- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Margaret Boothroyd, Laura Mountney,
- Location of story:
- Mill Hill North London, Westfield College Hampstead, Southsea, Southwick, Arromanche, Granville, Paris, Brussels,
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 August 2004
I am now going to try to give you as clear a picture as I can of the time we spent in the WRNS. On arrival at Mill Hill, North London, on 8 March 1944, we went to a large school (I believe it had been taken over by the Navy); this was our first glimpse of Wren life. Here we were Pro-Wrens, and we were given a bluette overall, a garment we wore for the first few days. We were then given a medical check, including a hair search for head-lice - we were very annoyed about that - then a meal. I still remember very clearly being given sausage and very thick ships' cocoa, which I didn't think went together very well. I met Laura that first day and we were together for the rest of our service in the WRNS.
We were shown to our sleeping quarters (cabins instead of bedrooms, bunks instead of beds, galley, not kitchen etc) and shown how to make our bed, envelope-style sheets and blanket, and the blue-white bedspread, which had a ship's anchor on it, this must be the right way up or the ship would sink!!
During those first few days we were interviewed to find out in which Section we were to work. We were all put into Divisions and really it was very much like being back at school. We had various lessons in classrooms learning the Navy jargon, badges and ranks. As for working and scrubbing, personally I did none and I don’t think Laura ever did any either. My job was polishing a very long corridor, which was already very highly polished! Others cleaned cutlery etc.
During our time at Mill Hill we were issued with a jacket, skirt, navy raincoat and greatcoat, hat, two pairs of shoes, gloves, three white shirts and a black tie. WRENS (I think it was the only service to do this) were given a sum of money per day in our pay to buy our own undies, pyjamas etc, which was very much appreciated; we got a clothing coupon allowance to buy these.
Eventually we were told in which area we were to work and both Laura and I along with several others were to be teleprinter operators. We trained at Westfield College, Hampstead and lived in a house that had been owned by the film star Conrad Veidt. Other areas of service included wireless telegraphists, meteorological Wrens, coders, administrators, cooks, stewards, working in supplies for the Navy, and various technician and transport jobs.
The house was quite large and the sitting-room had been turned into a training room with about fourteen teleprinters and a switchboard. We were obviously all trained typists, so that part was OK. The training was mostly getting used to a teleprinter instead of a typewriter - quite different in many ways, learning how to send out a signal, shortforms and quick ways of using words, also the range of importance of signals. OP was the highest priority of signal, and if a signal was coming in on your teleprinter and you had an 'OP' to send out, you merely cut in with 'OP OP OP OP’, whereupon the sender ceased typing and the line was freed, then you sent out that important signal. While we were there we had no idea we would be sending out hundreds of those 'OP’ signals from Southwick House. Many messages were in code, and they were simply a series of letters that were very tedious to send. We also learned how to use a teleprinter switchboard.
After various tests and examinations we passed out, and were given our 'crossed flags' to sew onto our jacket sleeves. We were very proud. Whilst we were at Hampstead we had various injections and wore red ribbons on our jackets to signal a very sore arm.
Fully fledged Wrens
Now we were no longer Pro-Wrens but trained Wrens ready for work, and from Hampstead we were given railway warrants and went to a ‘holding depot' at Southsea. This again had been a school, but a very old one. There were mice in the cabin and Laura had a bottom bunk, so we both slept together in one narrow top bunk. Each day lists were posted up and girls were sent to various places around the country. While we waited, we Wrens had various jobs to do, and Laura and I were 'Messengers', taking these to Naval offices in various parts of the town. We enjoyed this immensely and got to know Southsea very well, and of course Portsmouth too. While there, we visited H.M.S. Victory and generally enjoyed ourselves.
One day a list of names went up headed HMS Dryad - ANCXF. We found later the initials stood for Allied Naval Combined Expeditionary Force. Both our names were there - Laura Mountney and Margaret Boothroyd. We were delighted to be together but had no idea, however much we asked, where we were going.
On the 12 April a bus took us to Portsmouth dockyard. There, another bus was waiting for us and this took us out of Portsmouth, through Cosham and up onto Portsdown Hill. Then a few further miles to a small village, which later we learned was Southwick, picturesque with thatched cottages, a pub, and a church. Then into a long winding driveway that led to this large house with courtyard and a clock-tower. Leaving the bus we went through a side-door in this mansion, along a corridor and up a sweeping stairway to a large upstairs room where we were told to wait. Laura and I just looked at each other - after all we were only comparatively new recruits, while some of those present spoke of times at bases in Scotland etc. What we did not know at that time was that we had arrived where the D-Day landings were being planned.
