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Women In WW2-The WRENS

Updated on December 19, 2018

WRNS - Or As They Prefer To Be Called, The Wrens

The WRNS (Womens Royal Naval Service) was first formed in 1917 during World War One and after the war, was disbanded in spite of having over 5,500 members and a number of officers.

However, when war was declared in 1939, the WRNS reformed in much the same way as that other Women's Service, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

Women were not conscripted until 1941, when the government made conscription legal so a recruitment campaign began with some rather amusing posters where a young Wren gives a light to a sailor.

The tagline for the poster was 'Join the Wrens and Free A Man For The Fleet' - it seems that most of the call to duty relied on the idea that women would temporarily take over from a man who could then do his bit at the front, fighting for king and country.

Many women took the call to duty seriously but the poster is certainly a flirtatious one - maybe men like a woman in uniform too?

Poster for How To Join The Wrens - all looks a bit flirty but who can resist a man in a sailor's uniform? The woman pictured is called Joan Lee (nee Beard).  She emigrated to Australia, having married a sailor, in 1954.
Poster for How To Join The Wrens - all looks a bit flirty but who can resist a man in a sailor's uniform? The woman pictured is called Joan Lee (nee Beard). She emigrated to Australia, having married a sailor, in 1954.
Wrens billeted to bunks in a naval base.  It must have all felt so different to home but look at their smiles.  Life was an adventure.
Wrens billeted to bunks in a naval base. It must have all felt so different to home but look at their smiles. Life was an adventure.

World War Two WRNS Were Not Trained to Be Sailors

Training for the WRNS usually took place at one of Britain's naval bases. Most girls who lived in the south were sent to Mill Hill for initial training and then usually they were sent to Portsmouth to work as teleprinter operators or occasionally they worked as drivers and cooks. Those Wrens with language skills were employed in communications or 'signals' as they were known, interpreting messages coming across Europe. Some of the more gifted girls worked at Bletchley Park or were trained as pilots, working between a number of sites. As the WRNS grew, so did its counterparts in Canada, USA and India. All of those countries forming very effective auxiliary services for the Allies.

Teenager, Gwen Haggis was only 19 when she left her father's dairy to train as a WRNS driver. She learnt to drive in a 3 tonne truck, certainly not your average learner vehicle. She drove officers between bases in Scotland, even taking them to play golf. Her work as a driver began early in the morning but was probably rewarding work for a girl used to working so hard in the family business.

Many young girls went to the WRNS with very little experience of life but this turned out to be a good thing, bringing them out of their shells as they mixed with other girls at work and came to understand the sacrifices being made by the sailors on war duty in their bases.

The WRNS were to play a crucial role in the communication field in regard to the D-Day Landings.

They were young girls being entrusted with an enormous amount of responsibility and they rose to the challenge with pride.

Wrens working on a submarine
Wrens working on a submarine
Wrens loading torpedoes into a gun boat
Wrens loading torpedoes into a gun boat

WRNS On Board War Ships

The girls who applied for the WRNS were usually advised that their job, as advertised on the poster, was mainly to allow men to join the fleet.

The supposition then was that girls would do the clerical and catering work previously done by shore based seamen.

Girls would undertake work as teleprinter operators, cooks, administration staff and drivers. Most of these jobs were already done by women anyway so for many of them there was not really much of a change. It made sense for the Royal Navy to use already experienced staff in the bases.

However, the jobs girls thought they signed up for were not always what they got.

Some girls, especially those with a good educational history were often offered more challenging roles.

Some applied for maintenance work without any real inkling of what 'maintenance' meant. Usually, believing they would get opportunities to do general maintenance work in the bases.

Little did they know that their maintenance work would take them to bases like HMS Midge to work as maintenance technicians on gun boats.

Olive Swift's adventures at HMS Midge involved maintaining engine parts in the engine room of gun boats just in from the coastal waters around the UK.

Torpedos were packed into gun boats and torpedo boats by the Wrens and they wore the uniform of a sailor - bell bottom trousers, boots, boiler suits and oilskins. Olive Swift jokes about it being a change from the office job she was used to but with this type of work comes the experience of death and destruction - gun boats torpedoed by German boats limped into to shore badly damages. Many of her new crew mates dead.

Maintenance work was hard work in dirty, hot conditions and did not suit all Wrens. Some chose signals and office work instead but it is clear that for those with the spirit of adventure, this work so near the front lines was very rewarding and they formed strong bonds with one another and with the men too.

