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‘AIRWAVES’: A WREN Radio Mechanic in the Fleet Air Arm, 1941-46

by Bemerton Local History Society

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
Bemerton Local History Society
People in story: 
Win Hayhurst (neé Clunie), Tom Hayhurst, Peggy Bachelor, Joan Ashburner, Joan Chamberlain.
Location of story: 
London,Warrington-Cheshire and Inverkeithing-Fife
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 August 2005

Radio Section, HMS Merlin, Donibristle, nr Inverkeithing, Fife. Summer 1944. Kneeling, front left:Win Clunie. Standing, rear left: Joan Chamberlain. Names of remainder are not now known.

Serving with the Fleet Air Arm as a Petty Officer Radio Mechanic in the WRENS was a truly life-changing experience, and one I would not have missed for the world. It was a mixture of extremely hard work in all weathers, funny, sad and dangerous, but always with a great sense of purpose and comradeship. We were a small band of women from all walks of life with a common aim to do something for our country.

It was January 1941. I was sent to London to Golden Square (in Soho) where we underwent two weeks of ‘make or break’ training. We scrubbed floors, cleaned windows, learned how to march, did P.E. every morning, and slept on the hardest mattresses on the floor every night. Every day we travelled by tube in our overalls to Mill Hill for training. At the end of the two weeks we could either stay or leave — nobody left! We were then separated into our various categories, sent home, and told to wait for our postings.

I was sent to a wonderful place called ‘Hornby House’ (the home of the maker of Hornby trains) at the corner of Cheyne Walk on Chelsea Embankment. It was a beautiful house overlooking the River Thames. There, thirty-six of us would be Radio Mechanics. We were issued with our uniforms — navy skirt, jacket (black buttons with the naval crest — brass ones came with promotion to Petty Officer), white shirts with stiff collars, black tie, flat cap with Naval ribbon, flat black shoes, and, joy of joys, black silk stockings! We had two navy blue shirts for working gear, and most amusing of all, bell-bottom trousers. These were intended for Seamen, not women, so we had great fun cutting some bits out and sewing up the waists to fit the female figure.

We were divided into two sections, one to go to Chelsea Polytechnic for training, the other to go to Battersea Poly. This training lasted for nine months with a professor from Cambridge University trying hard to teach us Physics, Maths and Electronics. We\walked to the college, and worked each day from 8.30am — 5.30pm, with an hour for lunch. It was very hard work. Whenever my fiancé Tom Hayhurst came home on leave from his Royal Artillery Unit (51st Highland Division, Medium Artillery), we would have a revision session, which helped. Occasionally, we would get tickets for The Proms. Our pay was fifteen shillings (75p) per fortnight, so we couldn’t afford much! I could only go to the theatre when Tom was on leave (he was training to be an officer, so had more cash!).

We went to dances at the Forces’ Club, we made friends with the wonderful Chelsea Pensioners, and we saluted every bit of gold braid we saw — sometimes it was nothing to do with the Navy! Naval ships sailed down the Thames and the crews waved madly when they saw us. Every night for weeks we heard the bombs raining down, and saw the searchlights criss-crossing the river. We were too tired to go to the shelters, so we stayed put, hoped and prayed.

Exam time soon came. We knew that if we didn’t pass, we would be transferred to the ATS. That was unthinkable, so we worked hard! We were shown how electricity was generated from huge dynamos, and we learnt all about magnetism. We were also told how to flatten ourselves against a wall if a Naval Officer was passing. We were taken to the outskirts of the Palace, and had to march past the Duchess of Kent for a final salute before being sent on to the next stage of our training after a week’s leave. We all passed the exams with flying colours.

