- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ginger Thomas
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- Contributed on:
- 16 April 2004
This is Ginger Thomas's account of her experiences during the run-up to D-Day:
I joined the Wrens in March 1943, when I was 22 years old. Until then I had been working as a shorthand typist in the Town Clerk's Office in Swansea. It was a reserved occupation, but I had wanted to join the Wrens for quite a while, and eventually persuaded the Town Clerk to let me go.
I had only been to London once in my life, and I felt absolutely terrified when I arrived at Paddington Station. I was on my own, and there was so much hustle and bustle! There were notices up that advised the Wrens on where to gather, and I was soon helped into an army lorry and taken to Mill Hill for my two weeks' basic training. There was no guarantee that you would become a Wren at the end of the training - they could reject you if they didn't think a service life would suit you.
The fortnight at Mill Hill was something I'll never forget. There were about 850 of us, all doing different things. In the mornings we did the most laborious tasks. I think I cleaned more bathroom taps in those two weeks than I have in my life since! At the end you had to do a test in whatever field you wanted to enter - shorthand typing, in my case.
I passed the test and was posted to Norfolk House, St James Square, to a job which turned out to be one of the joys of my life
On loan to Cossac
Norfolk House was alive with people from all three services and from different nationalities. I was originally assigned to the naval section, but after a few days I was sent 'on loan' to a different section. I went to meet a man called General Morgan, the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander, or Cossac. The Supreme Allied Commander hadn't yet been appointed, and I soon realised that it was General Morgan who was responsible for planning the assault on the Continent.
The first time I met him was in a huge room with maps covering the walls. He was sitting behind a desk, and said, 'Sit down sailor.' He then dictated some letters to me. That was the beginning of what turned out to be not only a wonderful job, but a wonderful friendship as well.
My first impressions of the general was that he was quite tall, with fair hair and almost boyish looks, with a lovely soft voice - very easy to take dictation from. He was very friendly.
I was quite surprised when he called me 'sailor' that first time I met him, and as time went on I started to wonder whether he even knew my name, because he always addressed me as 'sailor'. But I was the only Wren working on his staff, and I suspect it was his way of putting me at ease. He called me 'sailor' until the day he died.
Planning the D-Day invasion
In those days, a shorthand typist was a very important person. There were no dictaphones or computers or any electronic aids. I went everywhere with General Morgan, notebook in hand. I took dictation, typed letters, and took notes at staff meetings.
At the time, General Morgan was working on the plans for the D-Day invasion, so my work was extremely interesting - although at the start, I must admit, it was a little bit beyond me. We all realised that it was very hush hush, and very important, but at the beginning I didn't quite understand what was happening. It was also a little bit frightening, because I never thought I would be involved in anything so important. Whether the invasion plans would be successful was a big worry in my little mind.
The history books will tell you that when Allenbrook handed the plans to General Morgan he said, 'We know it won't work, but you bloody well have to make it work.' I remember General Morgan remarking on that quite often.
A working day at Norfolk House
I was living at a nurses' hostel between Chalk Farm and Belsize Park at the time, and would travel to Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus on the tube every morning. From the station there was the jostle of walking down the Haymarket, and by the time I got there, Norfolk House would be buzzing with activity. I didn't work shifts, but I would generally be there all day and if the general wanted to work in the evening I would stay late and be taken home by his driver. I was never allowed to go home on my own late at night.
There was no such thing as a typical day - the work depended on whatever was going on. I usually had to attend the Chief of Staff's conferences in the morning and evening, and the rest of the time I dealt with anything the general wanted answered or typed. After the morning meetings everything had to be typed up for the evening, and after the evening meetings everything had to be typed for the following morning, so there was very little time off. We often worked into the early hours of the morning.
The atmosphere in Norfolk House was very focused. Everyone seemed to be concentrating on the job, so there were no little cliques standing around and talking. There was always a feeling of confidence among the staff - there had to be, with an operation of that magnitude. Everything depended on getting it right. We knew that the lives of thousands of troops were at stake.
Everyone worked very long hours, often well into the evening. There were no rigid office hours and no clocking on. You just worked when you had to work, and left when you were told to go.
There was certainly no official leave, and I don't think I went home to Swansea once in the 12 months I worked on the invasion plans. I had the weekends off, and sometimes visited my cousin in Shaftesbury from Friday night until Monday morning. I would usually spend most of my time there catching up on sleep!
During the time I was at Norfolk House, an appeal went out to the public to send in postcards of the coast of Normandy, maps, Michelin Guides or any other information that might help with the planning of the operation. Although I didn't personally have anything to do with sorting out the information that was sent in, I remember the rooms with postcards stuck on the wall.
When I used to go to the Wrens' reunions after the war, I always made a point of going to look at the front of Norfolk House. There used to be a brass plaque commemorating the place, and one year I noticed that it was quite green. So the next year I took some Brasso with me, and while I was polishing the plaque a policeman came to ask me what I was doing! They've since removed the plaque and it's now a cemented area in St James Park.
General Frederick Morgan
General Morgan was a workaholic. I don't think there were ever times when I was there and he wasn't. He was very energetic and hard-working, which I suppose he needed to be to head an operation of that size. I think he even had a bed at the office. He always apologised to me if we had to work long hours.
