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15 October 2014
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Kathleen Cartwright -My Experience of Life in the Wrens

by Huddersfield Local Studies Library

Contributed by 
Huddersfield Local Studies Library
People in story: 
Kathleen Ashton (Cartwright)
Location of story: 
Portsmouth
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2843840
Contributed on: 
17 July 2004

This story has been submitted to the People's War site by Pam Riding of Kirklees Libraries on behalf of Mrs Ashton and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Early in January 1944, I joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service after having been employed in the Dewsbury Civil Defence Offices from the time of leaving school.
After initial training as a teleprinter operator in London, I was sent to Hampshire and accommodated in a Fort in Fareham. From there I was transported to the hills above Portsmouth to work in SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force). One had to go down numerous steps to a busy underground establishment. The personnel who worked down there were on watches (shifts) working eight hours ON and OFF duty for a period of 72 hours. I also learned that personnel who had worked there for some time had to undergo regular sunray treatment. After one spell of duty, however, I was called to the Duty Officer and informed that I was to return to London and I had no idea why I was being moved so quickly. Issued with the requisite railway pass, I returned to London and my instructions were to report to a new billet at Princess Gate, South Kensington. Next day I was told to report to Norfolk House, St James’s Square and thus became a member of staff of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force (ANCXF) under the command of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay. My address for the remainder of the time I was with them was Naval Part 1645, C/o GPO London.
I soon realised that the work was of great secrecy and importance and that we were the Headquarters for the Allied Naval invasion of Europe. We received and transmitted many signals in connection with “Overlord” referring to Mulberry Harbour, Pluto Pipe Line, etc and much information which became news items after the successful liberation of Europe. When a “top secret” message came through on our teleprinter it had to be sealed and stamped by the duty officer and then delivered to Admiralty house by whoever had received it on their machine. We were working eight hour watches involving mornings, afternoons and nights. I dreaded the “top secret” message coming through on my machine, having never been out alone in Dewsbury, my home town, during the middle of the night, but sure enough, on one occasion it did, at 3.am. It was totally black outside and I ran all the way to Admiralty House at the top of the Mall and back again. I was thankful that it only occurred once, but maybe I would have felt less afraid a second time at being alone in the middle of the night on the streets of London.
There were about 100 Wrens in the party and in April we were sent to the South of England to Southwick House, about seven miles from Portsmouth. Most of the girls, having been in London for some time, were sorry to leave to go to a remote area and there were groans as the coach set off. However, being a cheery crowd, with the usual British sprit, everyone settled down to accepting a change of venue. The spirit was flagging somewhat when out destination was reached. We came to a pretty village consisting of about two dozen houses. Masses of barbed wire and an endlessly long drive brought us to a typically old type of English Manor house. We learned it was called Southwick House. To the rear of the building were two long prefabricated sheds, still being prepared for us. The water was just being laid on and we had to scramble over planks to reach our respective quarters. I was quartered in a long narrow room with 14/15 double bunks down each side of a narrow space. Some folk would say, “What of it” and that “it could have been worse,” but considering we were all on duty at different times, it proved to be rather hectic. We worked the same hourly watches as in London, and every third day we had a turn on night duty. After a particularly tiring night we would fall into bed exhausted, only to be awakened about an hour later when a case would be banged on to our feet. Under the bunks was the only place to keep our cases and when the stewards swept the room, they hurled the cases on to the beds, regardless of any occupants. Nicely dropping off to sleep again, we could be wakened by chattering as off-duty Wrens prepared to go on duty after lunch. It was a hectic life but pretty soon we became accustomed to sleeping in snatches. To compensate, however, the weather was glorious and in our free time, we were taken by liberty boats (marine lorries) to spend a couple of hours on Hayling Island and to enjoy the sands and sea. The only occupants of the Island were members of the forces, as the civilian population had been evacuated. On occasions, also, we managed to get a lift into Portsmouth and visited the cinema. When jeeps passed us on the roads we could always rely on a lift by the friendly American allies, but all the same it was better to travel in numbers!
The less said about the food, the better — cheese and minced beef dishes. On night duty the only meal consisted of corn beef, with margarine, together with crumbly bread from which to make sandwiches, but there were flies creeping around all the time which was off putting. I was lucky to have received some jars of jam from home, but with wasps hovering around, it was almost impossible to eat it.
