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15 October 2014
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Recollections of a War-time Wren (part 1 of 3)

by Mary Pratt (nee Sturt)

Contributed by 
Mary Pratt (nee Sturt)
People in story: 
Mary Pratt
Location of story: 
London, Dundee, Liverpool, Port Said, Mombassa, Suez, Durban, Ceylon, India (Coimbatore)
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A3436049
Contributed on: 
22 December 2004

It was June 1942 - at last I was 17 ½ years old - I could join my favourite service, the Royal Navy! On leaving boarding school in Penzance at the age of 17, I had been disappointed to discover that I had to wait another six months before I could enlist.

Soon after being evacuated to Penzance, from the Isle of Wight, we had a dose of what Hitler was about; one of his bombers had been disabled by gunfire as it headed for Bristol, and as it limped back to Northern France it dropped three of its remaining bombs on Market Jew Street, hitting a hotel by the station and two shops. I remember being incensed that the pet shop, where we often browsed on a Saturday morning, had received a direct hit; how unfair this seemed. I had to do my bit to stop this I felt, no matter in how small a way. Besides that, the sheer adventure of leaving school and home behind and setting off into the secrecies of the service was overwhelmingly attractive. I soon decided that, out of all the opportunities offered, communications sounded the most interesting.

On leaving school at Christmas 1941, I enrolled at a college in Chiswick, West London, which taught all manner of communications to prospective merchant seamen - transmitting and receiving coded signals in Morse, flags and broadcasting etc. plus care and maintenance of the machines involved. Being the only girl in a class of 20 or more lads was quite a new experience after an all girls boarding school! I soon started to enjoy the new environment and meeting my first boyfriends. The course was tough, after all, these chaps were going to have to sail across the dangerously hostile Atlantic Ocean in convoys bringing vital supplies to the UK from the United States: war equipment, etc. and food. Their training and expertise in signalling would play a crucial role in the safety of the shipmates. Amazingly, at the end of the six months, I passed the exams which qualified me to operate on any merchant ship, but at that time girls were excluded from the merchant service - so Royal Navy here I come, partially trained and eager to go!

There must have been about 300 girls, like myself, instructed to report to the barracks at HMS Pembroke, Mill Hill, North London for a two week introductory course. Square bashing, route marches and lectures took place every day, as did cleaning our quarters. My most vivid recollection of this period is of scrubbing endless flights of stone stairs with cold water and carbolic, while others were assigned to kitchen chores. It was hardly surprising that many girls threw in the towel during that fortnight! The survivors underwent medical tests and were then duly issued with uniforms, pay books, rail cards etc. We lined up to be inspected by the Captain of the establishment who welcomed us into the Royal Navy, and told us what would be expected of us as we entered into this most prestigious service. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that the Commander-in-Chief W.R.N.S would be visiting. Princess Marine (Duchess of Kent) duly arrived as we again lined up in near perfect ranks for inspection. “Hair off collars, no jewellery”, was the order of the day - needless to say it was noted that the C-in-C wore highlighted shoes, earrings and a fashionable pageboy bob on her collar!!

After our initiation into the Service, we were soon dispatched to different shore establishments, to learn our chosen trades. My posting was to HMS Mercury in Petersfield, Hampshire for three months to learn the intricacies of naval procedure in signalling - it felt like being back at school again, as we struggled to improve our speed and technique on the Morse keys to attain the high standards required. The drill and route marches continued as before, along with PT and swimming. Various lectures had to be attended daily and all Wrens were mustered on the parade ground each morning for inspection and divisions (church services). Many hours were spent studying K.Rs and A.Is (King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions) under strict supervision of a Chief Petty Officer. These huge volumes were top secret and kept locked up for all but certain hours; they were covered in thick lead, so that they would sink immediately if a ship was attacked and destroyed. Much memorising was necessary as no notes were permitted, and we were to be examined on aspects of the books which were applicable to our trade. Thankfully, the training period was soon completed and, after the passing out parade, we proudly wore our Signals badges on our sleeves. “Where were we to be posted next?”, we wondered. All over the British Isles apparently.

Another Wren and I were to make the long, overnight journey to Dundee on the east coast of Scotland. I shall never forget those nine hours (interrupted by air raids) in a train packed with servicemen, all smoking, it seemed, and playing cards in the dimmest of lights, blinds and windows tightly closed, and dark corridors crammed with sleeping bodies.