The door swung open and in walked Admiral Ramsey, whom we came to know as a very great gentleman. He explained that we had been picked for a special job - surely not altogether true for at least two of us! We were not to be allowed out of the grounds, all letters would be censored and our address was to be 'Naval Party 1645, Base Fleet Mail Office, Reading, Berkshire'. I still remember being astonished at this news. What was this 'special job' we were called here to do... and in this country mansion too!!
We were shown our quarters, a long room in a wooden building in the grounds very near to the house. It had double bunks on each side of the room. Each of us had a bunk and two drawers (I don't remember a wardrobe). We were the first to arrive and so Laura and I chose two bunks, both underneath ones and next to each other. They were erecting many new wooden buildings in the grounds and still today the smell of new wood takes me right back to that large hut. I suppose there were about fifty girls in each of these long rooms. We were all on different watches and doing different jobs. Always there were some sleeping, while others busily talked, and soon we learned to sleep through the noise.
The teleprinter room was in the cellar of the house and there was a chute down which messages came from upstairs. We had a direct line to the Admiralty and the work was very, very busy and tiring too. We worked three eight-hour watches through the twenty-four hours, which was quite hard. We found working through the night difficult at first and just had breakfast then fell into bed. Following a nightwatch we then worked in the evening of that same day. Then next day in the afternoon, early morning the following day and then night watch on that same day, so it was very tiring.
The War Room
During those weeks coming up to the actual D-Day landings many important faces came to the 'War Room', the nerve centre of the invasion plans: the King, George VI, and Winston Churchill came often, and there were regular meetings between General Eisenhower, General Montgomery and Admiral Ramsey. Secrecy was of the essence and it still amazes me now as I think back of the tremendous responsibility we were given, but, at the time, life seemed normal and we took everything in our stride.
We made good use of our free time, the grounds were lovely in the springtime and there was a lake and an old boat, but we decided not to try it! In spite of all that had been said earlier, we were finally allowed out of the grounds and transport (called liberty boats) went into Portsmouth.
One night we went to Southsea Pier to hear Joe Loss and his orchestra. Shortly after this the Pier closed and was used for landing wounded from France to hospitals nearby.
We, Laura and I, favoured Cosham and went to cafes sometimes for Welsh rarebit or just tea and cake and had a general look around the area. Sometimes we went sunbathing to Southsea or to Hayling Island. Generally we stayed around Southwick Village, where we played tennis, sketched or just went for a walk. One day Laura and I met an American airman who turned out to be the pilot of General Eisenhowers' personal plane. He wanted to take us up for a spin, but we daren't go... I wish we had now!
The approach of D-Day
As I said before, the work was very hard and also at that time there was a great deal of bombing in the area. We were told to sleep in the cellar corridors, as they did not want to bring in new teleprinter operators! We tried it for a couple of nights, but couldn't sleep and so we went back to our bunks. Looking back, there was very little discipline dealt out by the Officers; we just seemed to discipline ourselves and get on with the work.
We had been told that D-Day was to be 4 June 1944, but that day we were ordered to the camp cinema, which was a Nissan hut, and were told they had to postpone it for some hours because of the weather. However, that day did arrive - 6 June - D-Day. The weather was still quite poor but it lulled the Germans into believing the invasion would not take place and many Nazi Commanders had left the Normandy area. Rommel had travelled home to Germany to celebrate his wife's birthday. There is a permanent reminder of those exciting days in the War Room at Southwick House. On the wall is a plaque that says:
IN THIS ROOM AT 04.15 ON THE 5TH DAY OF JUNE 1944 GENERAL DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER THE SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER MADE THE HISTORIC DECISION TO LAUNCH THE ASSAULT AGAINST THE CONTINENT OF EUROPE ON THE SIXTH DAY OF JUNE DESPITE UNCERTAIN WEATHER CONDITIONS. HAD THIS MAJOR DECISION NOT BEEN MADE THE WHOLE OPERATION WOULD HAVE HAD TO BE POSTPOSED UNTIL THE NEXT SUITABLE TIDAL PERIOD A FORTNIGHT LATER. ADVERSE WEATHER CONDITIONS WHICH THEN AROSE MIGHT WELL HAVE ALTERED THE WHOLE COURSE OF THE WAR.
During the days up to the 6 June the parkland and lanes nearby were filled with troops, tanks, jeeps and other equipment. A huge Naafi canteen was set up to serve the troops. While we were off duty, we stood and waved to many of the men as they moved off to the beaches and to embarkation.
