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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Olive Swift

Contributed by 
Wyre Forest Volunteer Bureau
People in story: 
Olive Partridge (formerly Swift)
Location of story: 
HMS Midge
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
20 December 2004

In 1941, aged 19, I volunteered for the Women's Royal Naval Service. I was accepted, because I was healthy, and well educated, as in World War Two, standards in the Royal Navy were high, and I am proud to have served with them.

I did my training at Mill Hill, near London. It was indeed a testing time. We did a lot of keep fit, and we were taught how to protect ourselves in an emergency, and what to do in a gas attack; which was a threat throughout the war, but to my knowledge, never actually happened. The marching was the hardest part, the feet suffered in the heavy laced up shoes.

We were allowed to choose our future job, and I cheerfully volunteered for maintenance, simply because I thought it would make a change from office work. In due course, five of us set off by train to Great Yarmouth. A more uninspiring sight can't be imagined, in our ill fitting uniforms and our safari type hats. Soon, I am glad to say, we were issued with the up to date hat, complete with band bearing the name of our base, HMS Midge.

We were to be billeted in a former large guest house, but found it had been bombed, so we were taken to a hotel near the sea front, lovely. Most of the civilians had been evacuated, but we had a large number of Service Personnel, Wrens, Waaf and the Royal Navy, ATS, not to mention frequent visits from American servicemen, stationed at nearby Norwich. We were issued with bell bottom trousers, a boiler suit, and oil skins, so we did wonder what we were getting into.

We soon found out. The five of us were marched down to the harbour, or base as we called it, where flotillas of motor gun boats, and motor torpedo boats where moored. MTBs and MGBs for short. There we were taken aboard, and down the hatch into the engine room. I don't know which of us was more astonished, the engine crew or us. The general reaction was, possibly, 'Oh my God'. The engines were hot, having just returned from sea, and the sailors where stripped to the waist. Daphne, a general's daughter, who had led a sheltered life, took one look, and beat it back up the ladder. She went to Signals, a lovely girl, we became great friends, and cabin mates.

I never regretted my decision to stick to with it. We were taught to change plugs, strip down gearboxes and distributor heads, and anything else needed to keep three Hall Scott, or Packard American engines, ready for action. We went out to sea on trials, when the job was finished, and stood on the deck, side by side with the men, as we sailed out of harbour. A mutual feeling of friendship and great respect grew up between sailors and Wrens, which lasted the whole four and a half years. We worked, danced, partied and laughed together. We also experienced great sorrow when any of the boats were missing or damaged. I remember one in particular, No. 313, which limped home with a great hole where the engine room had been. The entire engine room crew had been killed.

I worked with a Petty Officer most of the time, and after the war, we were married. We saw a lot more action before that though. We were regularly shot at by low flying German planes as we marched down to the base to work. We ran for cover, they weren't very good shots, nobody was hit. I must say though, the bombing was devastating, a lot of the service quarters were razed to the ground, including our own. I was sleeping in a top bunk, but found myself blasted from my bed, lying on the floor at the far end of the room, amongst a lot of rubble and glass. It was fortunate for me that I was not in my bed, as a large section of wall and a window fell on it.

There were seven of us in the cabin, and I can truthfully say that nobody panicked, we had great faith in our Naval friends, they dug us out alright, and if they hadn't got a spade, they dug with their hands. Fire broke out, and being short of fire engines, we formed a chain, and passed buckets of water along, from a stand pipe. When the losses where made known, we found many of our friends were injured, or in shock, and had to be sent home. Worst of all, seven Wrens and our Officer were killed, but war time is no time for brooding and we survivors attended a memorial service for our dead comrades, and went back to work.

We saw a lot more action, even a bit of kiss and cuddle on the pier was interrupted by doodlebugs. They made a terrible droning sound when approaching, and it was time to lie under the benches that ran along the pier. We could see their evil red lights through the slats, then silence, and we knew that they had landed somewhere in the town.

We had a very good social life, which helped us through the dark days. We went to the cinema a lot, the pictures we called it, and danced wherever we were invited. A favourite place was across the river, to Gorlston on Sea. It was called the Floral Hall, and a lot of fun was had there. Of course we took our turn on night duty, but whenever we were free, there was somewhere nice to go. If we had an off duty weekend, we would borrow a dinghy from an MGB and row or sail up to the Norfolk Broads. Other times we would ride our bikes into the country, and explore old churches. One Sunday we were in time for the service, and about six of us sat in a pew together. Unfortunately one of us got the giggles and set the others off. I think the vicar forgave us though, as he took us on a tour of the church and grounds afterwards.

In the evenings, we would often go to a fair on Britannia pier, with a glass of Babycham, and a cigarette in a long holder, we felt as girls do, war or peace, it was ultimate enjoyment. When VE Day came we were immediately given passes to go ashore, as leaving the base was called. My fiancé was stationed on the Isle of Wight at that time, and I went across on the ferry, but he was coming this way, so we missed each other. I ended up dancing and singing round Piccadilly Circus, with thousands of people celebrating. VJ Day quickly followed, and we had truly won the Second Great War, along with our gallant allies. With pride, I think we could all say 'Well Done'.

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This story has been placed in the following categories.

Air Raids and Other Bombing Category
Love in Wartime Category
Women's Royal Naval Service Category
Norfolk Category
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