How the Women’s Royal Naval Ser­vice played a vi­tal role in both world wars

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Only a cen­tury ago, it was un­think­able for wom­enw to serve in the armedd forces but heavy losses att sea dur­ing the early yeears of the First World War prompted the Royyal Navy to form the Women’s Royal Naval Ser­vice. Es­tab­lished in 1917 and pop­u­larly known as the ‘Wrens’, it paved the way for thhe for­ma­tion of other sim­i­lar or­gan­isaa­tions such as the Women’s Army Aux­il­i­aary Corps and the Women’s Royal Air Force.

If any of those en­list­ing for the WWrens had am­bi­tions to go to sea, they weere soon dis­ap­pointed. Its motto, ‘Never at SSea’, made it clear that their du­ties would be en­tirely shore-based, the idea be­ingg to re­lease ex­tra man­power for ac­c­tive ser­vice at sea. In­deeed, the thrust of the WRNS re­cr­ruit­ment cam­paignn was ‘Free a mman for sea ser­rvice’.

AAp­pli­cants hadd to be ageed beetween 18 and 445 (later aa­mended tto 17 and 550), and to bbe Bri­tish su­ub­jects of Br­ri­tish dess­cent. The servvice record for LLily Marx, for ex­aam­ple, which is held at The Na­tion­nal Ar­chives, showws that she was born in Aus­tr­ralia but was of Bri­tish na­tioon­al­ity and ed­u­cated at Chel­tennham Col­lege and Bed­forrd Col­lege, as well as in Switzer­land. A re­port fromf 1919 de­scribes her as “an ex­treme­lyy good of­fi­cer all round”.

High stan­dards were ex­pected, with re­cruits be­ing asked to pro­vide ref­er­ences and un­dergo a med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion. This earned the WRNS the un­for­tu­nate rep­u­ta­tion for favour­ing well-ed­u­cated middle-class women. In prac­tice, re­cruits came from a wide range of back­grounds and had a va­ri­ety of skills to of­fer.

Ini­tially, Wrens were ex­pected to per­form mainly do­mes­tic and cler­i­cal du­ties, such as cook­ing, serv­ing meals, clean­ing and tak­ing mes­sages. As the war pro­gressed, though, they took on a num­ber of roles nor­mally car­ried out by men, be­com­ing elec­tri­cians, des­patch rid­ers, sail-mak­ers and code ex­perts. An­other ser­vice record at The Na­tional Ar­chives is that of Dorothy Poul­ter, who in July 1918 en­rolled as a “mo­tor driver”. Her char­ac­ter and abil­ity were deemed to be “V.G.” ( Very Good).

The first di­rec­tor of the WRNS was Katharine Furse (see Per­sonal File), a for­mer Com­man­dant-in- Chief with the Vol­un­tary Aid De­tach­ment. Un­der her en­er­getic lead­er­ship, the re­cruit­ment tar­get of 3,000 swelled to 5,000 rat­ings and 450 of­fi­cers. Of th­ese, 23 women lost their lives as the Wrens un­der­took in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous tasks.

The first Wren to die on ac­tive ser­vice was 19-year-old Josephine Carr, who was on board when RMS Le­in­ster was tor­pe­doed by a Ger­man sub­ma­rine on 10 Oc­to­ber 1918, just out­side Dublin Bay. More than 500 peo­ple are be­lieved to have per­ished in the at­tack.

De­spite be­ing deemed a suc­cess, the WRNS was dis­banded on 1 Oc­to­ber 1919, just un­der a year af­ter the end of hos­til­i­ties. Kather­ine Furse, de­ter­mined to keep the spirit of the WRNS alive, formed the As­so­ci­a­tion of Wrens in 1920. In April 1939, with the threat of an­other war loom­ing over Europe, the Ad­mi­ralty de­cided to re-es­tab­lish the WRNS, once again with the idea of re­leas­ing men for sea-based ser­vice. New posters en­cour­aged women to ‘Join the Wrens and free a man

for the fleet’. This time the di­rec­tor was Vera Laughton Mathews, who had served with the WRNS dur­ing the First World War as a Prin­ci­pal Of­fi­cer, and had for a while been in charge of the Train­ing De­pot at Crys­tal Palace in Lon­don.

New re­cruits to the WRNS could en­list at their lo­cal Em­ploy­ment Ex­change, but as de­mand for per­son­nel grew, a ma­jor re­cruit­ment drive saw the ap­point­ment of a WRNS Trav­el­ling Re­cruit­ment Of­fi­cer to per­suade women to sign up. This proved so suc­cess­ful that an­other of­fi­cer was ap­pointed to cover Scot­land. By De­cem­ber 1939, more than 3,000 women had en­listed, and this num­ber grew steadily as the war pro­gressed, peak­ing in 1944 at nearly 75,000 of­fi­cers and rat­ings, spread across 50 branches and un­der­tak­ing around 200 dif­fer­ent jobs.

