Wrens at war: life in the Women's Royal Naval Service in WW2
The volunteers of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) carried out plenty of thankless tasks during the war, but they also performed crucial duties that helped win the war. Elisabeth Shipton delves into its history and recounts the tales of the plucky ‘Wrens’ – from cleaners to mechanics – who made up its ranks
When the air raid siren began to blare, everyone on the third floor ran for the basement – except for 19-year-old Vera Jahans, the naval switchboard operator, who was ordered to stay at her post. She was told to wear her tin hat, and, “if it got very noisy, to get under the board for a bit”. After the Allied invasion of France in June 1944, switchboards like hers were in operation 24 hours a day, coordinating the movement of troops and supplies. Vera was just one of more than 75,000 women who served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) during the Second World War, undertaking vital – and sometimes dangerous – work.
The WRNS had first been established in 1917 during the First World War, when around 6,000 ‘Wrens’ took on predominantly administrative and domestic jobs in the Royal Navy to release men for frontline duty. Disbanded in peacetime, it was reformed in April 1939, when war again became inevitable. Dame Vera Laughton Mathews, who had spent two years with the WRNS during the first war, was appointed as its new director.
In the Second World War, the only way for women to undertake military duties was to join one of the three auxiliary services that provided supporting staff for the armed forces. Alongside the WRNS was the Army’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The WRNS quickly became the most popular. As the smallest of the women’s services, entry into the WRNS was naturally more competitive.
Like many women, 18-year-old Barbara Smoker was anxious about factory work “because I’d feel I was making things that would kill people and wound people, and this seemed to me such an awful thing”. She thought that in the services, she would be less directly involved in killing the enemy and so volunteered before she risked being called up for factory work. The WRNS also offered women more opportunities for skilled specialist work in addition to general domestic roles.
What was WRNS training like?
Newspaper adverts and recruitment posters depicted a smart woman in uniform calling for volunteers to “Join the Wrens – and Free a Man for the Fleet”. Paulina Nichol, who served as a WRNS meteorologist, recalls wearing “a straight blue serge skirt, black stockings, dark blue bloomers (a fleecy material) and a jacket which... fitted pretty well if you were lucky.”
And, unlike the women of the ATS, most Wrens were volunteers rather than conscripts. With thousands of applications every time new positions opened, the WRNS was seen as the most exclusive of the auxiliaries, and the recruiting officers were able to take their pick of the best candidates. But when women were called up, they were in for a shock. Each one had to earn her place – and her uniform.
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The women first reported as probationers to Mill Hill, London, for two weeks’ basic training. Dressed in overalls, there was none of the promised glamour. According to 19-year-old Eileen Drury, the whole affair was “designed to put us off... it was perfectly dreadful, nearly killed us!” Lectured on naval traditions, the women were taught to drill, and any romantic notions of crewing sailboats were quickly dismissed. Josephine Pearce says, “I remember spending most of the fortnight scrubbing rough bare concrete floors... cleaning, cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning.”
What roles were the Wrens given?
The recruiters were seeking resilient women who weren’t afraid of hard work or being shouted at by their superiors. Instead of joining an exclusive club based on social class or wealth, Wrens were selected based on their skills and experience. The director, Vera Laughton Mathews, insisted that, apart from the initial appointments in 1939 when the WRNS was being established, all officers should be appointed from the ranks.
After basic training, the women were interviewed. If they were accepted, they were given a chance to choose their role and finally receive their uniforms. Initially, the navy only wanted women for domestic and clerical duties, but even before the war began, they asked Wrens to take on coding and cypher work. To keep communications secret, a coder would encrypt messages to be sent between ships and bases by substituting the text with pre-agreed words and phrases.
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However, a Cypher Wren dealt with more confidential material, substituting each letter using a more complex system. Enid Bruce began working as a Wren coder in her home city of Newcastle at the end of 1939. Then, in May 1943, she became a cypher officer on board a troop ship. Wrens were not permitted to serve on large Royal Navy vessels. As well as maintaining its ban on women in combat positions, the navy argued that it must ensure propriety – there were no separate female quarters on board.
Yet troop ships like Queen Elizabeth, which Enid worked on, had been converted from luxury liners, so accommodation was not an issue. In total, approximately 30 Wrens worked on troop ships and handled sensitive information, including messages bound for the Allied leaders’ conferences in Quebec and Tehran.
While the British worked hard to protect their own communications, they were simultaneously trying to break the enemy’s codes. Eileen Drury was offered a role so secret that she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about it – not even her parents. If anyone asked, she was doing clerical work. Reporting to a top-secret building in Stanmore, London, Eileen joined a small group of Wrens in charge of Britain’s first computers, a series of machines called Bombes.
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Built by the country’s top codebreakers at Bletchley Park, the Bombes were set up by the Wrens according to precise instructions, and they waited for hours as they processed thousands of combinations, aiming to crack the German naval codes. Allied convoys transporting troops and valuable supplies were at the mercy of Germany’s submarines, the U-boats. If Bletchley could break a code in time, the convoys could be warned in advance of the enemy’s plans.