We were both on nightwatch that fateful night and before morning arrived, messages were coming through to us from the beaches of Normandy from the field teleprinters which I suppose were quickly erected. Eisenhower, Montgomery and Churchill came down during the night into that now famous cellar, to watch messages coming though, and the King came down a few days later. Operation OVERLORD had begun. Presumably you know of the fuel pipeline placed beforehand under the Channel and named PLUTO, and also the MULBERRY Harbours towed across the Channel to form a safe harbour for landing troops and equipment. Lines had also been secretly laid to connect teleprinters etc. to the beaches.
Just a short time after the 6 June lists went up for volunteers to go to France. Some teleprinter operators would be required to join Headquarters as the Allies pressed forward on the Continent. Many put their names on the list and so did we, and the suspense was terrific while we waited for the names of those accepted to go over to France to be posted on the notice board. There were around twenty teleprinter operators needed, and those not accepted just wept. How pleased Laura and I were to be amongst those going. Wrens under 21yrs had to get their parents written permission, so Laura's parents obviously gave their permission for her to go abroad in the same way as mine did.
Off to France
We were taken to Portsmouth Dockyard and further equipped for our journey. Bell bottom trousers, square-necked tops, navy blue shirts and jersey, fawn duffle coat along with all the green canvas equipment normally provided for Officers and previously described. Getting everyone equipped and off to France must have been a tremendous job. We had our embarkation leave and were home for a fortnight. Following the D-Day landings there were a number of set-backs and the Germans fought hard to hold their ground. The city of Caen was difficult to capture. When we left Southwick we were very excited and looked forward to the journey. After embarking we 'stood off' the Isle of Wight overnight and then made a run for it across the channel, early morning. We had boat drill and the Matelots took great delight in saying, 'Last time across a boat sank here or there,' but we weren’t in the least impressed. I don't remember myself or my friends expressing any fear whatsoever. Our age, the job we had been called to do and the excitement all played a part in our being completely confident. The thought of going into the unknown, or death never crossed our minds... we always thought we were on the winning side.
When we arrived off the Normandy coast rope netting and ladders were thrown over the side and we actually clambered down this from the ship onto the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanche and then went by transport across country to Granville. Each time we moved, all we needed was an empty room and out came the bed, bedding, chair, washbasin, bath (never used) although we did have baths! Bucket and kitbag and we were set up. We had been issued with a tiny stove, biscuits, a small pack of dehydrated food and tiny sachets of Nescafe (the first I had seen). Laura and I were given this empty room in a house in a street just inside one of the huge stone gateways into the old walled part of Granville. We worked in a large factory type building further around the harbour. The field teleprinters were set up and work began. We did have a little time to look around Granville and later some places around St Malo.
Life in Granville
There were some women around the town with shaven heads, mostly wearing scarves. We were told these had fratemised with the Germans. Now this does not seem a great crime and for some of those women, circumstances must have been very difficult, but in 1944 we were absolutely amazed that anyone would have wanted to have anything to do with a German. Granville - at any rate the part we lived in - was quite desolate when we arrived. There were still dead bodies around and many derelict properties, some had been bombed, but the French were glad that for them the war was over and soon they returned to their homes, shops opened and the church once more tolled its bell. We had our Mess in a large house, I think it may have been the Hotel de Ville. I cannot remember much about that, except the food was poor.
Laura and I left Granville in the Advance Party for Paris as soon as the city was taken, although there was still fighting in some suburbs when we arrived. The transport carriers had long seats down each side and we climbed in the back of the vehicle. They had open sides and all the way to Paris when the vehicle stopped people came and shook us by the hand. It was a memorable ride.
La Celie St Cloud, Paris
The Chateaux where we lived was at La Celie St Cloud and the one where we worked was some miles away in St Germain, both suburbs of Paris. They had been used by the Germans and we had a wonderful time clearing all the Nazi memorabilia… pictures of Hitler, flags and pennants, making a great bonfire of them in the grounds. The large room at the Chateau in St Germain was amazing. Alongside our basic teleprinters was still much of the beautiful pink and gold chateaux furniture, but we were asked not to sit on it or use the furniture. We were so fortunate for we could go into Paris from 1300 to 2100 if we got a pass. The shops were lovely, at least to our eyes. We were particularly interested in those beautiful shops which sold wonderful perfumes: Elizabeth Arden, Chanel etc, etc, all lovely to see. We were told the American soldiers had bought up Chanel No5 when they arrived. It was always a sore point with the English lads that the Americans had so much to spend.
It was a fantastic time for us all, the French people were so glad we were there and nothing was too much for us. Whenever we walked through the gates of the La CelIe St Cloud chateau, people were waiting to greet us and invite us to their homes. We have many happy memories of different French families and were able to hear their trials in the war.
