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A Wren's WW2 Experiences..... As Narrated at Schools in Sydney by Doreen Orr

by curioussheila

Contributed by 
curioussheila
People in story: 
GRACE DOREEN BLANCHE ORR
Location of story: 
BELFAST/PORTSMOUTH/SYDNEY
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A3958194
Contributed on: 
27 April 2005

As you know, World War 11 broke out on 3rd of September, 1939, and lasted for six years. Hitler had invaded Poland, and Britain and other countries including Australia, had signed a treaty to go to the aid of small invaded countries, so Britain declared war against Germany. It was on a Sunday night and I was at church and the service was interrupted so the Minister could break the news to us. I remember well the excitement and some fear as we all hurried home, especially as an unidentified plane flew over. Our first task was to black out our homes. No chink of light was permitted and heavy curtains had to be drawn. We had a skylight in the attic and this had to be covered with black material. Local men had been in training to be Air Raid Wardens and it was part of their job to patrol the streets and deal with anyone showing a light.

I lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and coming home from the city at night in the tram you didn't know where you were and the conductor had to shout out every stop. For almost a year nothing much happened (except both sides were arming furiously. Most factories were converted to making ammunition, guns, etc.)

Then in May 1940 Hitler started sending planes over to bomb London and there was great destruction and heavy loss of life. At that stage the British Air Force was very small but the chaps fought valiently and finally succeeded in warding off the Germans, thus earning the famous slogan "The Battle of Britain".

Hitler then turned his attention further afield and started the bombing of all the large cities in England like Birmingham, Liverpool, Coventry, Leeds, Glasgow in Scotland and always London.

In 1942 Belfast was the main target when the full German airforce concentrated on us.
We had built an aircraft carrier, the Indefatigable, which was due to be launched, and they wanted to destroy it. It was lying in Belfast Lough, but the Germans mistook waterworks in a residential part of the city for the lough and bombed all round that area, killing many hundreds of innocent people. The carrier was later launched during a violent storm and so tricked the Germans. Great damage was done to Belfast and many lives lost. The raids were unforgettable experiences.

My family each packed a suitcase of clothes in case the house was bombed and we had to leave, and when the air raid sirens went we sat in an alcove under the stairs (the safest place) with our hats and coats on. Each time, it was someone's turn to run upstairs and fill the bath in case we were hit by incendiary bombs, which cause fires. I remember once when it was my turn there was a heavy explosion nearby and I nearly fell down the stairs in my hurry! Our dog was the worst. There were ack ack guns in the hills at the foot of our road and when these fired at the enemy planes the noise drove him crazy and we had to give him aspirins and tie a scarf round his ears. It was most unnerving to hear the heavy drone of planes overhead and wonder whose they were, until suddenly there would be a terrific explosion and we knew then they were the enemy. A raid usually lasted six or seven hours and what a relief it was when the all clear siren went. Everyone would rush out into the street to see if their neighbours were all right and we would be sad to see the red glow of fires in the heart of the city and later hear of deaths. A welcome cup of tea was then enjoyed before we crawled into bed for a few hours sleep. It was after this that they began sending school children to be billeted in the country, often on farms, where they were safe.

There was no conscription in Ireland, but I decided to join the Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service) and eventually came the great day when my call-up came and I was told to report to London. I will always remember the night my family and friends came to see me off on the ship which would take me to Liverpool in England and then a long train journey to London. I was at a training depot for two weeks when we were sorted into categories. There were many of these, such as plotters, signals, transport drivers, despatch riders, telegraphists, torpedos, writers, cooks, etc. I asked to be in the secretarial section, and after passing stiff tests for shorthand and typing was made a Writer.

The great day was when we were kitted out with our uniforms and ventured out into the streets of London. We had to salute all officers, and at first if we saw one approaching we would sneak into a shop doorway! One of my friends tells of how once she saluted a Lt. Commander who was cycling on an ice-covered road and in his effort to return the salute the bike wobbled and he fell off!

I was appointed to Victory 111 (which was Nelson's Flagship), and had to report to Portsmouth. Our base was in a Fort outside Portsmouth where most personnel worked underground preparing for D-Day - the invasion of Normandy, France. It was what they called Combined Ops. where the Army, Navy and Airforce worked together, and I saw Eisenhower, Montgomery and many other big shots. When the D-Day invasion was successfully accomplished the King (King George V1) came and inspected us.

At first I worked for two Army Majors and then was appointed Writer to the Commanding Officer of the 'Ship'. We had to take it in turn to be on duty all night to take urgent messages from the Commodore down. I was billited in a lovely big home belonging to an Admiral in a little village called Fareham with about twenty other Wrens. Portsmouth had already been very badly bombed.

