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World War II: My Memories of School and the WRNS

by PatRose

Contributed by 
PatRose
People in story: 
Patricia Manley-Cooper
Location of story: 
England
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2195705
Contributed on: 
12 January 2004

I was just sixteen when the war broke out in 1939 and I remember very well Mr. Chamberlain's broadcast on that lovely summer Sunday. I think everybody was quite certain that the Germans would be bombing us within hours, but nothing happened and so started what become known as the "phoney war".

I returned to School on the Norfolk coast to find that part of our playing field had been dug up as an air raid shelter. Also apparently the two Headmistresses, Miss Shave and Miss Hughes had been advised to make a gas proof room and had chosen the boot-room for this purpose. In hindsight, it could never have worked as there were at least five doors into this room, but none of us questioned it at the time.

The senior girls were asked to give up their spare time to tear up newspapers, soak the pieces in a bucket of water and then prod them into all the cracks with a knife. I was doing this alone one afternoon when Miss Hughes came in, and to my alarm and astonishment, she flung her arms round me, kissed my forehead and then rushed out of the room - I suppose the sight of one of her cherished pupils working on such a macabre project was just too much for her.

I left School and returned to live with my parents in London. My father, Canon Browning, was a vicar of St. Mildred's Church, Lee, a suburb bordering Blackheath, Lewisham and Catford, which later suffered terribly in the blitz.

The phoney war continued all through a very cold snowy winter, but there was a feeling of unease everywhere because we knew something would happen sooner or later. Come the summer of course it did. Hitler was on the march again, France fell and then we had the miracle of Dunkirk - it really was a defeat, but we hailed it as a victory, though some of us knew, including me someone who did not come back.

After this came the Battle of Britain. I remember my mother and I shopping in the west end of London and looking at the newspaper placards which read like a Test Match Cricket score - something like "England 125 Germany 20" and we hugged each other with glee, not giving a great deal of thought to the pilots who must have been killed.

In September 1940 my brother, John, came on leave and during the weekend we went off in his little Morris 8 to play tennis at the club we both belonged to at Bromley, some ten miles away. Coming home in the early evening we saw all the pedestrians standing staring at the sky. On getting out, we looked with some amazement to see the sky full of aircraft and decided that we had better get home as fast as we could. That night the Luftwaffe set fire to the London docks. We went up onto a neighbours roof and the sight was devastating. The sky was red and searchlights criss-crossed each other across the blaze like something out of Dante's Inferno. So started the London Blitz.

My father had had an air raid shelter built in his study and we huddled there listening to the syncopated drone of German bombers every night and hearing the crump of bombs in the distance and not so distant! A few days later by brother's leave came to an end and, as we waved him off down the drive, my father turned to my mother and said "Thank God he has gone, he will be safer where he is going" and my mother nodded in reply. It struck one even then, how odd it was that my parents were thankful and happy seeing their soldier son going back to his unit. Of course, both they and I knew he was only going back to "darkest Suffolk".

The next question was what to do about me. It was suggested that I should return to School and be an unpaid "gofer". The School had now been evacuated from the Norfolk coast to a village called Braddon in Northants because of the threat of invasion. No time was lost, and my father hired a car for the next day to take my mother and me to Braddon - telling my mother to stay for a few days to get some respite from the bombing. Having been unable to get through to the School by telephone, to announce our arrival, my father sent a telegram - it never arrived. What none of us had realised was that communication in and out of London was non existent - no telephones or telegrams and probably no letters - things did not get better for some considerable time.

However, we were welcomed by the two Headmistresses with open arms, and as the girls were not due back from the holidays for a couple of days, they were able to put us up in the lovely house they were renting for the duration. The house was delightful but too small to house the whole School so most of the staff and some of the pupils were billeted round the village. The next day my mother found a room for herself with a farmer just down the road, and I was given a room with five beds where four six year olds were to sleep and I was supposed to look after them plus any other jobs that came along.

The girls started to come back the next day and one of them who lived in London had passed the vicarage that morning on her journey back to school. She came up to me and said "Oh Pat isn't your house in an awful mess". I replied "yes isn't it". For some reason I could not bear to let her know it was news to me.

When my mother was told, the farmer, where she was staying, volunteered to drive her up to London the next day provided she could direct him once they reached the outskirts. So early the following morning they set off, the farmer in his usual working clothes driving a van usually used for taking his pigs and sheep to market, and my mother sitting beside him in her smart autumn rig-out with a very attractive velvet hat with feather round it, and surrounding her was the miasma of long gone sheep and pigs. However she seemed quite unruffled and serene. Not so me! I spent a very anxious day wondering if my father was dead and, if so, when I would ever see my mother again. No one really spoke to me all day - I suppose they were afraid they might upset me. So I was extremely thankful when in the early evening they returned with the news that my father was alive and well.