We were regularly issued with cigarettes, chocolate and biscuits. Usually we ate the chocolate and biscuits then gave the cigarettes to our French friends. Two families named Nordling and Bochley were very kind to us and invited us to their homes. We spent much time wandering around the Palace of Versailles, which I think was free to us, and we enjoyed so much of Paris.
The day Mr Churchill and General de Gaulle visited the Arc de Triomphe, Laura and I left St Germain after morning watch and went to Paris. We had heard they were coming and thousands of people were there. We did not intend to get caught up in the crowds but were swept along without choice. Thankfully we managed to stay together and managed to get a good view of both men laying wreaths at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior - a day to remember.
We spent much of the year in Paris and then moved on to Brussels which was so different. We lived in rather a nice house in the suburb called Uccle. We lived in the attic bedroom and called it 'The Garret'.. We decorated the walls with teddies and toy soldiers. There was a large window looking out onto the garden but we were plagued with bombing and doodlebugs (flying bombs), and hardly ever had glass in the window! At one point the Germans pushed the Allied Forces back and it was reported that the Wrens may have to be brought out of Brussels, but they were pushed back and we stayed on.
One interesting trip Laura and I made was to Charleroi, just south of Brussels to a family known to Laura’s parents. The red carpet was out for us that day and we were taken to meet the Mayor, visit the Fire Brigade, the Police Headquarters, a number of cafes and generally parade around the town. The lunch was rabbit stew and we found out later in the day that the child’s pet rabbit had been sacrificed for us owing to the great shortage of food… we were devastated.
The family Sterno were great, and Madame Sterno called herself our Belgium mother. We enjoyed meals with them and spent much time in the garden. I have a letter written to my fiancé dated 7 July 1945 saying we were going on four watches very soon, so we must have worked three watches all that time. We certainly burnt the candle at both ends - what energy we must have had. (My husband and I visited the Sterno house a few years ago but unfortunately it was empty and we could not find out anything about this family.)
Once Laura and I were granted a pass with our friend Marjorie Gale (who was called 'Windy) and hitched a lift to Blankenburgue on the coast. We managed to get beds at an ATS hostel and had a great time there. We took our civvies, spent time on the beach and met up with the friends from Charleroi, who were probably there on holiday. We hitched back from here to Brussels. All this hitching amazes me now, as we did it without a thought
VJ Day and Chatham
After VJ Day we had a party, and a message came up on the teleprinters 'Splice the mainbrace'... rum all round for naval personnel. Wrens normally got a rum allowance as cash in lieu, but on this occasion it was 'rum all round'! The naval party moved on to Germany, but we asked to return to England because I was to be married in November. So in September 1945 we were both posted to C-in-C, Chatham, where we worked underground in shocking conditions.
At the first Pay Muster here, Laura and I went on parade wearing silk scarves and gloves. The Officer tore a strip off us because only Officers were allowed leather gloves and I am not sure about the scarf. This was done quite innocently by us because discipline abroad had been very different: we worked hard, played hard, and that was the order of the day. Discipline abroad was being in your cabin at the proper time, being on watch in good time, and being neat and tidy with hair off the collar.
While we were there we had a visit from the Director of Wrens, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent. We were all on parade and we stood together wearing our overseas medal ribbons. The Duchess stopped and asked about our experiences.
On 17 November 1945 I was married to Arthur Mellor, and Laura was my bridesmaid. I had to return to Chatham after the honeymoon for a couple of weeks to organise my demobilisation and was finally discharged at the end of the year.
We had an eventful time in the Wrens. Looking back it all seems to be a dream, but I am so thankful we were able to be a part of great happenings at that time. Laura married Bernard Ashley in 1948 and, of course, became the world famous designer of fashions and fabrics. She was a lovely and sensitive girl and I am glad we were able to spend so much time together.
Laura had a trim figure, dark hair and brown eyes, small features, and was always interesting in conversation with a lovely little laugh. She was from Wallington in Surrey and had a lovely voice. I cannot remember style in uniform, but we had civvies with us and she obviously had clothing sense. She had a winning personality and was neither silly nor brash. Once into the work she was great and there was never a problem with her work schedule. We were all very tired. She never did any scrubbing. We had to clean our cabins and keep them tidy.
Laura talked a lot about her family, her sister Mary and brothers, Trevor and Francis. She was very close to her Aunt and Uncle who lived quite near their home and she spent weekends with them. Maybe as the eldest in the family she loved to go there to be fussed. They had a dog named Simon.
She was delighted to be my bridesmaid and came north for the first time. She took pleasure in helping to arrange things for the wedding and was a great support on my wedding day, helping me to dress and pack.
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