Eventually, we rumbled slowly over the Tay Bridge, and were in Dundee for our first posting. A cold, grey, granite city and a rather bleak Wrennery awaited us not too far from the docks. We were to work with a submarine flotilla, consisting of vessels which had escaped Hitler’s invading forces. There were Polish, Dutch, French, Belgian, Norwegian and Danish ships, the crews of which were determined to fight on to destroy the enemy who had overrun and occupied their homelands. The language difficulties were a problem, their style of signalling confusing, and their R/T (radio telegraphy) was almost unintelligible, made worse by their constant jabbering over the airwaves, which was strictly forbidden. Their tasks, however, were dangerous as they slipped anchor at night and silently crossed the North Sea, often underwater, to torpedo enemy installations in Norway, deliver agents, pick up important escapees whose information could help the war effort, whilst always being on the lookout for the chance to attack any German shipping. They were, indeed, brave young men and soon won our respect as we tempered our criticism. Sunday divisions were held on the decks of the flotilla and seeing their cramped quarters brought it home to us as to the appalling conditions under which they lived and worked. Our Signals Officer, however, decided we should experience their problems, first hand - we were therefore detailed to sail out of the mouth of the River Tay and around Bell Rock, whilst communicating in Morse with our own shore station - this certainly taught us a sobering lesson, and we vowed to improve all transmissions to make life easier for our counterparts aboard. There were plenty of moments of fun at Dundee though, learning the various Scottish reels at Kidds room in town, enjoying the excellent repertory company’s offerings, and visiting both Edinburgh and Aberdeen on weekend leaves.

I had always wanted to serve abroad, and had volunteered for overseas service when I first joined the R.N. at Mill Hill, but it still came as a surprise when, after several months at Dundee, I and one other telegraphist were told our overseas drafts had come through. We had 24 hours to pack our kit before going on 21 days embarkation leave - excitement and a measure of panic set in as I struggled to sleep that night. Where would we be sent, and for how long, weeks, months or years? No-one knew how long it would take to defeat Germany.

After our leave, which was spent visiting numerous relatives, we were to report to the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital at Golden Square, London, just behind Piccadilly Circus. The building had been commandeered as a transit base where we would await further orders - days and weeks went past as we speculated as to where we would be going, and when. It must be to the tropics, judging by all the inoculations!

After the chores were completed at Golden Square, the rest of the day we were free to do whatever we wished until 10pm. The Leicester Square ticket booth proved to be a Godsend. The W.V.S., that manned it, would issue us with free tickets to any show in town, on producing our Golden Square pass. Many theatres were closed down for the war, or had been bombed, but we must have seen nearly every play, concert and ballet that was still toughing it out in London.

One night, as we returned to quarters, a distinctly different atmosphere greeted us. A huge meal had been prepared - not the usual supper of sardines on toast, or omelettes made with reconstituted eggs. The enormous wooden doors of the building had been locked behind each one of us entering, and no-one was allowed out again. Telephones had been disconnected too, so that we knew instantly that we were on the move. Kit bags were hastily packed and, very late that night, a fleet of lorries arrived to transport us swiftly to a mainline railway station - we had no idea which one, as all identification had long since been removed in case of a German invasion. We were herded onto a train in a siding in pitch darkness, from where we travelled for hours before dawn broke. Inquisitive eyes peeped round the blinds in the hope of discovering our whereabouts. It was some time later, as we were being bussed through some large city, that a voice piped up, “We’re in Liverpool”. Soon, we had our first sighting of the liner “Orduna”, anchored out in the Mersey; this was to be home for the next six weeks. Excitement quickly died down as we stepped aboard and inspected our allocated quarters - twenty-one of us were to be crammed into a four berth cabin on a lower deck opposite the bakery! All luxury trappings had been removed from the ship, and space made to accommodate hundreds of servicemen and women on every deck, including public rooms and dance floors - this was going to be no cruise! After hours of loading personnel and supplies, the “Orduna” slowly moved off down the Mersey, with us lining the rails to catch our last glimpse of England, wondering why we had ever volunteered! We sailed northwards unaccompanied, but as we entered the Firth of Clyde, what a sight came into view - some forty or fifty ships were assembled, mostly troop ships such as ours, but also cruisers, destroyers, frigates and four aircraft carriers were mustered, preparing to protect us in a huge convoy. Small craft of all descriptions were busily loading fuel and supplies on to the escort ships in preparation for the long voyage ahead. We were to sail on the next tide. Round Northern Ireland we proceeded out into the Atlantic Ocean - we were on our way now, no turning back!