They had had a pretty awful journey. Once they had reached London they were plagued with numerous detours owing to bomb damage, burst water pipes, sewers and gas mains as well as unexploded bombs. Eventually about ten minutes walk from the vicarage, my mother abandoned the farmer and van, ducked under the cordons and made her way to our house. She could see at once that the Church (next door to the vicarage) had had a nasty knock and that all the trees in our driveway were down making it impossible to get to the front door also that several windows were boarded up. As she went up the back path, she met our cook, Grace, coming out of the back door. "Where is the Vicar, Grace?" she asked, and Grace replied "I am so sorry Madam, but he is in the cemetery." This little exchange kept the family amused for quite a while. Of course, my mother realised at once that he must be taking a funeral, so she hot-footed it back to the van and the farmer and managed by a circuitous route to get to the cemetery. She met my father at the gate and was greeted by him with the words "What on earth are you doing here?" He then told her to get back to Braddon and he would visit her when he could. This he did from time to time by means of a train and an old bone shaker bicycle with his small attaché case perched on the handlebars.

My poor father, together with most Londoners, had a pretty wretched war. He was already in his early sixties, which was considered elderly in those days, and his vicarage received bomb damage nine times. He, and the maid we had at the time, eventually had to camp on the ground floor. The vicarage had been draughty at the best of time with twenty two doors on the ground floor. What with all the damage on the upper two floors as well as coal and coke difficult to get, it was no wonder that in later life he became crippled with arthritis.
During one daylight raid, the Elementary School in his parish received a direct hit and he, with clergy from other denominations, had to take the funerals. He said he would never forget the line of little white coffins and the distraught parents trying to jump into the communal grave after their children. He also had to bury many of his friends and parishioners, victims of the blitz. On one macabre occasion the cemetery was hit and coffins, bodies and bits of tomb stones were strewn everywhere and had to be dealt with.

Meanwhile back at Braddon, everything was pretty peaceful, until one lovely autumn morning when I was told to take my four six year olds plus three little day girls from the village for a walk. The countryside was beautiful and we wandered around the fields and woods playing games until I suddenly became aware of a low flying aircraft and, looking up saw a swastika on the wings. At the same moment it started to fire its machine gun into the field we were in. "Now let's all jump into the ditch" I shouted, hurling them in one by one and leaping in myself. The children obviously thought it was a new game I had devised and there was a lot of giggling. The plane circled round and started machine gunning again and then flew off. When I felt that it was not coming back, I hauled them all out and told them it was time to go back. When we emerged into the village street there was a reception waiting for us, the school staff and anxious parents looking up and down the road. I will never know if the pilot was aiming for us or just trying out his machine guns.

One night shortly after this, the siren went and once more I heard the unmistakable drone of enemy aircraft. There was no air raid shelter but we got all the girls downstairs and spent a very uncomfortable night dozing when we could. The next day we heard about the Coventry raid, which was only about 13 miles from Braddon as the crow flies.

It was about this time that my parents decided to save what they could of their home and find a place out of London where we could all forgather. So my mother went house hunting and found a four bedroomed house to let in Sea Lane, Goring-by-Sea near Worthing. So leaving a nucleus of furniture for my father at the vicarage, my mother and Grace moved in at the beginning of December 1940. It was a bit dispiriting that as they moved in many of the residents were moving out, because of the invasion threat, indeed the people who owned the house we were renting, had already moved away inland to the country.

My father, who since he was a young curate had always had Tuesday as his day off, started to come down to Goring on Monday afternoon and return to London on Wednesday morning, which gave him two nights of comparative peace and comfort.

I left Braddon at the end of the Christmas term and went to my new home in Goring. Once there, I became a fire watcher and learned to use a stirrup pump and how to put out incendiary bombs. I was on duty one night a week, no bombs were dropped in the vicinity but the sirens went off every night about 9.00pm and the 'All clear' about 3.30am. The bombers were all heading for London, but one had to be up and about in case one of the aircraft had to turn back for some reason when it would jettison its bombs. There was only one hostile incident, when my mother and I were returning from shopping and walking down Sea Lane, a lone aircraft started machine gunning the road (I must be a magnet for them). She and I dived into a neighbours garden and landed in their flower bed laughing hysterically.

