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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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A woman in a man's world.

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Barbara Mott (Sawyer)
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 September 2005

When I was 17 I was staying with a cousin, Gloria, in Bognor during the summer holidays. We were out riding our bikes, when she said her father was a cobbler in the Navy. I thought then I would like to join the Wrens and we cycled straight to Portsmouth where I joined up. I had already left home the previous year so had no worries about living away from home. When I went for the selection board there was along trestle table with the officials on one side and us prospective entrants in little cubicles on the other side. I was thinking that I would never get in when they found out about my bad foot which I had hurt in a car accident years before. A man came and stuck something in my ear, which I thought was odd, then we had to give a water specimen in our own little cublicles and that was it,I was in.

I went to Southsea to start my training and they asked for some of us to volunteer for the Gunnery course at Whale Island in Portsmouth. I volunteered and was issued with a blue Navy dress which was too small for me; they wanted to see if we could stay the course before issuing us with proper uniforms. We were marched around Southsea Common. We finally got our uniforms. I remember the first time I had to salute anyone, I was walking down the fire steps and saw this officer coming towards me, I was worried I would not get it right but saluted him. He laughed and said 'You don't have to salute me, I am a Fire Chief'.

At this time I was earning 14 shillings a fortnight and had more clothes that I had ever had in my life. Life was good. I was posted to Gosport to the Motor Torpedo Boat HMS Hornet. Part of my duties was to collect guns from the boat and bring them back to the shed, where I was working, to repair them. I went across in a little boat and had to go up a rope ladder up the side of HMS Hornet; the water was oily and horrible. When I came down again with the pistols, I dropped them in the sea. I was the Chief's favourite normally but not that day; it was a Friday and everyone wanted to get off on leave but no one was allowed to go until the divers had collected the guns and they had all been cleaned.

Sometimes if the men wanted to go off early I would tell the Chief that I was going to visit my grandmother and that some of the men were going with me. The Chief would let me go early; sometimes he threated to send them all abroad but always said 'I will keep Dusty (me) with me here'.

I was then sent to the King Alfred, Hove, which was the Officer's training establishment, to repair guns there. On my first day I went to report, walking across the grass and a loud voice boomed across saying 'You must never walk across the parade ground'. I ran the rest of the way as fast as I could. On my first day there a Gunnery Officer who had been in the Navy all his life said he was not amused because I had taken over the job of a man. He sat in a room with a little window overlooking where I used to pass and I never knew if he was going to spit at me or shout at me. He said the 'Bloody petticoat Navy - she is not staying here' talking about me. However, months later I had to go to his billet to get some tablets for him and he had my photo on his desk, so I suppose I grew on him. He was furious when I got engaged and sent for me and my fiance. As we walked over he shook hands and said 'Look after that girl, she is the most popular girl at the King Alfred'. He also handed over money which the men got from selling the scrap from the munitions. I dont know whether I was entitled to it or not but it was a nice gesture.

The men were sent to Lancing College for a 6 week course initially and then to Mowden School, Hove and then the King Alfred to learn gujnnery and signalling. I used to have to go up the steel ladder on the top of the King Alfred to clean the guns on the top. I was always getting into trouble there; one day I was chatting to the sentry for ages, saw the Chief comming, and ducked down so he would not see me. I then got called to see the Chief and he said, in future when you see me coming, don't duck.
Another time I put my hand in my pocket to get my pay book and one of the men had put a dead little bird with no feathers on it, in my pocket. I nearly died and screamed. I got my own back on him though by locking him in the store room next time we were in there. Unfortunately, I went off for tea and forgot all about him. He was not happy when I eventually went back for him.

I was asked to lead the procession and I had to learn to beat the drum; I had to practice a lot at night while the men were trying to sleep next door, again they were not happy with me. Luckily for me I had to go to hospital to have my tonsils out so I did not have to play the drum in the end.
You could not normally travel more than 10 miles without permission but I got compassionate leave to go to hospital and because my grandmother was ill. While I was away I went with my uncle to the local hop and lost my pay book which was a serious crime at that time. When I got back I reported it to the Police. I was escorted back and had to go before the Commander and was punished with 14 days confinement to barracks. At the time I was staying at the San Remo and I wanted to send a letter to a particular boyfriend so took a chance on going out. However, I was seen by a Petty Officer and again had to go before the Commander; this time I got 3 weeks confined to barracks. I took on everybody's night duties to earn extra money during this time and also so that I would not have to do them when I returned. I lost my good conduct badge but eventually got it back again. The Chief Petty Officer eventually gave me away when I got married.

When we were getting ready for D Day, I had the job of getting the bayonets and rifles ready. I was so concerned and conscientious about doing this right that one night I was found sleepwalking in the room we were working in; I had washed and dressed in full uniform and walked to work while asleep.

I was sent to HMS Skirmisher next still cleaning and testing guns. I had to go on board the minesweeper and ask the officers what needed doing and arrange for it to be done. One day I was standing there very proud in my uniform and all the officers were looking at me, so I was feeling great, and then one approached me and said that a seagull had just done something on my hat!

I was eventually invalided out after a spell of pleurisy in Alexander Hospital; I had thought it was just a cough but I became very ill. However, it didn't matter how ill you were you had to get out and fill up the boiler in the middle of the room to keep the place warm.

I had one or two near misses. The first was when I first came to Brighton, I got off the train and took the bus to the King Alfred and the bus was machine gunned. Another time I was away from my digs in the San Remo and my room was machine gunned.

I was the first woman Petty Officer to be qualified in ordinance and at one stage I was asked to go to Gibralter. However, I needed my father's permission to go and he would not give it so I had to stay in Hove.

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