Wrens on a day off
Wrens on a day off

WRNS - Their Role On D-Day and Afterwards

Girls joining the WRNS soon found out that the work they originally applied for could change at short notice if their services were needed elsewhere.

Communication during the war was key to the Allies' plans and pushing the Germans back by invading the European continent would be a key part of their plans. The D-Day landings were being discussed secretly by Eisenhower and Churchill with both men plotting and planning in the War Room.

Wrens were offered the opportunity to sign up for the Allied Naval Combined Expeditionary Force. It all sounded so exciting whatever it was. Those girls chosen were taken away from their various bases and moved to Southwick to work as teleprinter operators and signals staff. Communications were to be a key element of Operation Overlord - the D-Day landings were to take place soon and the messages to and from the War Office, between countries involved would be relayed by Wrens.

It is incredible to think that some of these girls had only had office or shop jobs and were now seeing King George VI, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill and Admiral Ramsey on a more or less daily basis. They must have realised that they were in the Allies' strategic headquarters but they were sworn to secrecy. On 6th June 1944 - D-Day comes in a surprise attack.

Before the landing, some Wrens serving at the naval bases were trained as water pilots. They would play a role during the landings, piloting small craft over to Normandy and returning with stricken vessels. They could never have imagined that they would play such an important role, such a vital role.

Many of the WRNS girls committed to working in the War Room were also offered the opportunity to work in Normandy once the Germans had retreated. It was difficult work and a real eye-opener seeing the decimation of Normandy with dead bodies still littering the streets when they arrived. Their work was vital though. Once again, women were showing that they could make a vital contribution to the war effort.

My 1944, there were some 74,000 WRNS women doing over 200 different jobs. After the war, most of them returned to office, shop or factory jobs.

It has only been in recent years that the role of women during World War Two has come under the spotlight and their great contribution to the war effort acknowledged properly.

Many thanks for reading.


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    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      Xstatic, maybe this hub sneaked past like a submarine (geddit?) in Hub Ocean :o), still glad you found it though and as always, many thanks for your kind comment.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 

      8 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Don't know how I missed this series of fascinating Hubs Jools, but glad I found them! Wonderfully well done! Up and A B I as well!

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      phdast7, many thanks for your comment and your share, I appreciate it :o)

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      What an absolutely fascinating story. And very well written, too. Sharing of course. :)

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      old albion, many thanks for the visit - I have thoroughly enjoyed doing the research and it is a subject I'm continuing with. Watch this space....

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      8 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi Jools. Another super hub. History made very interesting and a really good choice of subject.


    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      teaches12345, what a great comment! I agree, women proved that they could do the work ordinarily done by men. It is really only physical strength that prevents women doing some men's work. During the war, the government had no choice but to train women, and thank goodness they did! They did us proud.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      8 years ago

      This was an interesting read for me. Wow, what women can't do if trained! Enjoyed the history lesson, very well written.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      Jainismus, I look forward to reading it. I will place a link in this hub too if you like.

    • jainismus profile image

      Mahaveer Sanglikar 

      8 years ago from Pune, India

      Interesting information. I would like to share some informations on Indian women soldiers in World War II, shortly in my forthcoming Hub.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      Rob, thanks, as always, for your comment - just doin' my bit for the fairer sex :o)

    • Robwrite profile image


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Great history lesson Jools. Those woman deserve the tribute.

      Well done,


    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      Josh, you are very kind! Many thanks for your comment. I will continue to do my bit to shout out for those women.

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania


      Another fantastic tribute to the woman who have served in the forces! Unfortunately, like you have said, it is long overdue. But, at least you have done it and done it in a beautiful and powerful way. Thanks Julie!

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      Bill and Michelle, thanks so much to you both for this visit! Bill, I am enjoying looking at this rather 'human' side of military history - my grandmother worked in a munitions factory - that may be my next port of call.

      Michelle, recognition for women in war is long overdue! I am doing my bit for them now.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I wasn't going to read any more hubs today Julie; way too much to do. However, when you write I read, so here I am, and you did not disappoint me. Great look at history; fascinating all the way through. Thanks for the history lesson.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Hooray for all the women who serve in armed forces. I've always admired those who can do so as the territory is more male. They're certainly our heroes! All the way! Voted up, sharing.


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