I also started to work at the soldiers canteen down along the sea front. The soldiers at that time were a small unit of French Canadians, who were building up the sea defences - barbed wire, pill boxes and mines. We got to know them quite well and so it was very upsetting when we sometimes heard an explosion and knew that a poor unwary soldier had accidentally trodden on a mine.

A few weeks after I have been working in the canteen a new volunteer arrived, a Mrs. Manley-Cooper, who regaled us with stories of her son, Norman, who was in the Fleet Air Arm and was serving on the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. She became very excited when the news came of the sinking of the Bismark. The story of this is well known but suffice it to say, I later learned that Norman was in the thick of it and that his Swordfish was so full of bullet holes that it was jettisoned into the sea.

In early June 1941 Mrs. Manley-Cooper said her son was home on leave and would I like to come round one evening to meet him. I already had a boy friend at that time, but thought I might as well go. Little did I know then, or even later, that I was meeting my future husband. Not so Norman, who always swore that he saw my reflection in the conservatory door as I was escorted by his mother across the garden and said to himself "there is the girl I am going to marry". At that time he had just had his 19th birthday and I was about to have my 18th.

After his leave, Norman went to the Orkneys for a few weeks and then sailed for the Middle East, where he remained throughout the Desert Campaign and El Alamein. The squadron was on attachment to the 8th Army and their role was pathfinding by dropping flares over the enemy targets for the R.A.F. bombers. He said it was a bit "hairy" with bombs coming down from above them and flak coming up from below them. There were small camps and fuel dumps far into the desert guarded by Gurkhas where the squadron could refuel if they had been on a long mission.

On one occasion, Norman was left behind to drive the ground crew back to base, a journey of two or three days. At last they came out onto the coast road hot and dusty and there was the beautiful blue Mediterranean. They tore off all their clothes and dived in and were just having a great time when a scout car came up the road. A young Captain shouted to them to come out, as there was a German patrol a few miles down the road. As he shepherded them away, he was heard to mutter "Trust the Navy they are all mad!".

On another occasion Norman's plane was given a compass point out in the desert and told to land and pick up a passenger. This they duly did, and a filthy dirty, smelly Arab scrambled into the plane and sat completely silent all the back to base. The following night in the Mess, an immaculately dressed army officer came up to them and thanked them for picking him up the previous night. He also arranged for a drink to be waiting for them at the bar before he went on his way. Norman, on reminiscing in later years, said he was pretty sure that this person was David Stirling, the originator of the Special Air Service, or one of the other early SAS Officers.

Sometime during this period Norman delivered a much needed plane to the besieged island of Malta. After which he was picked up and brought back by sea. He eventually returned to the U.K. in the spring of 1943 having been awarded the D.S.C. and we became engaged in the September.

Meanwhile, I joined the WRNS together with my oldest friend Wendy Hodgson. We were sent to Southsea for a two week induction course where we were issued with our uniform. Two shirts, two jackets, two pairs of shoes, a great coat, hat and souwester, but we firmly spurned the woolly stockings and terrible underwear. We found a tailor who altered our uniforms to make them actually fit us and finally we got to grips with the stiff collar and studs. At the end of the two weeks we were posted to Lee-on-Solent which was the H.,Q. of the Fleet Air Arm.

We were billeted at a hotel just outside the station, or camp as it was referred to, called the Mansfield Hotel (it had obviously been requisitioned) and found ourselves in a small cabin, No.24, at the top of the house with two other girls Cherry and Poppet. From then on, the four of us were inseparable when off duty and didn't take life at all seriously. I don't think I have ever laughed so much in my life.
We were treated as children having to be in quarters by 10.00pm and so we behaved like children. We went to the cinema two or three times a week wearing our souwesters back to front so that they looked like poke bonnets. We tried going to the Saturday night dance a few times, but the sailors instinctively knew we were "nice" girls and weren't up for what they wanted and never asked us to dance, so we gave that up. But on the whole we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. As far as work was concerned, Wendy landed herself a very cushy job as a Writer to two R.N.V.R. Officers and after two years or so realised her ambition to become an Officer.

I was sent to a large building also just outside the camp called FONAS (Flag Officer Naval Air Stations) as a messenger. Our job was to take papers round to each of the offices, every half hour, make tea, answer bells and sundry other things. I also used to collect the Officers sweet ration (known as nutty) from the NAAFI on the camp. One of my clients was the actor Ralph Richardson, who used to thank me most charmingly but never offered my any of his "nutty". I also found I was being sent for rather frequently by a Captain Edwards, whose reputation as a drunken roué was well founded. One day I was told to attend him with a sewing needle, and was more than a little alarmed when I heard he wanted me to dig out thorns from his hands! He had obviously fallen into a gooseberry bush or something the night before. I never saw him again as I was promoted to a Writer, but heard a couple of months later that he had shot himself.