When the Bombe suddenly stopped, the Wren noted the position of the dials, and the information was sent back to the team at Bletchley. Eileen says the Wrens were under “a lot of pressure to be quick and terribly accurate and not to make mistakes... we knew if we were quick and could get the message up quickly, we could save a lot of lives”.
Eileen later volunteered for service abroad, spending two years working for South East Asia Command in Colombo, Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), dealing with Japanese codes. Wrens first went overseas in 1941, and by the end of the war they had served in Ceylon, Egypt, Kenya, Singapore, Iraq, South Africa, the United States and Northern Europe. They supported the Royal Navy across the globe.
How did the WRNS change during the war?
While the majority of women were still employed in domestic roles (such as cooking and cleaning) by 1941, the number of jobs available to women increased significantly. For instance, all naval despatch riders were Wrens, delivering messages by motorbike, and they also began crewing small craft within the navy’s harbours. As meteorologists, their forecasts informed the navy and its air force, the Fleet Air Arm, ahead of manoeuvres. In the months leading up to D-Day, the Wrens helped build up knowledge of how weather systems behaved across the Channel and the impact these could have on the operation.
From parachute packers to radar plotters, the list of jobs kept growing. New technologies such as radar required more people on the ground to install and maintain equipment, leading to a growth in mechanical roles. Female conscription was introduced in December 1941, and over the next year WRNS membership doubled from 10,653 to 22,898, peaking at 74,635 in 1944.
Wrens put together the practice bombs for pilot training, which contained a bright orange dye to show whether or not they had hit their target. The dye stained the Wrens’ hands, and their overalls were forever covered in oil from the guns
In her admission interview, Louise Taylor requested to do “something out of doors”. With a grasp of physics and “strong wrists”, Louise undertook six months’ training as an ordnance mechanic. She learnt to strip down different guns and name all the separate parts – one gun she worked with, she recalled, had over 365 parts – before putting them back together again. Once qualified, Louise was posted to Scotland with the Fleet Air Arm. Her job was to maintain and clean the guns (including those fitted in aircraft) and then test them to make sure that they were all in working order.
Louise and the other Wrens also put together the practice bombs for pilot training, which contained a bright orange dye to show whether or not they had hit their target. The dye stained the Wrens’ hands, and their overalls were forever covered in oil from the guns. Carrying around heavy wooden tool boxes was hard work. There were meant to be weight limits on what women could lift and carry, but nobody ever checked. In due course, Louise was placed in charge of the explosives compound, checking the inventory and safety of the site – a major responsibility.
Were the Wrens ever in combat roles?
Women were still not permitted in combat roles, but sometimes the boundaries became unclear – particularly during Operation Outward. From 1942 until the Allies landed in Normandy, Wrens were employed in a secret scheme in the coastal town of Felixstowe, Suffolk. Inflating large balloons measuring about 8 feet in diameter, the Wrens then attached either a long trailing wire or an incendiary device to the end. When the wind blew in the right direction, these balloons drifted across the Channel to German-occupied Europe.
The aim was to cause a major nuisance; for the wires to bring down telephone lines, and for the incendiaries to set fire to crops and buildings (one balloon even caused a blaze that destroyed a power station). Unusually, these Wrens were also trained to fire Lewis guns and rifles in case they came under attack. When the wind was blowing the wrong way, the Wrens spent their time making grommets: circles of interlaced wire that were hung across harbour entrances to prevent submarines entering. In total, Operation Outward employed seven Wren officers and 140 Wrens, and they successfully launched over 99,000 balloons.
The Wrens also played a crucial part in implementing radar; a major innovation championed by the British armed forces during the war. Wren radio mechanics were trained to install radar units in aircraft and boats and to fix them quickly if anything went wrong. Radar used radio waves to ascertain the location of other vessels and aircraft. This information was then relayed to operation rooms, where Wrens received details of the locations and plotted them on a grid, providing commanding officers with a three-dimensional view of the situation.
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Former Wrens recall looking at the grid on D-Day and trying to keep track of the hundreds of ships crossing the Channel. Thelma Stollar trained for nine months as a radio mechanic, and in March 1944 she reported to HMS Collingwood to help set up a radar training school. Their male commanding officer “was utterly appalled to see us and said that it was absolutely useless to have Wrens... he was furious.” He told the women they would have to run cables, fix generators and mix cement; not women’s work. To which, Thelma said, the Wrens replied: “Oh, we can do that!” According to her, they always said, “we can do that”.
Over the course of the war, the women of the WRNS adapted to new roles, taking on more responsibilities and facing new challenges. Such was the vital contribution of the Wrens that in 1949 the service was made permanent, before eventually being integrated into the Royal Navy in 1993.
Elisabeth Shipton is a military historian, television and radio documentary researcher, and author. Her books include Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War (The History Press, 2014)
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