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15 October 2014
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Recollections of a War-time Wren (part 2 of 3)

by Mary Pratt (nee Sturt)

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

As we sailed away, we were still unsure of our final destination. Were we to cross the Indian Ocean or sail southwards? Very soon the welcome news spread through the ship that Durban was to be disembarkation point - what a relief, spirits rose rapidly! I’m sure everyone was grateful to the “Orduna” and her crew for delivering us safely after our long voyage, but we had no regrets at leaving her and stepping ashore after all those long weeks.

The welcome on the quay in Durban was unbelievable: hundreds of people, cheering and waving their Union Jacks, had turned out to greet us; a band played and everyone sang patriotic songs. One particular lady showered the rails with posies of flowers, while others threw streamers up to us. Baskets of fruit were brought up the gangplanks with messages of welcome and goodwill. After the long disembarkation process was completed, we were shepherded on to buses and told that the W.R.N.S. quarters (H.M.S. Assegai) were not yet complete and therefore we were to be billeted in hotels along the neat palm-lined seafront and, after seeing the small friendly Hotel Louis, that news suited us beautifully!! I can still picture the lovely sunny bedroom I shared with two other girls. The French windows opened on to a balcony overlooking the deep blue Indian Ocean, with a white sandy beach spread before us. A fan gently cooled the room, but the great attraction was our own private bathroom; the stampede for a long overdue soak in a bath was really on! Soon a very plump dark-skinned Mammy was tapping on our door to take us down to a sumptuous dinner, and to enquire as to whether we’d be taking breakfast in bed next morning. “Oh yes we certainly would!” was our swift response - little did we realise that breakfast consisted of six courses, all to be brought up on trays, albeit by a lift. What luxury - may the completion of the Durban Wrennery long be delayed!

Eventually, we appeared downstairs in mufti, and glanced at the notice board put up especially for our benefit - it was covered with invites from families and couples eager to show us the sights, entertain us, and take us to their homes at lovely sounding places like “Isipingo Beach” and “Umshlunga Rocks”. Trips to game reserves, theatres, open air cinemas and restaurants could all be arranged. Cars would come and collect us, “just give us a ring!” We were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity, and with no work to do, the next three weeks were filled with fantastic beach parties, picnics, dances and just one whale of a time.

The shops in Durban (reached by rickshaw) were a sight to behold - no rationing of food or clothes here. Everyone wanted to send food parcels home and a very efficient service by Stuttafords was provided to do just that - “You select, and we will pack and post for you”, read the ads. We delighted in thinking of the joy that the lovely South African fruit and produce would bring to our families back home, so meagrely rationed without luxuries.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and transfers to H.M.S. Assegai, situated in the outback, came all too quickly. It was difficult to settle down again after being so utterly spoilt, but not much time was to elapse before some of us were to be drafted back to Mombassa (HQ of S.E.A.C., South East Asia Command). This time, the week’s voyage for about 25 of us girls was to be on a small merchant ship; we had to adapt again quickly, space was at a premium, though food was plentiful and the crew very friendly. I suppose it was quite a novelty to be carrying a bunch of Wrens on board, and the young captain - a Dutchman - eager to hear news of life in the UK, would entertain us in his cabin in the evenings. He was quite a connoisseur of liqueurs, and we greatly enjoyed sampling these, always accompanied by a huge silver salver stacked with the most delicious sandwiches. We sunbathed on deck during the day, cooling off from time to time with a seawater hose rigged up for us. It never seemed to occur to us to wonder or ask what cargo we were carrying - just as well as it turned out, for the hold was full of ammunition and armaments; I’m sure that knowledge would definitely have spoilt that little voyage, although we were lucky again, in not encountering any trouble at all. We docked, I remember, for a few hours at Dar es Salaam to take on fresh water, during which time we went ashore. In those days the place was almost unaffected by tourists, so the locals were quite taken aback to see a group of uniformed white girls in their midst.

The shore establishment at Mombassa, H.M.S. Kilindini, was like a parched campsite with very basic living quarters. We slept in bandas under mosquito nets in steaming heat. The floors were concrete and, with no doors or windows, privacy was non-existent, but at least, once we were under the straw roofs, we were shaded from the blazing sun. Soon we were put to work but after so many months we were rusty and had to learn all over again to transmit fluently. The Petty Officer in charge of the W/T office had plenty of remarks to make about “Wrens being no substitute for my lads” - it was, of course, his lads were there to relieve, so they could return to sea. His attitude certainly brought us up sharp, and we determined to make him eat his words! We were soon on very good terms I might add.