After our week’s leave, we had the biggest cultural shock when we were sent to HMS Ariel at Culcheth, near Warrington for ‘practical, hands-on’ training which lasted for three months. After our luxurious Hornby House, it looked awful. Our accommodation was in long Nissen huts, with 36 of us in each hut and only one cast iron stove in the middle for heating. The ground was muddy and we were cold! A bugler sounded ‘Reveille’ every morning at 6am. P.T. was in the bitter cold weather for one hour, we had to do ‘Square-bashing’ every evening, and in between we had lectures on the various radio sets with valves and circuits and coils and resistors! We were taken to a foundry and taught how to make our own tools from pieces of steel — a screwdriver, a chisel and a marlin spike, which I still have! We were also taught how to splice a rope, how to solder wiring, and how to use an ammeter. We were given circuits to repair, and were taught about the differences between the radio wavelengths. All the time we were cold, and longed to see our loved ones who were being constantly blitzed by the German bombs.

Tom used to come to meet me on Culcheth Station, and the Station Master let us sit by the fire in the waiting room, and he lent us his lamp for lighting. That was our little bit of heaven!

Three months passed and it was exam time again. This time, it really was the FINAL, and we were really apprehensive. If we didn’t pass this time we would have to stay another three months and do it all again with the next batch of trainees. Two of us didn’t pass and had to stay. The rest of us were sent home for a week’s leave and to await our final posting. We were sad because we had all been together for a long time, and now we were going to be split up. Farewell parties were held with our male counterparts — all young Radio Mechs like us. I have to say that although we lived close together, there was no harassment of any kind. This may be unbelievable by today’s standards, but true all the same. We sewed the men’s’ badges on, we repaired their pullovers, and they would give us their rum rations when we had colds. Later on in the war, we had news of the few who had gone on to aircraft carriers, and who never returned.

For a few days of my leave, I went to London to meet Tom who was also on leave prior to being sent to India and the Far East. It was with aching sadness that we parted, knowing that it could be for the last time. Back at home, my official posting was waiting for me — to HMS Merlin, Donibristle, near Inverkeithing, Fife. I had a brief visit to the naval dentist and when he enquired where I was going, he said “That’s the last place God made.” I felt really cheered!

It was now January 1942 and I was on the train bound for Scotland, feeling very much alone and uncertain. Fortunately, there were some men from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the train, and they took care of me. When we got to Carnforth station at about five in the morning, they fetched me a cup of tea and some bacon butties provided by the truly wonderful ladies there. Soon I began to feel a little better. I had to change trains at Edinburgh, and I was kindly directed to the right train for Donibristle (- ‘Donibee’ to everyone). I got off the train at Inverkeithing, and was met by a driver of a truck who heaved my kit-bag in the back, and we set off. By this time, I had moved up the ladder to being Leading Wren, so was treated with a little more respect!

It was dark, it was cold, and I was feeling terribly lonely, and I had no idea where we were going. Eventually, we arrived at the front of a huge house called Fordell House, which once belonged to the Duke of Buckingham. I was met by a Leading Wren called Marjorie who gave me a beaming smile and led me to the office where my passbook was checked. I was then shown my sleeping quarters — again, a huge bedroom with about thirty of us in bunks. There was a room downstairs with a few chairs and a table, a bathroom with a bath you had to climb steps to get in to, and that was it. All meals had to be taken in the mess on the airfield two miles away, and I was so hungry!

The Officer in Charge, Alison, shook my hand and told me that I would be starting my duties on the airfield next morning. A truck would be at my door at 7.30am. We would have breakfast and then have an hour’s Morse practice before going on duty (I had actually been taught Morse code at HMS Ariel). The next day, I began to meet all my fellow Radio Mechs, male and female. Again, we were in a Nissen hut in the charge of an Old Hand called ‘Stripey’, who always had tea brewing (black and bitter!) on a stove in the hut. He was to give us Morse training every day, and he pulled no punches! After that, we had to assemble on the parade ground where a Petty Officer would report to the Captain “All present and correct, Sir”. We were dismissed after the bugle sounded, the flag was raised, and the day began.