As be­fore, jobs were lim­ited to do­mes­tic or of­fice-based du­ties, but as man­power short­ages be­came acute, the Wrens were de­ployed to an ever-grow­ing range of vi­tal and of­ten dan­ger­ous roles, in­clud­ing those of ra­dio oper­a­tors, bomb range mark­ers, radar de­tec­tors and me­chan­ics.

Some Wrens were de­ployed to coastal sta­tions to in­ter­cept naval sig­nals from Ger­man U-boats. Oth­ers went to Bletch­ley Park to as­sist the Enigma code break­ers or help staff the Naval Cen­sor­ship Branch, ei­ther in Lon­don or in mo­bile units. Many were posted over­seas; by the end of the Se­cond World War, Wrens were sta­tioned at naval bases all over the world, in­clud­ing South Africa, North and East Africa, South Amer­ica, the United States, North-West Europe, In­dia, Aus­tralia, the Per­sian Gulf and the Mediter­ranean. Over­seas post­ings could last up to two-and-a-half years.

From De­cem­ber 1941, women be­tween the ages of 19 and 30 could be con­scripted into the armed forces, with the age limit later ris­ing to 43, while for those who had served in the First World War, the up­per age limit was 50. This un­doubt­edly helped boost the num­ber of re­cruits ap­ply­ing to the WRNS. For many women, join­ing the WRNS was a harsh and soul-de­stroy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. From its ear­li­est days, life as a Wren be­gan with a tough two-week train­ing pe­riod, dur­ing which the re­cruits would learn naval ter­mi­nol­ogy and have to un­der­take me­nial jobs such as scrub­bing floors, clean­ing win­dows and wash­ing up.

The Se­cond World War Ex­pe­ri­ence ( war-

De­spite their middle-class rep­u­ta­tion, Wrens came from a wide range of so­cial back­grounds


wrns/de­fault.asp) is an on­line re­source that con­tains many first-hand sto­ries of Wrens, in­clud­ing Edith Becker, who said of her train­ing pe­riod at West­field: “I re­ally thought they were try­ing to dis­pense with my ser­vices... I was called upon, with oth­ers, of course, to scrub stone cor­ri­dors, de­clinker the boiler, heave buck­ets of coal up and down stairs, clean win­dows in the most in­ac­ces­si­ble places... the list was end­less. It was a rude awak­en­ing. I was just a slip of a girl and barely used to fold­ing my py­ja­mas!” An­other re­cruit, Jean Gads­den, who trained at Mill Hill, “hated the dread­ful place and was over­whelmed by home­sick­ness”.

From this ini­tial pe­riod, re­cruits would go on to be trained for a spe­cific trade, which could last up to six months, de­pend­ing on the na­ture and com­plex­ity of the job.

Wrens were not sub­ject to the same dis­ci­plinary reg­u­la­tions as their male coun­ter­parts as they were still tech­ni­cally civil­ians, but nev­er­the­less a high stan­dard of be­hav­iour was ex­pected. Re­cruits were not per­mit­ted to wear jew­ellery, hair had to be worn off the col­lar, and they were not al­lowed to speak to of­fi­cers.

Betty Thom­son, an­other re­cruit in­cluded in The Se­cond World War Ex­pe­ri­ence, re­called that “we weren’t al­lowed to go down the same cor­ri­dors as the of­fi­cers in those days”, while Pa­tri­cia Pot­ton was con­fined to bar­racks for seven days for singing “im­moral songs” af­ter a night out.

Each naval base was un­der the charge of a Port Su­per­in­ten­dent, who was re­spon­si­ble for re­cruit­ment, be­hav­iour and com­pe­tence. Salaries were mea­gre, but board and lodg­ing were pro­vided so most Wrens man­aged a fairly com­fort­able ex­is­tence.

Uni­forms were also pro­vided. From 1939, all Wrens wore a dou­ble-breasted jacket, skirt, tie and white shirt, with dif­fer­ent hats ac­cord­ing to rank. For Cora Jar­man, the uni­form was one of the at­trac­tions of join­ing the Wrens: “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.”

Dur­ing both world wars, the re­cruit­ment of women into the naval ser­vice was ini­tially re­sented by their male coun­ter­parts, but th­ese feel­ings mel­lowed over time as the con­tri­bu­tion of the Wrens was noted and ap­pre­ci­ated. One se­nior Royal Navy com­man­der com­mented: “I did not want WRNS but as I had to have them I made the best of them, and I must say we have been very lucky in our WRNS.”