When I was there Hitler was sending over what they called doodle-bugs which were planes without a pilot, launched in France, and when the engine cut out the plane fell and exploded with all the bombs aboard. Almost every night the sirens would go and we would have to hurry to the air raid shelter with our mattress, blanket, helmet and gas mask, with sometimes shrapnel whizzing near us.

There was a lighter side too, with plenty of dances and week-end leave to visit other lovely parts of the South of England or London. I had relatives in Ilford, London, but most nights we would spend in the Anderson shelters as Hitler was sending over his VE bombs which were even more devastating than the doodle-bugs, but with a shorter range.

By this time D-Day was getting nearer, and without any fuss tanks by the thousand were quietly coming into the surrounding area and the Southampton Solent was filling with ships. No one was allowed to speak about it for security reasons, and then one day, the 8th of June, 1944, all the tanks and ships had gone and D-Day had come. Many of the men we had worked for were not about any more, and later we were sad to learn that some of them had been killed.

Germany was defeated and the world's attention was turning to Japan. I had volunteered to serve overseas, and one day I was told I would be leaving soon. After some home leave I had to report to a depot in Chelsea, London, to be kittled out with white tropical uniform. While I was there the European War ended and we were allowed to go to London for the celebrations. It was called VE-Day (Victory Europe) and thousands gathered outside Buckingham Palace to cheer the King and members of the Royal Family. I will never forget the crush. We also saw Mr. Winston Churchill driving to Westminster Abbey giving the V for victory sign.

One day our Chief Wren Officer called us together and told us we were leaving that night. All phones would be cut off and we were not to contact anyone from the outside world, for security reasons. My mother had come over from Belfast and was staying in a flat at Chelsea so we could see each other before I left for destinations unknown, so I was in a quandry as I had arranged to meet her on the Thames Embankement that afternoon. I slipped into the lounge room, which had French doors leading onto a garden path, and after waiting for what seemed a very long time I saw mother anxiously looking up this path. I beckoned her up and told her the news and we had a tearful farewell. As I turned to go back into the lounge room I saw the Chief Wren standing in the doorway looking very fierce, She summoned me to her office, threatened to take me off the draft and ordered me to go to my room and stay there. The girls smuggled me up my tea and when word came that we were to muster downstairs ready to leve I just went with the rest, and the Chief Wren wished me luck as if nothing had happened.

We left in army trucks singing in true army fashion "It's a long way to Tipperary" etc. and were taken to a railway siding and boarded a train. We travelled all night and when we awoke in the morning we found ourselves at the docks in Liverpool, England. We boarded a ship, the "Dominion Monarch" and found that 800 Australian ex-prisoners of war were also on board and were playing 2-up on the decks with their accumulated back-pay. The Captain soon put a stop to this, and the Purser took charge of their money!

We sailed out in convoy, including a hospital ship, and soon after there was a torpedo scare. The ship was heavily blacked out at night, which was very stiflying when we got into hot weather and at one stage we were permitted to sleep on deck, which was a delightful experience. We were not told where we were going, but when we reached the Panama Canal we had a good idea it would be Australia. At Panama City we were allowed off for a few hours to walk along the wharf and American soldiers poked bananas through wire netting for us, as we had had none since the war began. For the first time the ship was lit up and we had dancing on deck. During the journey we had dancing most nights, but the men had to be rationed to so many each time as there were so many more of them.

At last the wonderful day came when we reached Freemantle and we were allowed off for awhile. The people there met us and entertained us and showered us with gifts. Our eyes nearly fell out of our heads when we saw the well stocked food and fruit shops. At home we were rationed to one egg a month, 2 ozs. of meat and butter a week, powdered eggs and sometimes American spam.

Arriving in Sydney we found we were billeted in the Astra and Pacific Hotels at Bondi, which was very exciting. The first sound of the surf was indeed a thrill.

I was to be writer to the Chief Wren, and we were to work in part of the (then) Bank of New South Wales, which the Admiralty had taken over.

Most of the British fleet was by this time in Australian waters preparing to attack Japan, but the bomb at Hirashimo made this unnecessary. So on the 15th August, 1945 the Pacific War ended and we took part in the VP parade through Sydney, a very stirring experience.

I was in Sydney for one year on what they called 'mopping up' operations, and during this time had opportunities of visiting Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and many parts of New South Wales. In May 1946 I went back on "SS Strathmore" with hundreds of other service folk to England to be demobbed. Two years later I decided to return to Australia to settle. At that time if you were ex-service you came free and so there was a great influx of people from Britain and Europe.

I must say that I count my war service years among the happiest of my life and am grateful to them for leading me to this beautiful land of Australia.

Doreen Orr (Deceased)

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