The aircraft carriers sailed up the Firth of Forth to anchor, and their planes would fly on to our airfield. The fitters would check the engines and repair any bullet holes. The engineers would replace the bombs or torpedoes, and we would take out the aircrafts’ radio sets (-very heavy, so we worked in pairs), bench test them in the hut, repair them if necessary, then replace them in the aircraft. A Radio Mech and a Radar Wren would then go on the test flight to test the radio from air to ground, either by Morse or R/T (-voice). Being new, I was not allowed to fly at first, but as the days went on, I became more used to the routine, and after much pestering, I got my name on to the list for flying duties. I just couldn’t wait!

My first flight was in a Fairey Albacore with an open cockpit — wonderful! I put on my flying gear — fur-lined boots, silk-lined gauntlets, and parachute harness. We had to collect our parachutes from the packing station which had a very reassuring message over the door which read: ‘IF YOUR PARACHUTE FAILS TO OPEN, BRING IT BACK.’

So began the last three years of my service life. There were so many things to remember! I was promoted to the rank of Petty Officer, and my pay went up a bit. As well as flying in Swordfishes and Albacores, we flew in Barracudas, Avengers, Walruses and Sea Otters. We also serviced the radios in Sea Hurricanes, Seafires and Corsairs. We were all given an extra shilling a day as ‘Danger Money’. I regularly flew in the wonderful old Fairey Swordfish — a famous bi-plane with an open cockpit again — known as the ‘Old Stringbag’! Once, the gun at the rear of one aircraft became loose and the pilot turned to me and shouted “ Hold on to the gun - it could kill somebody!”. On another occasion, a ladder which had been left on the ground got caught on the arrester hook of a Swordfish as we took off, and we flew blissfully unaware that we had a ladder dangling underneath the plane. I remember one of the fitters coming up to us as we landed and he said: “ Taking your b*****y fire escape with you now, are you?”.

On another day, I was flying in an Albacore when the undercarriage failed to come down, so we made a ‘pancake landing’, with a fire engine and an ambulance standing by — it was a very bumpy landing! One time when I was in a Grumman Avenger, the top of the petrol tank came off and we were flooded with petrol — one little spark and ……..??

The saddest day of all was when an Albacore took off with a young New Zealand pilot called Andy. He had two Radar Wrens with him on the flight. He loved ‘hedge-hopping’. Flying too close to the ground, he couldn’t pull out. We watched in horror as the plane crashed and the smoke rose. We knew we had lost two friends — Peggy Bachelor and Joan Ashburner, aged 23 and 21. The funeral was in the Naval church in Rosyth and they are buried in the naval cemetery there. It was a day of great sadness and many tears. The parents of the two girls brought a wreath for the pilot because they knew his parents couldn’t be there — a memory that will stay with me for ever. I can still see the two girls walking across the airfield to the aircraft, laughing and swinging their parachutes. Joan was to have been married in the next fortnight to a pilot who was returning from duty in the Far East.

So, life went on, flying in one aircraft then another, all the hours leading up to D-Day. Eventually, on VE Day, we were called on parade and the message was:
‘Splice the main brace for the sailors, lemonade for the Wrens’. So we retired to the Petty Officers’ mess for a sherry. But the war wasn’t over, fighting was still going on in the Far East. I received a letter saying that Tom had been wounded by shrapnel and was in hospital. He had lost a piece of bone from his arm and would be in plaster for nine months. I was so worried, but there was nothing I could do.

Soon the war was over in the Far East too, and in April 1946 I was awaiting demob, and Tom was on his way home. I waited on the quayside in Southampton as the troop ship came in with all the soldiers and sailors waving and cheering. I saw Tom come down the gangplank, and soon we were both in tears as we realised that never again would we have to say ‘Goodbye’ — not until 21st March 1999.

I am proud of those years, they made me what I am today, whatever that is. I still get a lump in my throat every time I hear the Marine Band play ‘Sunset’ — the Navy’s hymn. In our case, it was played by the camp bugler, and wherever we were, we had to stand to attention until the flag was down.

Good days, sad days, but I hope, days and years well spent.

Win Hayhurst (neé Clunie)
August 2005

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