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15 October 2014
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Olive the WREN in Liverpool

by CSV Solent

Contributed by 
CSV Solent
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Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
27 May 2005

The medal and letter Olive recieved from the King at the end of the war.

This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Marie on behalf of Olive and has been added to the site with her permission. Olive fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

I arrived in Liverpool on the 5th June 1943. My heart sank - what a contrast to Greenock (Scotland where Olive had previously been posted) - it was a city that had been very badly scarred by bombs, with empty spaces and broken buildings on every corner. I felt so sorry for the people who had had to go through such an ordeal. The WREN quarters were in Ackerleigh House, on the edge of Sefton park on the outskirts of the city. There was also a small park with a little lake just opposite the house and this became very useful as a place for me to walk and relax after work. I shared a cabin with several WRENs until I gained promotion to Petty Officer WREN - I was then moved to a smaller room with people of a similar rank and I now had crossed hooks, brass buttons and a tricorn hat.

My routine was still strict though. Everyone had to sign in when returning at night, fire watching and other duty rotas were all part of my routine. In Liverpool I had to travel to work by special bus - Tommy the driver had a great Liverpudlian sense of humour and it was always good to hear someone laughing. My first office was in one of the domes on top of the famous Liver Building. Night duty there was a positive nightmare - you had to go up several floors by lift, then walk up a flight of stairs before opening the door onto the roof. From here it was a diagonal walk across the roof in the blackout with hazards such as chimney stacks and ridges to negotiate. It was very frightening especially when it was a wet and stormy night as you weren’t allowed any light at all so we couldn’t even use torches - one girl was thrown against a wall and broke her ankle the year before I arrived and it was quite some time before anyone missed her and went to find her.

I shared an office with an elderly seaman who always had a mug of Kye waiting to warm me up. It was the ships cocoa made from a special block of unsweetened chocolate mixed with water and boiled until thick. He would add either evaporated or condensed milk which would make it thicker still - a teaspoon would stand upright in the centre for quite some time! It had a really greasy texture and was an acquired taste - but a good warmer on a cold night! Fortunately there were no air raids when I was working on the top of the Liver Building and after several months I was sent to work underground at Derby House which was right at the hub of things. This building was like a rabbit warren and outside it was fenced, sand-bagged and guarded by sentries and I soon found out that it was the main place for combined operations, navy and air force, where the Battle of the Atlantic was planned and organised by Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, Sir Max Horton. We were little cogs in a big machine, all around the main plotting room which had a complete wall made out of glass so he could see everything.

The Wireless Office, where I worked, had five machines on different frequencies, plus one tape machine which was similar to a typewriter except it produced ribbons of punched paper and was used to send automatic Morse on long routine messages. The room also had a land line - a type of Morse key connected to Admiralty, Plymouth, etc. It was very difficult to read as the sound was a kind of echo-y clickety-clack but I managed it eventually. Ship-to-shore work was done only in emergencies as wireless silence was necessary to protect the fleet. So most messages were sent as general ones to be acted on if the coded message in the preamble applied to that particular ship or port. I remember once when a special message had to be sent out in spite of great difficulties and an overload of work on the sets - and the big brass stood behind my chair until it had gone which was incredibly nerve-wracking!

At times reading Morse in all that noise and with all the atmospheric crackles was almost too much to bear, and a period of clear signals was a huge relief. Long night duties were particularly tiring - especially if there was too much traffic to be able to take a break. Although occasionally we would get to use a special room furnished with bunk beds which was bliss! As there was no air conditioning, it got very hot at times and off our office was a small room where batteries were stored in case we lost power. When the man in charge of this room was away I had to check the specific gravity of the room using hydrometers - I hated this as the room was so small and the batteries really smelled.

If you were in four watches - the thing to be - you worked 12 midnight until 8am, then you came off and went on the same day at 6pm until midnight, then the next day you went 1 until 6 and then you started again 8 until 1. That was good! If anyone went on leave or anything happened we had to go onto three watches which was terrible. 8 until 1 in the morning, then on again midnight until 8 and then 6 until midnight, and then 1 until 6. It was pretty hard work. And sometimes we had a week of nights followed by three weeks of days. The days were ok, but the nights almost killed us! You’d be working eight hours solidly and they say that you shouldn’t do Morse for longer than 5 hours as you start making mistakes. If you were lucky you’d get to have a little rest, but not very often! The only advantage was you’d get a long weekend at the end of it.

In amongst all this I received my arm stripe for three years service.

A big event one day, the King and Queen came to visit. I didn’t get to see them as I had been on night duty but my friend Vera was a member of the guard of honour. I still keep in touch with her.

After four years though, the war was over and we were discharged. It was quite an anti-climax - we were just left to get on with life as best we could. There was no counselling and it was so difficult to settle back into civilian life - you’d left all your friends, the atmosphere was different and people weren’t so keen to help each other any more. In a funny way I think we all missed the excitement. I got £45 8 shillings as a War Gratuity.

Our building in Liverpool is now a museum - they’ve had to change it a bit and unfortunately our office is a cinema room rather than being preserved like the rest but visiting it took me right back.

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