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15 October 2014
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Recollections of a War-time Wren (part 3 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, Ootacamund)
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 December 2004

H.M.S. Garuda at Coimbatore, Southern India, looked very flat and dull with little vegetation, and many, many miles from the sea. The airfield was quite sizeable and home to a squadron of Expeditors of the Fleet Air Arm, planes that ferried 16/18 V.I.P.s between various airfields in Southern India and several in Ceylon. Our duties, by day, consisted mainly of R/T, talking the planes in and out, issuing weather conditions, lists of passengers, etc., and by night, transmitting pages and pages of stores required for the upkeep of the squadron. This was quite a departure from working with subs in Dundee and naval ships at Mombassa and Colombo. We were only six Wrens in total, in a camp of at least 1,000 naval ratings. To get to the W/T office we had to walk right through the camp, which attracted wolf whistles, much chatting up, and singing of appropriate songs as our names became known. A "ship's" dance was held once a week, to which local girls from the village would be invited - but white girls were more of a novelty, and our appearance at dances caused endless trouble and fighting until, after two such occasions, we were banned from attending these hops. The chaps in the W/T office, however, respected our presence and we very gradually became used to being so outnumbered. Out Wrennery was bleak and sparsely furnished, but the young ayahs kept it clean and did our dhobi for us. As they worked they chewed betel nuts which left their teeth and mouths bright red. Ablutions were carried out in small cubicles and were very primitive. The ayahs filled the tin tubs, and would, after persuasion, retreat, only to peep at us undressing behind the flimsy curtains. They were intrigued by our toothbrushes which they had never encountered before, and, after watching how we used them, they obviously couldn't resist the temptation of trying them out - leaving them scarlet, whilst swearing they had never touched them! We became quite attracted to these young girls, in time, as they wafted around barefoot in their lovely saris.

The main attraction in Coimbatore was the English Club which had tennis courts, a swimming pool, a bar and a dance floor. Officers only were admitted, but uncommissioned Wrens were welcome too, since there were few white women for miles. My boyfriend, at that time, played in the band at the regular dances held twice-weekly, so was able to keep an eye on me, which was distinctly inhibiting - I had to refuse many a date. There were always officers passing through town on their way to different airfields in the vicinity. We enjoyed meeting them, as they brought us news of home, how Britain was coping with the continual bombing and shortages; some of the army officers were on leave from Burma, where the war was hotting up against Japan, they had gruesome tales to tell of jungle fighting.

Every few months we were off on leave, usually up into the Nilgiri Hills to the lovely village of Ootacamund (Ooty). We would go in groups and have great fun, walking in the beautiful pine clad woods, trying to play golf (only so that we could join the club and enjoy the facilities!), snooker, bridge or the dances. Boating on the large natural lake, munching freshly made coconut ice, was a popular pastime, as was haggling in the bazaars. The air was so crisp and pure, well worth the three hour drive up from the dusty plains just to refresh oneself for seven blissful days. It was on just such a trip that an incident occurred. I had been very ill for three weeks with jaundice, when I was sent up to Ooty on sick leave. We travelled up in a lorry this time, as several ratings were also going for various reasons. In the front was a Pilot Officer seating beside the driver, but in the back we were getting bumped and rattled all over the place as we shot along the unmade road rutted by oxen carts. I still felt so ill, and inadvertently let go of the pile of flimsy airmail letters we were taking up to personnel on leave. The breeze carried the letters for miles, it seemed, so of course that meant stopping to gather them up. Some were stuck on huge cacti, others in shrubs and spiny trees. The officer in the front was livid at the delay - he was on a 24 hour pass between flights to go and visit his girlfriend - the Governor's daughter no less! A furious row broke out as the minutes ticked away off his leave, with him pronouncing about the stupidity of the Wrens. I thought him unreasonable and extremely rude, and told him so.