Our watches were 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. and the office was several miles from our quarters, so we were driven there by a native. As we assembled at 1.30 a.m., he would be sound asleep in the truck, then, after our impatient yells of “Gwenda driver”, he would put his foot down hard, and we were hurtled down the rough cart tracks through sleeping villages, bumping up and down as stray dogs tore after us barking loudly enough to wake the dead. Our job mainly consisted of ordering supplies for the many warships in the harbour, and communicating re- their arrivals and departures. At 8 a.m. a new driver would take us back to the Wrennery for breakfast, after which it was time to try and sleep. The increasing equatorial heat and the constant chatter of the ayahs clearing up and hosing the “garden” around us made kipping a near impossibility. Afternoons were spent on the beach lying in the shade of the palms, with frequent trips over the burning sand to bathe. The beach was glorious, totally unspoilt and private, no-one to be seen for miles, and a long coral reef was worth swimming out to, in order to see the spectacular fish out there in the translucent water - this was truly paradise!

After a shower and supper we’d be off out for the evening, dancing, drinking, meeting new people and talking about home. Often, invites would come from the ships in harbour, we’d be collected by a liberty boat and taken out for dances on deck, under the stars. Like Cinderellas, though, we had to leave in time to get back and change from evening dress into long sleeved shirts and trousers - compulsory on night watch in the office, to protect us from the mosquitoes.

Mombassa Town was usually half asleep, even by day, but lovely for browsing around in the cool of early evening. The shops and stalls were full of hand-carved wooden animals, beads, headdresses and may ivory objects, all so unusual and attractive, but our pay was only 25/- a week, and had to be saved up for leave. We looked forward to spending this precious seven days up in the hill station of Nairobi, 528 kilometres from the heat of Mombassa, but the R.N. had other plans for us.

After three months in Kenya, Commander Louis Mountbatten and his GHQ, was moving from East Africa to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and, amongst others, the Signals Wrens would also be transferred. We were sorry to be leaving friends behind. Kenya had been a unique experience, and I had loved the atmosphere. However, another challenge awaited us - we were to be transported across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon in a destroyer, H.M.S. Chitral.

The orders were, that all Wrens were to be treated like matelots, swabbing decks, cleaning quarters and latrines and sleeping in hammocks; everything but "splicing the mainbrace" - the daily ritual of receiving a tot of rum from the Captain on board every ship at sea - but why not us? We complained through the proper channels to the Captain. After much discussion, I suspect, we were given this privilege, much to the annoyance of our counterparts I might add! Very few of us enjoyed the rum, but we were out to make a point, so stomach it we did!! Our very presence on board a working naval vessel caused widespread dissent. Two days out from Mombassa, a German U-Boat was sighted in the distance - normally a fast destroyer would give chase and engage the enemy, but, because of females on board, we turned tail for harbour again, to await a safe passage - our names were mud, though most of us would have relished a good scrap at sea! Being deckhands, we were forbidden to meet or even speak to the officers on the upper deck - unless in the line of duty. However, Christmas Day, we thought, was special and a greeting would not go amiss. We were wrong, our names were called out over the tannoy to report to the Officer of the Day, who had no sympathy and gave us a right dressing down - we were not popular at all on the Chitral, and I think Wrens and crew alike were relieved when we docked at Colombo, Ceylon, and the troublemakers disembarked!

Now life was going to change again quite dramatically. We were no longer a small group of Wrens, but one of hundreds who had sailed out from the UK to Ceylon. We were housed in barrack-like buildings, discipline was tight, and no weekend passes, just straight down to four-hourly watches round the clock. One day off a week enabled us to get out of the noisy town of Colombo to relax on the super beaches south of the city. Often we were treated to a nice meal by some lonely officer, or join a crowd for drinks on the terrace of the colonial type Galle Face Hotel, overlooking the magnificent palm-fringed beach and the sea. One could only use these facilities in the company of an officer - no uncommissioned ranks were permitted. Invitations to the Silver Fawn Nightclub, in town, were forthcoming from these encounters, and life improved no end. When leave became due we promised ourselves trips to other parts of the island, especially to see the Hindu Temples of Kandy, and up into the hills amongst the tea and coffee plantations, where it would be pleasantly cooler - roll on our seven days leave! But, once again, the pattern would be altered. Two Wren telegraphists were chosen at random to transfer to India, I being one. I had very mixed feelings at this stage, having settled down very happily and met lots of nice young men, I was really enjoying life again - on the other hand, India would be a fresh experience, and we had no choice anyway. Long before Colombo's airport was built, the racecourse was used for all flying, so Edna and I duly arrived there and were distinctly alarmed to see an ancient looking, open cockpit Albacore aircraft sitting on the grass in readiness for us - "Oh, you'll be okay girls, the Station Commander is going to pilot you", a mechanic assured us; what he didn't add was that the Commander was a heavy drinker, and that day was no exception to his usual lunchtime session! In all innocence we climbed into the very small cockpit behind him and took off. The trip was hair-raising, to say the least, as we were shown what aerobatics the Albacore could perform. Diving to view the chain of islands between Ceylon and India, the plane was attacked by a flock of cormorants: large, black, ferocious seabirds, which seemed to come perilously close to our uncovered heads. By this time we were both being pretty ill either side of the plane - much to the skipper's amusement. Touchdown couldn't come a minute too soon.

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