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15 October 2014
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My Time as a WRN

by harrogategrammar

Contributed by 
harrogategrammar
People in story: 
Cathleen O'Brien
Location of story: 
Hull
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A3561671
Contributed on: 
22 January 2005

Written by Katie Millican, for Cathleen O'Brien.

My father helped to establish the Sea Cadets in Hull and my mother made uniforms, which is how I became interested in the Navy, and decided that I wanted to join the WRNS. Up until then, I had worked as a wages clerk at a railway, but in December 1942, when I was 26, I joined HMS Pembroke as a trainee WRN. The first thing I was asked there was “are you handy with tools?”

After a week at HMS Pembroke, I moved to a government training centre, and lived in London as a WRN trainee. I was put in a group of twelve, and we learnt how to make screws and electrical devices. I was there for six weeks, and at the end we were given a test — to make a light circuit.

The next place I went to was Brighton, where I stayed for six weeks. I trained at Roedean, and learnt how depth charges work, and about high and low power electrics. I was also examined after my training there.

After training at Brighton I went to Liverpool to work on HMS Eaglet, with two friends who I had asked to be with. There we did several jobs, including cleaning and servicing pistols (the trigger mechanism for torpedoes or depth charges); in pairs, attending to lighting on ships; and sorting the electrics on Sloops, Corvettes and Frigates, including HMS Black Swan.

I went back to Brighton again after that, then to Southsea (near Portsmouth) for a week, where I did further training to specialise in torpedoes and for promotion to become a Leading WRN. I also did torpedo training on HMS Vernon, in Portsmouth. The last place I went during the war, was Tynemouth, where I worked on HMS Calliope — a big sailing ship. I was also a leading WRN for nine months there. After Tynemouth, the war ended.

Many memorable things happened during my time as a WRN. When I was training in London, we used to go down into the basements of the ships to eat, and sometimes we were given ‘cai’ — Naval drinking chocolate. It is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.

In Brighton, the food was marvellous. We used to come back at four o’clock, and were given tins of dried fruit. Whilst in Brighton was also the only time that we heard planes. We were watching a Guilbert and Sullivan, and some planes came over. Two petty officers were waiting for a bus at the sea front, and a plane came down low and shot them both, which was very sad to see.

My time in Liverpool was also very eventful. When we had to travel from where we lived to the docks in Liverpool for the first time, we went by overhead railway, and we saw workmen spitting. Those I was with were all from the south and they were disgusted, but, being from Hull, I was used to it. While there, we worked for some of the time on the ship of Captain Walker, who organised lots of protection of convoys. One time, Walker took some office staff to Ireland (but I didn’t get to go), but it was too foggy, so they were stranded there for the night. After that I wasn’t too annoyed about not going.

The chief petty officer in charge of the WRNS in Liverpool was fun to work with, because the WRNS could wrap him round their little finger, and we managed to get out of all the worst jobs. The scariest time in Liverpool, was when we were working on an aircraft carrier. There was an air raid and all the lights went out. It took ages to get out because the ship was so huge.

We had to work all the time in Liverpool — even on Sundays — so we got very tired. But there were sometimes local dances, for fun, every now and again, which made up for our long hours. But the food in Liverpool was awful. We got the barest rations, although very rarely, we were given an egg. There was no rum ration, but on board ship, we could have a cup of tea if we got cold.

The worst thing that happened to me as a WRN was that when I was supposed to go on leave, my surname got mixed up with a similar one. So when all my friends went on leave, someone else went with them, instead of me, and I had to go on to re-train. I felt very fed-up about that. But the worst part was that when I did eventually go on leave, I had to go with some girls from Cheltenham Ladies College, who I didn’t get on with at all. I had also had a pet dog before I went on leave, but when I went, it got stolen. As a result, I didn’t do as well as I had hoped in the exam I sat, the second time I went to Brighton.

Before I went to Southsea, it had been bombed, as had Portsmouth. We visited HMS Victory in the Naval dockyard in Portsmouth, and while the buildings all around it had been wrecked, it had stayed in tact, which was quite astonishing. Another time in Southsea, some sailors were training on a balcony, but it collapsed, and they all fell onto paravanes (very sharp, used for cutting mines). That shocked us all.

In Tynemouth, the last place I worked, the WRNS used to slide down the gangways, and change into overalls. A fierce, red-faced commander used to say “give her away with a quarter of tea”.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time as a WRN, and if I hadn’t had to look after my mother after the war, I would have cheerfully stayed with the WRNS.

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