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- Researcher 234207
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- 20 October 2003
This is my Aunt Helen Hallowell’s story. Helen is 89 years of age and lives in an Abbeyfield Home in Ilkley.
I was a WREN for five years during the War. I enrolled as a transport driver at 18 years of age after working in the Halifax Building Society in Halifax. My brother was in the Fleet Air Arm and I was desperate to serve in the Navy. I was accepted into the Women's Royal Naval Service as a motor driver and was asked to report to London. I already had a driving license. I was put through a four-week course at the British School of Motoring where we had experience in driving all kinds of vehicles around London.
As a qualified naval driver I was sent to Scotland to ferry Naval officers around in Largs, and subsequently in Ardentinny. I shall always remember my arrival in Glasgow en route for Ardentinny. The train was late and I had missed the ferry crossing. I'd had nothing to eat or drink during the journey to Scotland, after someone knocked my thermos flask out of my hand on the tram on the way to the station in Huddersfield from Halifax.
On arrival in Glasgow I asked a policeman where I could stay for the night and he suggested the YWCA and accompanied me there. When we arrived there were no rooms left. They were occupied by other female service personnel. I didn't know what to do and just hung around the foyer, hoping that they would fit me in to a corner somewhere. Eventually the woman on the reception desk took pity on me and said I could sit in the chair in the hall until the first morning ferry at 6am - and that is what I did!
Lord Mountbatten, not pleased
While I was in Ardentinny Lord Mountbatten and entourage came to inspect the Naval Personnel. Following this inspection I was instructed to drive him over to Arroachar, which at the time was a naval torpedo establishment. En route on a narrow mountain track I came face to face with an elderly postman wobbling along on his bicycle. I felt I had to give him a wide berth or I could have touched him with the car, and in so doing the wheels of the car sunk slowly into the gully at the side of the track. Lord Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet, was not pleased. He never tolerated fools gladly. I was directed to get another car and driver, and I must say I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, in the rain, back to base to do as instructed.
On another occasion while in Ardentinny there was a serious accident during a naval exercise on Loch Long. There were several ratings injured, some very seriously. The injured were taken to an improvised medical Nissan hut to await the arrival of ambulances, and the WRNS personnel were asked to assist in any way they could. I remember one rating had injuries in both eyes as well as a broken leg. He subsequently received treatment at St Dunstans Institute, having been permanently blinded in that accident.
Greenwich and a commission
After a year I was asked to report to the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, where I became a WREN cadet, and started a four-week course for a commission. The course included everything from square bashing to social etiquette. One of the tests was to stand up before a group of strangers and speak for five minutes on a given topic. We were given a slip of paper on entering the room and that was the subject on which we had to speak. Happily my subject was the Fleet Air Arm and I felt it could have been much worse because my brother, John, had already joined the Fleet Air Arm as a subaltern. I had no difficulty in speaking about that for five minutes.
On another occasion on the course, we had to entertain male and female naval cadets, to show what social skills we had. I had been to elocution classes earlier in my life so I had a fund of anecdotes to pass on. I must have passed all these tests because the next thing that happened was that I was asked to go to be measured for an officer’s uniform. I remember the tailor saying to me after I had taken off my skirt to be measured: 'Good God, woman, what are you wearing?!' In fact I was wearing the official issue of WRNS undergarments and these included a pair of voluminous navy blue knickers in silk stockinette that would stretch from under one's knees to the armpits.
Third Officer to Wetherby
After I was commissioned I was posted as a Third Officer to Wetherby. This was a stokers training establishment. Later, after service in Largs, Ardentinny, Greenock and Dover I was asked to go to India as a Quarters Officer on Lord Mountbatten’s staff. However, my mother was ill at the time so I produced a doctor’s certificate asking for exemption. Incidentally, not all the WRNS personnel arrived at their destination, as one of the boats was torpedoed en route to India.
My final memory of the war was that several months after it had finished and I had left the Navy, I recollect receiving a bill from the Admiralty for £15. This was the cost of a clock, which had been removed from the wall of one of the four houses in Dover that had housed WRNS personnel and for which I was responsible. I think it must have been removed by somebody during the celebratory high jinx and the announcement of the cessation of hostilities. That is an account I never settled!
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