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MEMOIRS OF AN HMS FORWARD (1939-1945) WRNS TELEGRAPHIST - Part 1

by Geoffrey Ellis

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
Geoffrey Ellis
People in story: 
By Wren No. 85486 Marguerite HUMPHREYS
Location of story: 
RN HQ HMS FORWARD (1939-45), Newhaven
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A8174018
Contributed on: 
01 January 2006

On finishing school in 1943 I decided to respond to a government appeal to 'release a Sailor for Active Service' by enlisting in the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS). From October 1943 to September 1945 I became Wren No. 85486 Marguerite HUMPHREYS. This is my account of the most memorable years of my life.

To join the Women's Royal Naval Service you had to have passed the School Certificate, which in those days, meant you HAD to pass in English Language, Arithmetic and one foreign language (French in my case). Even if you passed with distinction in any amount of other subjects, if you failed in one of the set requirements, you had to sit the whole lot again - no picking and choosing and carrying forward your better pass marks.

Before I joined up, I was torn between becoming a meteorologist in the WAAF and a radio mechanic in the WRNS. When my friend Irene Davies and I decided to join up together, I had to forego my wish to be a mechanic, as Irene did not take a science subject in her School Certificate. So, to stay together, we agreed to train as Telegraphists.

We trained at HMS Cabbala, Lowton St.Marys, Leigh, Lancashire. This was a 6 months' course and we had to pass out in six subjects - Procedure, Coding, Receiving, Transmitting, Technical and Theory. We were trained to transmit and receive at 24-25 words per minute, but the pass mark speed at the end of the course was 20 words per minute. Believe you me, you NEVER forget Morse (any more than you can forget shorthand). It creeps up on you in most unexpected times and you find yourself di-da-ing tapping out or transcribing letters and figures into Morse. I always had a bit of a mental block in distinguishing H' from 5 when we were receiving mixed letters and figures. This caused me a great deal of anguish. We had to be able to receive in French (with the various accents as well as the language). We had various practice phrases which transcribed rhythmically into Morse and we used to practice them over, and over again. One was BEEF ESSENCE.

At the end of the course, three of us were sent to Royal Naval Headquarters HMS FORWARD, at Newhaven, Sussex. This was end of March 1944. Access to our W/T Room was via a long, steep descent into the bowels of the earth, 122 steps and a heavy metal door at the bottom. Half way down the stairs there was a machine-gun post, with its barrel pointing up. In the W/T Room at that time, there was a Leading Wren Telegraphist on each watch and two WRNS Telegraphists (three when we joined) on each watch. There were also two civilians in their late 40's/50's, known as Uncle Alf and Uncle Stu who lived locally and had been Wireless Officers on the Newhaven-Dieppe Cross-Channel Service pre-1939. They were there during the day. Over all, there was a Chief Petty Officer (Nobby Clarke B.E.M.) and a 3-badge Leading Hand (Alf Clasby) who both lived locally. There were 3 or 4 wireless sets in use.

I can no longer remember the frequencies used though 2850 is in my mind. We did not use R/T - everything was in Morse code. We used Naval Code - a 5-figure block, then the message in 4-figure blocks, ending with another 5-figure block. (On D-Day night, a new code called AQUA was used. The first block was AQUA followed by 3 or 4 -letter blocks. This was broken by the Germans within a day or two and was abandoned. It probably served its purpose in the initial stages).

When we arrived, a three-watch system was being worked and we were assigned to a watch. I cannot remember the sequence of how the watches were matched to the days, but over a 3-day span the watches worked were divided 0800 to noon, noon to 1600, 1600 to 2000 (the dog watches) and 2000 to 0800 following morning (the night watch). During night watch we snatched a quarter of an hour break, for sandwiches, drink of tea, visit to the loos, etc. but if it was slack, we would have an hour or two off in turns. We could put our head down in the sleeping cabins (about 4 or 6 bunks as I remember). Two cabins, one for the men, the other for the WRNS.

What I DO remember is the fuggy, airless pong in the tunnel. We were always glad of the break. However, a visit to the loo involved a long walk 'through the hill' to the lower entrance - a long tunnel with heavy metal doors opening on to the hillside where a lone Marine sentry guarded the tunnel entrance. There were 2 loos just outside. A bit embarrassing for us but it must have been a welcome break for him to be able to have a chat. But the breath of fresh air after the tunnel was wonderful

When we came off night watch, we had breakfast at the Denton Quarters Nissan hut. Fried bread, scrambled egg (dried, I expect), beans and sometimes sausages, bread, lashings of tea (much better than at Seaford). We would often see the WRNS Despatch Rider there - a very individual and glamorous job. She wore breeches and leggings, her motorbike at the ready outside. Drivers from the motor pool were quartered at Denton.

HMS FORWARD double-banked Portsmouth, whose callsign was MTN. Our callsign was MFF, Dover was MTU, and Ramsgate was MFK. (Ramsgate double-banked Dover). In the case of Portsmouth being 'knocked out'we would have taken over. We received and recorded all messages on their wavelengths and, on occasions, transmitted on their behalf. The civilian (Uncle Alf or Uncle Stu), the Chief Petty Officer or the Leading Hand, whoever was in charge overall, had a direct line (by buzzer) to ?Portsmouth? or Newhaven which they used if any 'IMMEDIATE'or 'URGENT'signal was received - alternatively, 'they' got in touch with FORWARD.

In the first few weeks I was at FORWARD (those weeks prior to D-Day), all signal traffic was largely connected with Exercises taking place in the Channel, and offshore etc. These signals were distinguished by the inclusion of -X - in the preamble.

Just before D-Day, there was an intake of male Telegraphists - 3 Leading Hands (Phil Sherwood, Frank Hands, Tommy Gorman) and Telegraphists, of whom I remember Vic Sievey, Bob Laidlaw, Reg Cannan, among others. They were experienced sea-going men who had been on Russian or Atlantic Convoys. They had worked watch and watch about, 4hours on, 4 hours off, for months on end, so FORWARD was a haven for them. All the men were billeted at Denton or South Heighton.

Immediately preceding D-Day, there was not a great deal of wireless activity (probably W/T silence) but afterwards we were very busy and the signals room was a hive of activity - there were 6 sets manned.

The Germans frequently jammed the frequencies, particularly the Portsmouth frequency. Later, in 1945, the Americans seemed to use the frequencies as a telephone line between ships, asking about laundry, films, food, etc. This annoyed us, as naval discipline was paramount. They were blocking the channel should any emergency or immediate messages need to be made, as it did one night when I was on watch and had an emergency signal - O - ship struck by torpedo or mine. This really brought all systems into action as it was in our section of the Channel.

I am rather hazy about the exact layout of the tunnel but I do remember the Signal Distribution Office, and there were Writers, Typists, Coders, Teleprinter Operators, Switchboard Operators, as well as our W/T room. There was the Plot Room which we never entered but did see it D-Day night (through the doorway) and also a 'kitchen' where someone called Grace wielded a big metal teapot during the day. At nighttime, we made our own tea for the watch. There must have been other rooms but I cannot recall them. For example, where did our Chief Petty Officer and 3-badge Leading Hand Clasby hang out? They were rarely in the W/T room all the time.

For part 2 see A8174180

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