As a Writer I went to an office called the "Go Out" where all the letters and orders were logged in and out and despatched to the numerous Air Stations. Some were "confidential" and some "secret" but, of course, not "top secret", it was mostly technical stuff to do with aircraft. There were six of us in the office and we all got on really well. We had a lot of fun with a contraption we called "George" that we fitted into the light socket, which was used to melt the red sealing wax to blob onto the "secret letters" - the wretched thing was always getting constipated and we had to take it to bits.

All the serial orders came to us in bulk - sometimes 80 pages or more. They were printed on a duplicator and so we would get 100 sheets of page one, 100 sheets of page two etc. and we had to make them into sets. We had a very long table and we put the piles of paper in order around it. Whenever anyone had time, they would rush round the table taking a page off each pile, discarding those that were not printed properly, and putting the sets to one side. Quite often we were ankle deep in discards, but fortunately a sailor came each evening to clean up after us and to take all our despatches registered and otherwise to the Post Office.

The tannoy in the camp went on all day and although it was not meant for us, we got used to hearing the calls and a stentorian voice shouting things like "stand easy hands to smoko" or "those going ashore muster for liberty boat at main gate 12 noon". Of course, there was no liberty boat but, even inland, one always "went ashore" through the main gate. Sometimes I used to go onto the camp and see if I could wheedle an accumulator and battery from the radio workshop for our clapped out wireless in Cabin 24. You had to be very careful getting out of the gates in case an officious Petty Officer jumped on you saying "I bet you have got rabbits in that bag, I can see their ears sticking out". Rabbits was another name for contraband. The trick was to exit with a gang of other service personnel and hope for the best. Happily I never got caught.

My working hours were from 8.30am to 5.30pm with an hour off for lunch, and in our office one of us had to say behind until 7.30pm in case of late despatches. We were free from 1.00pm on Saturdays until Sunday evening. I usually tried to get home. This entailed a long bike ride from Lee to Gosport, over the water on the ferry, through devastated Portsmouth to the station, where I caught the train to Goring. I just used to abandon my bike against a wall and hoped it would be there when I got back - it always was. I used to feel a bit guilty about going home and being fed by my mother's and Grace's meagre rations, but they always seemed delighted to see me.

The rations on the home front were biting hard and even the dog had to become vegetarian. One never to be forgotten cold Christmas Day, when I was on leave, a mine was washed up on the shore at the bottom of Sea Lane and everyone had to open all the windows whilst it was exploded. All there was for lunch was a home made pork pie, made from unmentionable parts of pig that my mother had got from somewhere.

Every three months we were allowed a long weekend from 1.00pm on Friday to 1.00pm on Monday. This was knows as a "Friday While" and we were given a ration card. Long leave (10 days) seemed to come at the whim of the Chief Petty Officer in charge of us all at Flag Officer Naval Air Stations. I had been in the WRNS for about 10 months before I was allowed a long leave. Our pay at this time was £1.1s.0d a week, which did not go very far what with train tickets, cinema tickets, toiletries etc. and replacement uniform

The food was pretty abysmal. I am sure the Navy provided good and plentiful stuff but the cooking was so awful that most of it was thrown away. Such a terrible waste when one thought of how the civilian population were having to cope. I only once remember having any butter and then it was piled onto the tables and we found it was all rancid and I certainly never saw a fresh egg. We used to see delicious meals carried into the rooms of the First Officer Wren who was in charge of us, whilst we used to look, see what was on offer, and then usually seized our bikes and went to a nearby cafe for a bun or jam tart.

In 1944 in early May, Norman arrived at Lee, he was the Operations Officer for three squadrons of aircraft known as The Wing. Their role for the forthcoming invasion of Europe would be spotting for the guns on the warships, which would be bombarding enemy positions. Norman and I had seen each other previously on fleeting visits but now we were able to be together most evenings. He became very popular in the office, as he would come bouncing in with strawberries, chocolate biscuits and all the latest gossip.

