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15 October 2014
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Olive Joins the WRENsicon for Recommended story

by CSV Solent

Contributed by 
CSV Solent
People in story: 
Location of story: 
Dundee, Scotland
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 May 2005

Olive in uniform not long after joining up.

This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Marie on behalf of Olive and has been added to the site with her permission. Olive fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.


After going through the terrible raids on Sheffield, and the fact that I would probably be called up anyway, I decided to join the WRENS Everybody was talking about joining up, and my friend said about doing it and I think we just got together and decided to get on with it as I was coming up to 18 and at 18 you were called up anyway and this way I got a choice. Otherwise I could have ended up in the ATS, the WAAF, the Land Army or been trained as a nurse. I don’t know why I wanted to be a WREN - I think it was because everyone thought it was the best service, and we knew some fellas who had gone in the navy. It seemed glamorous at the time!

So on Saturday 16th August 1941 I left home to travel by train from Sheffield to Dundee up in Scotland, carrying one small suitcase containing only the clothes that were allowed on the list we received when we signed up - including two pairs of navy bloomers! The train was full of troops so it was standing room only. People were sitting on the floor, in luggage racks but everyone was very cheerful and helpful. Going to the loo was almost an impossibility though as that too was being used as a seat! I finally arrived in Dundee and was taken to Mathers hotel where the beds hadn’t arrived so we had to sleep on palliasses arranged in rows on the floor of the ballroom. Bunk beds eventually came and to be honest they weren’t much better - there were no steps to the top and the bottom was rather airless and claustrophobic so I didn’t like either. But you had to get used to it as with everything else in the war!

We had meals in a large room canteen-style, and on the whole the food was quite good. But soon we became aware of bits of foreign bodies lurking around - cockroaches! We complained and got told that everything possible was being done to get rid of them but not to worry as they weren’t poisonous and would do us no harm! We found them everywhere - breakfast, baked whole in bread, bits of them in mashed potato - but you were so hungry you just ate round them and picked them out! It soon became apparent where they were living - in nightly fire watching duty you had to patrol the whole building including the kitchen and the basement and the whole place was alive with them, scuttling away from the light of our torches.

I had to quickly learn Naval jargon - the bedroom was a cabin, the kitchen a galley, the floor was a deck, a corridor a gangway, rubbish was gash etc - as if we were onboard a ship. Also certain surnames had nicknames too, for instance anyone called Miller became Dusty, Martin was Pincher and so on. We were soon fitted out with uniform which needless to say didn’t fit very well so it had to be altered either by us or a local tailor. Hats were soon taken to pieces and crowns were taken from brims to give them a more fashionable shape. Stiff collars left red weals on our necks and were very painful until we toughened up. Tying a tie took time to perfect as well, and we obviously had to carry gas masks with us at all times.

After we got our uniforms we got squad drill practice several times a week until we could march in step and swing our arms in rhythm which was very hard work. Later I had to learn to take squad drill practice which was even more difficult! We also had lessons in rifle shooting.

Occasionally we went to local dances and there would be lots of Poles and Dutch men there, but we all had to back by 11pm and have signed in - and the door was locked dead on time which resulted in many a run back in the blackout - one girl bumped into a lamp post and cracked her front tooth which was very nasty.

We all got tetanus jabs as well which left me with a stiff arm for a couple of days.

Every day for six months I attended wireless telegraphy school. We were taught to send and receive Morse at speeds up to 25 words a minute which is very fast and extremely nerve-wracking and stressful.

A local family - Mr and Mrs Blythe and their daughter Margaret - often used to invite several WRENs for the day on Sunday. The hospitality in Scotland was fantastic. Margaret eventually married a Dutch man.

During this time we’d get letters from home but everything was opened up and examined and if there was anything in it about the war it would be crossed out with red pencil.

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