One thing I remember about the general is that he always stopped for half an hour if we were working late on a Wednesday evening to listen to ITMA, the radio programme 'It's that Man Again'.
When I found out that General Eisenhower would be Supreme Allied Commander and that General Morgan would not be leading the invasion, I felt sad, but the general seemed happy about the choice of leader. I think he realised all along that he was the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Commander Designate - that was the brief that had been given to him. He knew very well that someone else would be appointed, and probably suspected that it would be an American.
I don't think General Morgan was ever given the credit he deserved. Winston Churchill made him famous in a simple sentence when he said that it was General Morgan of the British Army who had been primarily responsible for the invasion plans. It was our General Morgan who initiated it, but others subsequently got the credit for it.
I kept in touch with the general after the war. We used to send letters and Christmas cards to each other. I still have a wonderful letter from him, which I cherish very much, in which he says, 'Do you remember that it's 18 years now since you and I put Ike on the road to victory?'
One Christmas I didn't get a card, and realised that something had to be wrong. It turned out that he'd had a massive stroke. I went to see him just two weeks before he died, and kept in touch with his wife until her death.
I never saw General Morgan get angry or frustrated at the problems he encountered. I never even saw him losing his temper - he just wasn't that kind of person. It was a privilege to work for such a wonderful man. I was very proud to have that job.
The move to Southwark House
I worked with General Morgan until the end of March 1944. In April of that year I was moved to Southwark House with the naval unit. We were given very short notice that we were moving, and frantically packed all our bits and pieces.
Some things fade in your memory, and others are as clear as if they happened yesterday. I have a very clear memory of sitting in the back of a lorry with my friend Joan Prior, holding on to our typewriters and duplicators, on the way to Southwark.
Southwark House was set in a vast area of parkland in those days. We slept in Nissen huts in the grounds, but worked in the main house. We were more or less sealed off at Southwark, we never left the premises. We had a busy time there because the doodlebugs were coming over fast and furious.
I vividly remember the day before the start of the invasion. The weather was dreadful, and I remember a meeting being called with a meteorologist, I think his name was Stagg. He said there would be a gap in the weather and if we didn't seize the opportunity, we would have to wait another three weeks.
On the night of 5 June 1944, we didn't go to bed because we knew the invasion would be happening in the early hours of the next morning. We went out to watch the gliders being towed over to the continent. I vividly remember the sound of the aircraft. We all knew where they were going, but we didn't know what would happen when they got there. It was a very emotional and worrying time.
Setting foot on the Continent
In September 1944 I went over to France, where I met up with General Morgan again. My memories of this time are very hazy, and I regret now that I never kept a diary of these events.
My most vivid memory of crossing the Channel was hearing the ship's tannoy blaring out, over and over again, Bing Crosby singing 'Would you like to swing on a star'. Near the coast of France we had to disembark onto landing craft, and then we landed on the wonderful Mulberry harbour. We had typed about it hundreds of times but were now seeing it for the first time.
I remember travelling through St Lou, and being astonished at the amount of damage there had been to the place. I was used to bomb damage because Swansea had been badly damaged, but the devastation here was breathtaking.
As we travelled through Normandy, troops would stand outside their tents waving at us - they probably didn't see many girls around there! We were taken to billets somewhere in Normandy, and after a few days were moved to Caen. While staying there I got in touch with General Morgan and his aide, Roland Harris, and I spent Christmas day with them.
We had a wonderful time in France. We were under the umbrella of Shaef (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) and were treated like lords and ladies - wonderful food, wonderful entertainment in the camps. We were invited by the French to lots of functions, and sometimes dinner would take about three hours because the food would come in about seven different courses.
I remember going into Paris on the metro quite often, we would visit Galeries Lafayette and other wonderful places. I loved the Sacre Coeur and went there very often.
In France I had a wonderful time working for Admiral Ramsey, because the morale amongst the staff was excellent. Wrens, officers and ratings mixed remarkably well. We even had mixed hockey and cricket teams. I wasn't a very good shot with the ball, and during one game I threw the ball and broke an officer's nose! There was blood everywhere, and I thought I would be court marshalled, but nothing happened.
While we were at Caen, we heard that Admiral Ramsey had died in a plane crash. The funeral was held there, in terrible weather. It was a particularly harsh winter, with icicles the size of my arm hanging outside our Nissen huts. We carried wreaths and marched behind the coffin, which was drawn on a gun carriage. We were all very upset because he had been like a friend to us.
The night after the funeral there was a heavy snowfall, and all the wreaths were covered in snow and ice. Admiral Ramsey's family were due to spend some quiet time by his graveside the next day, and that morning the Wrens were sent out to shake the wreaths free of ice. I remember very clearly the smell of the flowers as we shook those wreaths.
After Admiral Ramsey's death I worked with Admiral Burrows, who had been appointed in his place. The war was as good as over by then. We were posted to Germany and took a lot of journeys into Berlin at that time.
At the end of the war General Morgan wanted me to join him in his new job, but by then I wanted to come home, so I was demobbed in August 1946. I received the British Empire medal for my war service.
After the war I went back to my old job in the Town Clerk's office in Swansea, but I never regretted joining the Wrens. I had a wonderful time.
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