The weeks and months passed, we worked hard and certainly enjoyed our times off duty. Leavers came and went, but we made the best of visits to Madras and various other attractive beach villages where kindly English residents welcomed us, and gave us a marvellous time. There were weddings to celebrate, where the Captain turned out to give away the bride, and, or course, super parties followed these events. Many of us got engaged, and I was no exception. I had met Norman at squadron parties and dances and, of course, kept track of his flights from the W/T office on many occasions.

For one wedding in Cochin, on the Malabar Coast, at least ten Wrens and partners were invited, but how could we attend without transport? We were certainly not allowed to use the trains, they were more like cattle trucks, with locals perched on the top of coaches and clinging on to the sides - besides, none of us had more than a 24 hour leave owing to us - so we had to get Norman to persuade his Station Commander to let us borrow a kite for 24 hours, which Norman would pilot, whilst I operated the radio - it was the only way we'd all fit in. We never thought he would agree to this plan, which was skilfully put to him late at night, in the wardroom, after plying him with several John Collins, I suspect! However, somehow, he was persuaded, and the plane was made ready for us on the wedding day. I must admit to a certain nervousness as I sat in the cockpit, but the two hour flight went without a hitch, and a great day was had by all in Cochin. A beautiful garden was the scene for the ceremony and reception and a terrific party followed - then on down to the beach for a midnight swim. I seem to remember a very short kip before leaving the coast in order to be back at Coimbatore to go on duty at 0800 hours!!

There were to be many events and parties over the next few months. The Wrennery was now full with about fifty of us, so there was always a birthday or something to celebrate. As the monsoon season approached, the heat became almost unbearable, tempers were frayed, but, at last, the rains came up and so did the insects, a great variety of previously unseen "wicky wackies" appeared everywhere, along with the odd scorpion. It was time to put in for a weekend pass to escape the deluge - Norman borrowed a jeep and off we went. After a few miles he recalled that many months ago he had been travelling across some plains en route to Ooty, when some idiot of a Wren in the back of the lorry had let go of a pile of air letters, delaying his leave. How odd - I too remembered a similar incident when I had been infuriated by an officer tearing me off a strip for just such an offence, and when I was ill!.........Oh no! Could it have been our first meeting!? Yes, it certainly was, and there we were, eighteen months later engaged to be married.

Shopping took on a new importance after our engagement and the decision to be married in the UK. Everything at home was strictly rationed; clothes, materials and food, the latter being in very short supply. The bazaars in India, though, were an Aladdin's Cave of beautiful silks, chiffons, tussore, etc., all of which could be made up into a trousseau by the natives sitting at their sewing machines by the roadside - paper patterns were not necessary, they could skilfully copy any garment or picture put before them. Leather and suede was also available very cheaply, and, I think, I had at least six pairs of shoes made up which lasted for years. I well remember the excitement of choosing yards of cream silk sharkskin for my wedding dress. Household requirements, such as sheets, linens, tablecloths etc., were also saved up for. We were so fortunate to have a convent on the outskirts of Coimbatore, where the nuns, amid much excitement, would embroider beautiful designs on table linen and initials on towels. An Indian carpet was also purchased during the seven long months of our engagement. Kashmir rugs too, as well as several items made of the lovely local rosewood. All the ingredients for our wedding cake and countless tins of fruit for the reception were going to be welcomed at home. Needless to say, several tin trunks had to be acquired to transport our precious new belongings home, at the end of the war.

After many months of hard fought battles, the Allies drove the Germans back across Europe, and forced them into capitulating on 8th May 1945. Repatriation of prisoners-of-war started soon afterwards, followed by troops. We waited, impatiently, for our drafts to come through, but unfortunately when they did it was only the Wrens that left India in September, leaving a lot of very sad fiancés and husbands behind. They were to follow a few months later, in time for some great reunions before Christmas.

Most of my friends and I sailed home from Colombo on "The Queen of Bermuda". As we left port, two lonely Expeditors flew over the ship with a farewell wave of their wings before disappearing into a clear blue sky on their way back to India. Excitement gave way to a flood of tears.......... my war was over.

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