The teleprinter room was a hive of activity and we could never relax for one moment as we sent signal after signal in connection with the coming most important event of our lives — the liberation of Europe and the end of the war. Whatever the discomfort, no-one objected; everyone was too intent on their work and the small part we were playing in this moment of history. I welcomed the change from routine when I was transferred for a short time to the deciphering room, which overlooked the official courtyard at the front of the building. We witnessed the arrival and departure of some very important and high-ranking officials. I shall always remember glancing outside upon hearing a jeep stop with a squeak of brakes. Out stepped “Monty” (General Montgomery). He glanced towards our window and raised his hand in salute. He looked so cheerful and friendly — such a busy person and yet he found time to acknowledge us with a wave. He wore a long grey pullover and his famous beret — nothing to signify the importance of his position. Shortly afterwards, General Eisenhower stepped out of his car — followed by his little dog! Next came Air Marshall Tedder — he was so tall and stately — immaculate in his blue Air Force uniform. We became quite used to seeing these important leaders and on one occasion, Winston Churchill passed on his way to the control room. With all these comings and goings we realised that the invasion was very close indeed.
On June 5th we were told by the Commander that the invasion boats had set sail for Europe. On that evening I was on night duty and knew that it was the most memorable occasion of my life. At midnight, the Commander told us that in 20 minutes our first airborne troops would land in Normandy.
The office seemed chilled with expectance and no-one could speak, for I am sure that waiting for news is almost as bad as taking part!. One could imagine all the dangers and what a risk was being undertaken and the lives of our brave invaders being so much at risk. I thought of my folks at home, soundly asleep, little knowing of the momentous occasion taking place and I offered silent prayers on behalf of all those taking part. Our first official news came through in the early hours from the “Augusta” and the “Scilla” — all was being carried our according to plan. Within a matter of days our teleprinters were all connected to the ones in Normandy which were manned by the Marines and in between messages we were able to glean a little of what life was like on the other side of the Channel.
The night following the invasion I was not on duty, but during the evening I watched the hundreds of gliders being towed across to France and felt very proud indeed to have helped, even in such an insignificant way, towards the culmination of such a great operation.
Life went on and we began to lose more sleep, not through our work, but by visits from flying bombs. Orders were that the off-duty Wrens had to go down to the cellars and stay there until the”all —clear”. The first night we trundled down carrying blankets and tin hats and settled down in the cellar. None of us could sleep, but all was in darkness when suddenly the girl next to me quietly started to fold up her blanket and move off. Being curious I did the same and much to my surprise, on reaching the half-lit passage, I saw a long line of girls, all creeping stealthily along in order not to waken the officers, for we would certainly have been sent straight back. Someone dropped a steel helmet and we all “froze” but no-one came and thankfully we trecked back to our quarters. In spite of the “doodle bugs” we managed to have a night’s rest and next morning were able to face being “pulled over the rolls” for disobeying orders. The officers only discovered our disappearance some three hours after we had all vanished. The next night I was on duty, so was not obliged to sleep in the cellar, but the girls who were, again refused to stay down, complaining of beetles and mice. We were all ordered to parade and asked which we preferred —beetles or bombs. To which, in chorus, we replied “bombs”. The powers that be decided not to enforce the rule about staying in the cellars during the air raids until proper facilities were provided. The next week was quite a “pantomime” — we would cluster round the windows, watch the red light on the doodle bug and then, when the engine stopped, everyone disappeared like lightning under the bunks. The word “fear” was never mentioned and it was fortunate that we treated the incidents in a light-hearted manner. After a full week had elapsed, with the flying bombs circulating around us, it was announced that the cellars were now fit to sleep in. Three-tiered bunks had been neatly arranged, walls whitened, floors scrubbed and everyone issued with extra mattresses. However, once the accommodation was provided, the sirens never went again, so we did become prepared for bombs, but a little late!
Following the invasion out Group (Naval party 1645) eventually left Southwick House, our work completed in England. Many members continued with the party into France and were finally disbanded in Berlin. It was a sad day when we left Southwick. The months we spent together in London and then Southwick united us in a very special bond of friendship. I still keep in touch with six of the Wrens — after 50 years!
As my marriage was arranged to take place in October, I opted to stay in England and moved to “HMS Duke” in Great Malvern — a shore establishment for new recruits. I was there for a few months and then finally moved to Scarborough where I worked at the Signals Station on Irton Moor until “V E DAY”

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