Re­la­tion­ships be­tween the sexes were sub­ject to strict guide­lines. Wrens were per­mit­ted to so­cialise with their male coun­ter­parts but were ex­pected to be­have in an ap­pro­pri­ate way. Most Wrens were able to en­joy ac­tive, but largely in­no­cent, so­cial lives.

Penny Martin, an­other re­cruit whose rem­i­nis­cences are in­cluded in The Se­cond World War Ex­pe­ri­ence, re­called how she and a friend met up with two Cana­dian cadets: “No­body minded if we went out with them in plain clothes to Torquay and went danc­ing... but we were for­bid­den to sit and chat with them be­hind the squash courts in uni­form – be­cause we were rat­ings!”

WRNS at sea

De­spite the WRNS motto ‘Never at sea’, some of the re­cruits did get a taste of life on board – much to their de­light.

In 1943, Lady Rozelle Raynes was

one of the first re­cruits to go on a stoker’s course in Portsmouth, af­ter which time she was drafted to the Southamp­ton-based HMS Tor­men­tor, a Land­ing Craft In­fantry Base, where her du­ties in­cluded de­liv­er­ing stores to the ship and bring­ing the men ashore each evening.

She wrote of her time there: “It was very cold some­times in mid­win­ter with the ropes frozen up... 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.”

Women were also trained to op­er­ate small boats close to the shore, and as the war pro­gressed, were in­creas­ingly de­ployed on troop ships in a va­ri­ety of roles, from as­sist­ing with naval train­ing to be­com­ing coders and cypher of­fi­cers. They were also drafted into other branches of the Royal Navy, no­tably the Fleet Air Arm, where they took over tra­di­tional male roles such as those of ra­dio and air me­chan­ics, and fly­ing trans­port planes.

In the sum­mer of 1942, some Wrens were drafted into the Sub­ma­rine Ser­vice as tor­pedo women and sub­ma­rine at­tack teach­ers.

The most sig­nif­i­cant sea-based op­er­a­tion in­volv­ing Wrens was the D-Day land­ings in Nor­mandy in June 1944, when they took some of the smaller boats across the Chan­nel and helped tow stricken boats back to Eng­land.

The grow­ing re­liance on women dur­ing the Se­cond World War, and their ev­er­ex­pand­ing range of du­ties, both at sea and on the shore, ex­posed them to in­creas­ing dan­gers. By the end of the war, more than 300 Wrens had lost their lives, with a fur­ther 22 wounded. De­mo­bil­i­sa­tion be­gan shortly af­ter the dec­la­ra­tion of peace in the sum­mer of 1945.

The role played by the WRNS had been con­sid­er­able – a fact high­lighted by Vera Laughton Mathews in Oc­to­ber 1945 when she told the re­cruits: “The war is over and you have had a hand in win­ning it. You have helped to lift this bur­den of hor­ror and suf­fer­ing from the world.”

The WRNS re­mained in ex­is­tence af­ter the war and was de­clared a per­ma­nent ser­vice in Fe­bru­ary 1949. Around 3,000 Wrens were re­tained to give ad­min­is­tra­tive sup­port to Royal Navy bases in the UK and over­seas.

The idea of in­te­grat­ing the WRNS into the Royal Navy was first mooted dur­ing the 1970s, and a ma­jor step to­wards this was taken in 1977 when re­cruits be­came sub­ject to the Naval Dis­ci­pline Act and able to un­der­take a greater range of trades. In 1981, the WRNS train­ing base HMS Daunt­less was closed af­ter 35 years, and women trained along­side their male coun­ter­parts at HMS Raleigh. In 1990, women were of­fi­cially de­ployed at sea for the first time, when 20 Wren of­fi­cers served on HMS Bril­liant dur­ing the Gulf War. Three years later, the WRNS was fully in­te­grated into the Royal Navy. Since then, all fe­male re­cruits have been able to serve at sea at all lev­els.

The fact that women are now recog­nised as be­ing ca­pa­ble of serv­ing along­side men as equals is in no small way due to those pi­o­neer­ing women of the First and Se­cond World Wars, who proved their worth in the face of ex­treme dif­fi­culty and dan­ger.

Wrens move a tor­pedo to be loaded into a sub­ma­rine in Portsmouth, Septem­ber 1943

A WRNS of­fi­cer ex­am­ines a ri­fle dur­ing her train­ing as an ar­mourer in

July 1942

Rat­ings of the WRNS wire

A pa­tient be­ing treated glass floats to­gether as part while un­der ether in 1846 of their work as mine net work­ers in the First World War

A re­cruit­ment poster for the WAAC ( Women’s Army Aux­il­iary Corps) and WRNS in 1917

WRNS board­ing of­fi­cers with the Naval Con­trol

Ser­vice in 1944

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