Life on board was very tedious, broken up by lifeboat drill at different times of every day and night, performed with precision and taken very seriously, each time wondering if it was yet another practice or a real emergency. Various lectures and debates occupied part of each day, and occasional old films were shown, but in all but the foulest weather, running around the decks was a daily routine and compulsory. The convoy zigzagged continuously as we moved slowly southwards - lookouts were stationed around the clock at every vantage point. The only contact with the other ships was by Aldis lamp, so we were able to try and read the signals and keep in practice, though of course all messages were coded.

After several days of being tossed around in the Bay of Biscay we spotted land in the far distance, this was very perplexing, since we had anticipated the first visible landfall would be weeks away round the Cape of Good Hope; all convoys had sailed this long route around Africa since the Axis Powers occupied most of the North African coast, as well as France, Italy and Greece, and it was considered too much of a risk to allow troop ships through the Mediterranean Sea. Gradually, as the daylight faded, we could clearly see the Rock of Gibraltar on our port side - at this point all hands were ordered below decks on total silence, as word passed round the ship that we were entering the Med’, and the first convoy to do so for many months. The next few days were to prove very tense - noise on board had to be kept to a minimum, and we were ordered to remain in our scratchy bell-bottoms day and night, ready for any emergency. There were to be many false alarms when we had to muster on deck, quickly and quietly, only to be soaked as ratings continually hosed down the decks - this was achieved in an orderly manner, but frightening it certainly was, especially on moonlit nights when the ships were silhouetted against the sky like prime targets. During this time the weather was getting noticeably warmer - how we longed for a change of clothes and a good bath, instead of a seawater shower with soap that wouldn’t lather!

However, life went on and the tension eased considerably as we approached Port Said, the entrance to the Suez Canal. Here our escort of warships left us, no doubt to return to the UK to repeat their task all over again.

Sadly, I have to say here that the next convoy through the Med’ was not so fortunate - whereas we had caught the enemy napping, the Luftwaffe was, by now, fully alerted and created havoc to those that followed us a few weeks later. With the assistance of U-boats, they managed to break through the protection escorts and sank several troop ships with heavy casualties.

At last we dropped anchor at Port Said and waited our turn to proceed through the canal in single file - in no time we were surrounded by barges and dhows loaded with coconuts, citrus fruits, bananas, figs and dates - it had been a long time since we had seen such luxuries at home in war torn Britain. Soon an ingenious system of ropes, pulleys and baskets had been set up and we were the happy recipients of these lovely fresh fruits. Other craft were trading through portholes on the lower decks, leather craft, jewellery, etc. The atmosphere was unforgettable - hot sun, spicy smells, excited banter as goods and money changed hands, and an air of relaxation at last.

Sailing through the Suez Canal was a unique and memorable experience, at times there barely seemed inches between ship and shore as we edged along the 90 mile stretch. The scenery was fascinating as we passed ornate temples, mosques and pyramids. Onlookers, in dhotis, waved and smiled as they lazed under the palm and date trees in the ever-increasing heat, whilst other travellers, perched high on camels, pulling their reluctant mules behind them, weighed down with their worldly goods, chanted incessantly. It must have taken about nine hours to pass through the canal, before we came out into the Gulf of Suez, and then into the Red Sea. Here we dropped anchor, in order to reform the convoy as we met up with other ships that had preceded us. The heat was becoming intolerable, and with the overcrowding on board, many people were overcome and fainting - but worse still, two seamen died and were buried at sea. The ship was completely turned around during the hottest hours to create a slight breeze. Thankfully, our fresh escort ships soon arrived from Aden to accompany us to our next port of call, Mombassa, East Africa. We crossed the Equator with the usual ceremony of dunking the ship’s captain into a large, canvas, makeshift swimming pool - he being dressed up like Neptune.

Two days later, we were tying up in the beautiful natural harbour of Mombassa, fringed with palms and other species of tropical plants. A very slow pace of life here was evident on the quayside as we were loaded with fresh provisions. The heat was unbearable, sapping every scrap of energy.

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