BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

A Family in Uniform

by WW2wren

Contributed by 
People in story: 
WW2wren and brothers
Location of story: 
The North Atlantic
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 July 2004

I had two brothers. the elder was a young Master Mariner (aged 28)in the Merchant Navy,and was sailing as First Mate when his ship was sunk by U-boat action in the Battle of the Atlantic.(January 1941). There were no survivors.

Soon after that my younger brother joined the Royal Navy. He was trained to be a wireless operator,and later a wireless mechanic. Most of his war service was spent on escort duty in the Atlantic, the North Sea,the Mediterranean and the English Channel.Thankfully, he survived the war.

In September 1942 I decided to join the W.R.N.S. I offered the information that I could drive a car, and could do touch typing. Therein, I thought, lay my usefulness to the Service. With regard to driving, I could steer a car but had not yet learnt to manipulate the clutch. I could still learn though! There were few cars available for civilian use, and a permit was needed to obtain petrol, which was kept for purposes of war only. As for my typing skill - I was self-taught,and fast gaining speed, or so I thought.I could do 25-30 words per minute, and was improving rapidly.

So I became a Wren and was proud to wear the uniform.It was smart except for the hat. This, with its water-proofed, floppy brim was useful but unatractive. These hats were soon replaced by little jaunty sailor hats, with hat-bands displaying in gold lettering H.M.S. (all hat-bands showing the names of ships had already been withdrawn). It was time to pay a visit to the local photographer's studio!

My first week as a Wren was spent as a messenger in Belfast Castle which was the Headquarters of the Northern Ireland. I learnt the lay-out of the building, and knew the rooms to which signals were likely to be delivered to the appropriate personnel.I learnt also when NOT to salute high-ranking Officers who had impressive gold braid on the peaks of their caps - never when indoors, and especially when I had my hat off and my shirt sleeves rolled up. The acknowledgement would be not a salute, but a smile. Also,the Admiral's car was NOT to be saluted unless the Admiral was in it, even if the sailor driver had forgotten to remove the Admiral's pennant from the bonnet of the very expensive looking automobile.I was still learning!

After a week's service I found myself assigned to the Coding Office, attached to the Signal Distributing Office, where I served for a year on watch-keeping duties and slept one night in four in the chilly attic rooms which,in pre-war days, had been the servants' quarters.

In 1943 I spent a few weeks in London and vividly remember the misery of being wakened from deep sleep after a busy and stressful day and being directed to the basement shelters of a large building. In a tunnel-like area we sat on a cold stone floor with legs out-stretched and backs against a brick wall,awaiting the ALL CLEAR siren and the comfort of bed and sleep once more.

I was learning what the citizens of London had to endure, during the prolonged period of bombing attacks. On one occasion,late in the evening,I saw a mattress spread out on the wide platform of a deeply-situated underground tube station, in anticipation of yet another raid. No wonder Londoners loved and respected Queen Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mother), who several times visited the stricken areas after a night of blitz bonbing. She endeared herself to them by her practical gestures of sympathy and encouragement in their exhaustion and still defiant spirit of endurance.

In 1944 I was drafted to Scotland for a few months.When travelling north to the Cameron Barracks in Inverness a gentleman in civilian dress entered, in Perth, the carriage I was in. We talked about the beauty of the Perthshire countryside. I was invited to share his refreshments, and to offer suggestions in the solving of a crossward puzzle. My first engagement the following morning was to be present at the muster of troops and naval personnel on the parade ground of the barracks. During the Inspection by General Montgomery, accompanied by the Chief of the Cameron Clan (who was now wearing full scottish attire) I recognised my travelling companion of the previous day.

After that came the build-up to D-Day. We could begin to feel that we were approaching the beginning of the end of hostilities. I was in Plymouth before, during and after D-Day. Just before the embarkation of the troops I spent an evening in a hotel lounge in company with some service friends. The conversation was both quiet and solemn. Thoughts were of wives, children and homes and one sensed the controlled feelings of uncertainty as to what the future might hold.

I was glad that my time spent in the W.R.N.S. covered a few months of duty on active service at sea, towards the end of the war. A group of Wrens were required to join the Ship's Company of the S.S.Franconia which sailed through the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea for the Yalta Conference which was attended by Sir Winston Churchill,Presedent Roosevelt and Stalin.

I have memories which include seeing a whale surfacing and spouting, at close range, in the Atlantic. Also I had the experience of battling through a Force 10 gale in the Bay of Biscay. During the days of storm almost the entire Wren personnel were miserably sea-sick. A bucket, conveniently placed for emergencies, was useful - and through it all the watches were kept, and the duties performed.

Climbing to the crow's nest on the liner (admittedly when the ship was in Malta harbour and securely anchored) was another experience. Pushing up and back the trap-door and getting safely from the the ladder to the plateform seemed hazardous and demanding of nerve at the time, and great was my disappointment on finding the entire nest tarpaulined over. I unlashed enough to be able to get a clear view from a loft of a wide expanse of sea and land - another memory for all time.

Possibly my greatest claim to distinction was having been able to fill a need, when a steward came seeking to borrow from the Wrens a few hot water bottles. He was preparing a cabin for the use of Sir Winston Churchill, who came on board for a few days after the conference had ended. Pity that hot water bottles eventually wear out!

By far the greatest memory was the announcement of PEACE - V.E.Day. (V.J.Day was yet to come). As we Wrens walked along Plymouth Hoe, warmly clad in our uniform bell-bottom trousers,it seemed as though every Ship's Company in harbour was rejoicing. The sky was ablaze with colour, and such colourful signals as could be spared were being rocketed from the ships. Everyone wanted to take part in the celebration. The pealing of church bells and the enjoyment of street parties would follow.

It had been six long years since we had heard the chilling news that our country was at war.It was on a Sunday morning during a church service, and in the middle of a sermon, that a slip of paper was handed to our Rector, and he read to us the brief message. A few weeks later he had re-joined the R.N.R. as a Royal Naval Chaplain and later served in the Mediterranean on a hospital ship. Now, at last, it was over.

Our thoughts go to those who did not live to enjoy that day of rejoicing. Those of us who lived through the war years will always remember the selfless giving and the courage of those who died or who suffered injury as the result of war. We salute, too, the survivors who faced, in the same spirit, the perils of war. It behoves every one of us to live our lives in such a way as to be worthy of the sacrifice.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Women's Royal Naval Service Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy