An exhibition was opened yesterday (18th February) to celebrate the contribution from women who worked in the naval services, particularly during the wars. It is called 'Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy’ and will tell the untold stories of servicewomen dating back to more than 250 years, when women’s contribution were unspoken, disguised and unofficial. This year marks 100 years since the Women's Royal Naval Services (WRNS) was formed. These ladies were known as WRENS and had some serious girl power. The spice girls have nothing on these inspiring ladies.
It was formed during the First World War to release men to serve at sea. They were the first of the three services to officially recruit women at the time. It was disbanded when the war ended and women went back to being housewives, but was re-formed in 1939 when war broke out again. By December 1939, 3,000 women had joined up. You may have a relative that was a WREN and have heard some brilliant stories from them. If you have please leave a comment below, I'd love to hear them!
I spoke to my Grandma about this the other day to see if any of her five sisters joined up and hoped I could tell you a poignant story. One of them was a WAAF (Women's Auxillary Air Force) and another a land girl, but none were WRENS. However, she told me that she wanted to join up because she liked the uniform and fancied hanging around a load of yummy sailors, but thought she wouldn't be able to deal with the sea sickness, it's was a tough choice for her apparently. Poignant enough?
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 military 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.
The recruiting slogan was 'Join the Wrens today and free a man to join the Fleet.' As the Navy expanded, so did the WRNS and women took on tasks that were previously considered beyond their capabilities.
Their duties 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 and either worked in mobile units or in London. Many Wrens were involved in planning naval operations, including the D-Day landings in June 1944.
Also Wrens who could speak other languages 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. Pretty good for women whose days used to be spent cleaning the house and looking after their husbands.
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. Thousands of Wrens also served in overseas units.
By 1944, 74,000 women were Wrens doing over 200 different jobs. Sadly, 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.
In 1993 the WRN was disabanded and the 4,535 women working as WRENS were integrated into the Royal Navy and able to serve on HM ships at sea and able to climb to all ranks and rates. The contribution of women in the wars really helped women to flourish in the navy and still have an impact in women's freedom in the Navy today.
The exhibition will illustrate the role of women in the navy and many wonderful objects will be on display to demonstrate them in an official capacity, showing their leisure time and even how they dealt with pregnancy. Objects range from a rare First World War Ratings uniform to an oboe owned by a member of the Royal Marine Band Service. There will also be a naval officer’s maternity dress and photographs from the early day of the WRNS.
The exhibition is on for a year at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth and a special event is being held on International Women's Day on the 8th March. You can find more information and buy tickets here.
|All photos courtesy of the Royal Navy Museum website|
There are so many amazing and inspirational stories, with women no longer being overlooked. Such as, in the 18th century at least 20 women pretended to be men, so they could be part of the Navy. One woman even managed to hide her identity for over 11 years, which is astonishing! At least,you wouldn't have to shave your legs every week.
Historically women have undertaken a huge range of jobs and have exceeded expectations countless of times. The exhibition comes just at the right time as the government have announced that women will soon be able to join any branch of the Royal Navy, including close combat roles. Very different to a hundred years ago when the WRNS motto was 'Never at Sea'.
Whether it was women 250 years ago pretending to be men, WRENS working in many different jobs in the wars or women in the Navy in the present day, they are truly inspirational women who we should recognise for their tenacity, resilience and kick arse spirit.
Second Hand Rose