us, but we were young and rather shy in those far off days. We were given very good seats for the concert about which I remember very little except for the lady who sang ‘The Lights of Home,’ a song made famous by (Canadian-American singer-actress of the 1930s – 1940s) Deanna Durbin. I sobbed noisily and uncontrollably all the way through. What a wimp! … I could relate sad and tragic tales of the war years, as all those who lived through that dreadful period could, service men and women and civilians alike. But I prefer to remember the friendships of the girls I served with who were from all walks of life; the ‘old salts’ who at first resented us and then accepted us and were kind, the young ones who dated us, and, sometimes, married us. Please, God there will never, ever be such a world-wide conflict again.6.
“Joining the Wrens Was a Liberation”– Six Wrens Look Back
A group of six women known as the “Dundee Wrens” recalled their wartime thoughts and experiences. Helen Dunn enlisted in 1941 after her brother was killed in action at sea. Like her brother, she became a stoker and, hoping to be allowed to stay near home, was fortunate to be posted to Dundee. 7.
Babs Rickman remembered being given warnings and advice by members of her family about the possibility of forward behavior by the many navy men she was sure to encounter. She claimed that it was unnecessary when none of the men ever really looked at her. Her main motivations for joining the WRNS, she claimed, were “… because they had the best uniform and my mum was a lousy cook. I had to get away!” A popular saying among the Wrens during World War II was, “I joined for the hat.” Rickman became a coding specialist who worked on highly classified electronic direction-finding equipment. 8.
Muriel Thompson said, “Joining the Wrens was a liberation – the chance to see places and meet people that you would never have otherwise.” Thompson’s rank was leading hand, the equivalent of a leading seaman. The rank was one above that of able seaman and one below petty officer. Thompson did not elaborate on her particular job, but as her rank was not that of a specialist she might have worked at clerical duties in an office or been assigned to work under the supervision of a specialist that could have included any naval job. She, like a good many other Wrens, met and married her husband while in uniform.9.
Margaret Kennedy spent much of her time at the windswept and barren base at Scapa Flow. Her chief memory of the place was, “They always said Scapa had too many Wrens and not enough men!” Like Muriel Thompson, Kennedy did not mention her specific job at Scapa. She could have done anything: office work, ship repair, storekeeping, communications, medical work, or any of the other jobs assigned to base support personnel.10.
Dorothy Garland was responsible for operating and maintaining the antisubmarine netting placed at harbor entrances. She did not mention being in any particular danger except for once having her bath interrupted by a German air raid. She said of her wartime service, “They were really happy days. We were green as grass, we’d never been anywhere before and my main memory is of meeting so many lovely people.” Norma Abel agreed with Garland that friendships made in wartime were the most enduring aspect of her time as a Wren.11.
“A Lot of People Would Have Done Exactly the Same”– A Wren’s Citation
If many of the men who served in the Royal Navy from 1939 to 1945 were recalcitrant to speak about their wartime experiences, so it was also for Beth Hutchinson, a Wren who had been decorated for heroism. In November 1943, Hutchinson was driving on patrol in a remote part of Scotland when a Swordfish torpedo bomber crashed nearby. Her subsequent actions were recognized in 1944 when King George VI presented her with British Empire Medal for bravery. The citation accompanying Hutchinson’s award read,
An aircraft crashed in flames at Crossing Bombing Range. Wren Booth (her maiden name) drove with an officer to the scene of the accident, and, with complete disregard for her own safety, assisted in dragging the observer clear of the main wreckage while explosions inside the aircraft scattered burning debris and petrol all around them. 12.
Hutchinson managed to extinguish the flames on the flier with her bare hands, put him into her vehicle, and drive him to the nearest medical facility. He died of his injuries. Hutchinson never told the story to any of her children or grandchildren. Her family was also unaware that she had been awarded the BEM. When she finally spoke about it some 70 years later, she said,
It was very dark and the weather wasn’t very good. I can remember seeing a plane swoop down, but I didn’t see it come back up. I drove over to the wreckage, where I jumped out of the vehicle. The pilot was already dead, but the co-pilot had been thrown clear and was on fire. I had to stamp out the flames with my hands. I was very upset that I couldn’t save him, but he was so badly injured that it was a miracle that he had survived so long after the crash. You don’t think about the danger at the time. If you are going to do it, you are going to do it. I am sure that an awful lot of people would have done exactly the same.13.
Hutchinson’s daughter who was 64 by the time she became aware of her mother’s deeds, said,
This is the first time I have ever heard her talk about it. She was so shy, and she did not want to cause any fuss. She just said that she did what she had to do.14.