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15 October 2014
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Nancy recalls her service with the WRNS at Station X

by CSV Solent

Contributed by 
CSV Solent
People in story: 
Nancy Deacon
Location of story: 
Scotland and London
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 June 2005

Nancy - 1943

(Based on her history as told to her grand-daughter.)

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Ken on behalf of Nancy Deacon and has been added to the site with her permission. Nancy Deacon fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

“I didn’t really want to go into the Wrens”.

Nancy was about to celebrate her 18th birthday early in 1942 when a choice between the women’s’ services became urgent. Since leaving school at 16 years of age, with Matriculation proudly achieved, she had been working in the administration staff at the local isolation hospital in Leicester. She knew that once past 18 she would become subject to the wartime regulations, called ‘Direction of Labour’, by which the government could say how and where you should be employed. That would mean staying at her present job, because it was classified as a ‘Reserved Occupation’. And Nancy felt she wanted to see a bit more of life than that promised. She said -

“You see, my life-long friend, Edna, was already in the WAAF and she was having a jolly good time, from what she said, so I wanted to join them. But from time to time, when they had more applicants for certain categories than they needed, they stopped recruiting, so for the moment I couldn’t do that.

“It was the same with the WRNS, but just at that time they were recruiting, so that is what I did. I volunteered for the WRNS. Well, the reason I didn’t fancy joining them was the black stockings they made you wear. Of course the ATS was always available but I decide on the WRNS, as my brother was on active service in the Royal Navy.”

Her first posting was to a basic training unit, which involved a lot of scrubbing of the stone floors of Tullichewan Castle in Scotland. At the end of that she was held back for further specialist instruction, as was Joyce Lisle, whom she met there. From then the two of them were to go through the service together and remain friends for life. They had been chosen for ‘Special Duties’ and their immediate destination was to a
London unit, and six more weeks of training.

“We didn’t know quite what was in store, tho’ we had some idea, as the Official Secrets Act’ was involved. At any rate, Joyce and I were taken by escort and seen onto a train at Glasgow Station, where we were put into an empty compartment and the door locked on us.

“The train began to fill up, with standing room only in the corridor. It was obviously a troop train and we eventually started south, but the journey wasn’t straight forward. With stoppages for alarms of bomb damaged lines ahead; shunting into sidings to allow other trains through and other reasons. At the time we did not know what was going on as we were completely isolated in our compartment. At night we had only the dim light from the one, blue, bulb allowed in the ‘blackout’, and during the day, because of the anti-splinter net on the windows, we couldn’t see much of the outside world. I have no memory of anything to eat.

“It was 6 p.m. when we were locked in at Glasgow, and it was 2 p.m. the next day when we were released at Euston Station, and taken, again under escort, to our London base.”

The six weeks of training which followed was to introduce them to the ‘art’ of code breaking.

“At the time we knew we were code breaking, but did not know how our work fitted into the whole operation. There were about 300 of us WRNS on this work, at the station.”

Many of the messages dealt with were of no use but others were of great importance, and -

“I remember being told that our work helped to sink the Bismark. I was proud to hear that. Because of the restrictions of the Official Secrets Act we weren’t allowed to tell anyone of the work we did then. Not even our families, and it had to be kept secret for 30 more years.

“Winston Churchill said we were his golden geese that never cackled”.

The code-breaking base was in a northern suburb of London, conveniently connected by underground railway (the ‘Tube’) to the centre of the capital. Nancy and Joyce made good use of that.

“When we were not on shift, that is off duty, Joyce and I would go as often as possible to London and its West-End. One of our favourite places was the Queensberry Club for servicemen and women. By this time the Americans were in the war and this was where all the famous stars would appear to entertain them, and all the other allied troops. I remember seeing Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Benny Goodman and his band, and
lots of others there. Not to mention our own ‘Forces Sweetheart’, Vera Lynn.”

From the start of the war London had filled up with representatives from every European and Commonwealth nation, joined later by the ‘Yanks’; with a confusion of uniforms and variety of languages on its streets. Bombing and blackout not withstanding, it was a vibrant scene. The place to be; particularly around its centre. At night, from the dark streets where they dodged cars and buses, with their merest glim of light from masked headlights, Nancy and Joyce would have to grope through a ‘light-lock’ to enter a cinema or theatre and come, dazzled, into a burst of light inside, and noise of people making the most of a chance to get away from the war for a little.

“Theatres and so on would send out free tickets to the forces for their shows, and our base received its share. Joyce and I took advantage of these and I remember one night, an air raid started while we were in a West End theatre. Our orders were to get back to our unit as quickly as possible if this happened, so out we went to get the Piccadilly line tube. Everything was OK until we came to the above ground section at West
Kensington station, when there were lots of stops and starts and long delays. Being in the open the carriage lights had been reduced to the familiar blue bulb, and we could hear the sounds of the raid going on around us. Eventually, with the train stopped we were all led through carriage after carriage and ended up at Hammersmith station.

“The police and firemen were far too busy, with the chaos going on among the falling bombs and burning buildings, to have any time for us two stranded WRNS. The train service had stopped at midnight and the only thing we could do was to start a long walk back to Stanmore. Our situation wasn’t as bad as some sailors we started out with, as they needed to get to Skegness. We seemed to lose track of them somewhere
along the way but we got as far as Neasden before we became too tired to go on.

“The only thing we could think to do was to look for a Police Station, and when we finally found one we were given cocoa and sympathy, and offered somewhere to sleep for the rest of the night. Which turned out to be wooden boards in the station cells. The Tube started again at 6am., so after more cocoa we got off early and back to base. I suppose we were so full of ourselves and the troubles we had been through that we
expected to be welcomed in, as some kind of heroines. Instead of which we received hard words, and Joyce was reprimanded for losing her uniform cap in the confusion!

“It’s funny to think, looking back, that although we might have grumbled about things at the time, we never really complained, or refused to do something. We just got on with it.”

Nancy’s parents, who as others of their generation, experienced the first World War, had only one other child.

“I had a brother, Bert, a couple of years older than me. He had gone into the navy and served as a lieutenant in South Africa and the Mediterranean, commanding a motor torpedo boat, (MTB). His boat was itself torpedoed in the Med, and he was a long time in the water before being picked up. The exposure he suffered was the cause of damage to his kidneys and he only survived until 1950. He was 28 when he died.”

Romance hadn’t been neglected during all this time and Nancy became engaged to Geoff, whom she had met in the Leicester hospital days.

“Geoff and I were married in 1945. Of course it had to be arranged some time ahead and we had chosen the 5th May. No one expected that the war would end three days later.”

Nancy continued her code breaking work in the WRNS, until the Japanese surrender the following August and, now being a married woman, she was demobbed fairly quickly next month. She and Geoff then started their life together, with all the housing and other shortages, and struggles of the early postwar years ahead of them. They had two children and two grandchildren. Nancy was widowed in 1992.

Now at 81 years of age she says -
“I have had a good life, enjoyed it and think I have been very lucky.”

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