By now all leave was cancelled and no one was allowed out of their own area. Every leafy lane and small wood harboured tanks, guns and other equipment, certain parts of the beaches were screened from prying eyes where the landing craft were assembling. Mysterious edifices appeared moored out at sea looking like giant egg boxes, we had no idea what they could be for - later of course we learned they were part of the Mulberry Harbour that was to be built off the French coast. The whole of southern England was swarming with service personnel and, as June approached, tension and excitement was palpable.

No one knew when D Day would be, but at the beginning of June all aircraft were grounded and painted in black and white stripes like a zebra. So when I awoke on the 6th June 1944 and heard aircraft flying, I knew that the time had come for the invasion of Europe that Churchill had promised so long ago.

All went well with The Wing and on D Day plus 3 (this was how it was counted for the first week or two) Norman said he was going over to France to have a "look see". He arrived back that evening with several boxes of camembert cheese and a bottle of cream, which had gone off as they had flown through a thunderstorm!

A bit later on he came into the office with the news that a pilotless plane had been spotted crossing the coast. This was one of the first "Doodlebugs" which devastated London yet again. After the army had got well inland, the Wing departed back to the west country, but not before Norman and I had made arrangements for our wedding.

We were married on the 30th December 1944 at St.Botolph's Church, Worthing, and spent the first two days of our honeymoon in London. By then the "doodlebugs" had been largely displaced by V2's but this didn't seem to bother us.

In April 1945 Norman sailed for Australia to join the Flag Officer Naval Air Stations (Pacific) Headquarters in Sydney preparing for the next stage of the war against Japan. I immediately put in for a draft to Australia so that I could join him - it was a long and tedious business, but at last at the beginning of August I went home on embarkation leave. Whilst there, the atomic bombs were dropped. Japan surrendered and the war was over, and I was devastated!! I felt certain that I should no longer be going to Australia, but I had reckoned without the Admiralty. Once the wheels have been set in motion there is no going back.

So at the end of August I boarded "The Otranto" with 300 WRNS and 3000 Australian POW's being repatriated back to their homeland. This made for a rather interesting voyage and the rumours of what went on in the lifeboats after dark was nobody's business. I shared a cabin with 71 other WRNS, guarded all night by sailors with fixed bayonets. We slept on canvas strung between poles in three layers - the lowest six inches from the deck and the highest six inches from the bulkhead. You had to be careful not to stretch your legs out too much or your toes would come in contact with the next girls head! We didn't have a drawer or hook between us and, being on C deck there were no portholes, so the heat in the Suez Canal and Red Sea was unbelievable.

I was lucky as I was taken under the wing of some Australian Officers and could go to their cabin for a bath. After boat drill in the mornings our days were spent lying on deck reading and chattering. The voyage took six weeks and the odd thing was that, where one had come from and where one was going to, really no longer existed - there was only the present little world floating in the middle of the sea.

In early October, just as dawn was breaking The Otranto passed through the Heads of Sydney Harbour and slowly, very slowly, made her way to where she was going to berth, and there on the long jetty sticking out into the sea was just one lone figure - it was Norman.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - World War II - My Memories - feedback

Posted on: 13 January 2004 by Carey - WW2 Site Helper

Hallo! I'm Carey, one of the Writing Buddies here on the site.

I must thank you very much for your story -- tremendous! Smashing detail -- and so vivid; you bring to life the sights & sounds. Evocative imagery: I must admit I felt an awful chill reading your description of the destruction of the docks in the East End, and of the wee white coffins -- especially in contrast with that German firing his machine guns as you fled with your charges across a field!

What a difficult situation for your father -- indeed for everyone. But your story illustrates marvelously what I think of as 'humour against adversity.' Cos humour really does save us, doesn't it? The remark, 'Dad's in the cemetary' - what a shock, then what a bit of a giggle, I can see that! Smuggling your 'rabbits'...and always trying to have your radio in working order -- I can understand the frustrations there, but it's true, what else can one do but laugh?

I also find your descriptions of the jobs, duties, and tasks you held, as I am interested in how girls contributed during the war; thank you for your detail there.

Now I wonder, if I might ask or suggestion two things at present. The first is, would you be kind enough to add to your Personal Page and tell us a little about yourself? It would be lovely, especially the specifics about your time as a Wren, because then others who read your story and look you up may be prompted to write as well, or perhaps we may have some similar stories!

The other is, perhaps you have looked around at the site and seen that some of our contributors have started a portfolio of work. One site project for the near future will be a commemoration of the Dunkirk Evacuation and another will be about D Day. Now you have written such a long story here, but it would be smashing if perhaps you could write for us another story or two specifically about Dunkirk or about D Day.

Thank you so much for your contribution

cheers,
Carey

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