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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Women's Royal Naval Service

A member of the WRNS makes fast the motor boat she has been using to ferry mail and goods to ships at anchor
A member of the WRNS makes fast the motor boat she has been using to ferry mail and goods to ships at anchor©
The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was founded in 1917, during the First World War, when the Royal Navy became the first of the three services to officially recruit women. The Service was disbanded when the war ended, but was re-founded in 1939 with the realisation that women would be needed to assist the Royal Navy if war broke out again. Vera Laughton Matthews, who had served with the WRNS during the First World War, was appointed as Director and by December 1939, there were 3,000 personnel. Those who served in the WRNS were nicknamed 'Wrens'.

Wrens were initially recruited to release men to serve at sea. This was reflected in the recruiting slogan 'Join the Wrens today and free a man to join the Fleet.' As the wartime navy expanded, the WRNS followed suit, taking on tasks that the Royal Navy had previously considered beyond their capabilities. WRNS responsibilities included driving, cooking, clerical work, operating radar and communications equipment and providing weather forecasts. The Naval Censorship Branch was staffed by WRNS clerks and censor officers either worked in mobile units or in London. Many Wrens were involved in planning naval operations, including the D-Day landings in June 1944.

Wrens with language skills were drafted to stations around the coast to intercept and translate enemy signals. Wrens also worked at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park where German and Japanese codes were broken.

Although few served at sea, Wrens did operate small harbour launches and tugs close to shore. Some Wrens were trained to serve as pilots on D-Day, taking the smaller ships across the Channel and towing disabled vessels back into port for repairs, which were often carried out by WRNS mechanics.

As well as the Home Front, thousands of Wrens served in overseas units. They also worked in the different branches of the Royal Navy, including the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Marines. Australia, Canada and New Zealand formed their own Royal Naval Services. The Women's Royal Indian Naval Service (WRINS) contributed significantly to the running of Royal Indian Navy shore establishments.

In December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act which allowed the conscription of women into war work or the armed forces. Women could choose to join the WRNS or its naval or air force equivalents, the ATS and the WAAF. Initially single women and widows without children between 19 and 30 were called up, but later the age limit was pushed up to 43. Women who had served in the First World War, including Wrens, could be conscripted up to the age of 50. As in the ATS and the WAAF, women from all backgrounds learnt skills and took on responsibilities in the WRNS that would have been unheard of before the war.

The WRNS reached its largest size in 1944, with 74,000 women doing over 200 different jobs. 303 Wrens were killed on wartime service. After the war the WRNS was made a permanent part of the Royal Navy, but women did not serve in Royal Navy ships until the 1990s.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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