This article is an edited transcript from Life as a Woman in World War Two with Eve Warton on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 6 May 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or for free on Acast.
While working for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in World War Two, I made a point of not going out with young men unless we were in a crowd. Because I’d lost so many male friends at the beginning of the war, I felt I was bad luck – everybody I got fond of seemed to get killed.
Even when I met my future husband I told him there would be nothing romantic, but that it’d be lovely to be friends.
Later on in the war I was working up in Scotland in a very wild and lovely place called Machrihanish, opposite Campbeltown.
During my time there, this naval chap thought it would be a challenge to get me to go out with him. I was staying at a golfing hotel that had been commandeered by the navy and he arranged with a girl I shared a bedroom with to persuade me. She said, “Come on, you’ve got to go out. You can’t always stay in like a sort of Cinderella, and I’ll be there as well.” And it was quite a party.
I made it very clear that it was quite fun going out for a meal or going to a dance, but that that was that. He, however, thought it was quite a challenge to try and make me change my mind and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
My job with the service involved conducting night vision tests for pilots, including special tests on Saturday mornings for servicemen who had failed the initial examinations. This man organised to have one of these special tests and gave a different name. It was very, very naughty of him because he was the commanding officer (CO) of his squadron and he should have known better.
I nearly had a fit when he turned up. But anyway, all was well for a bit – and then he became very forceful and unpleasant.
Now the room where we did our night vision tests had to be completely blacked out and the door locked so that people didn’t come in by mistake and let the light in. But we had an emergency bell that the girls working there could press if somebody was faint or if there was any other problem. I’d never had to use it before, though I did always make sure there was one there.
On that day, I thought that the only way I was going to get out of that situation – because he was really getting quite rough with me – was to press the bell.
So I pretended that I just needed to, sort of, see to the lights and so on, and said, “Just wait a minute.” Always when we locked ourselves in the room, we put a spare key on a hook outside so that if somebody had to come in they could get to it.
So thank God I had done that and I just pressed the bell and immediately it made a hell of a noise, which stopped what could have been a very unpleasant experience for me.
I always worked in the sick bay because that’s where the tests were done, and so the sick berth attendants and the doctor came along, thinking that somebody was ill, and rescued me.
They wanted to know if I was going to make a fuss and prosecute, and the problem was that this man’s squadron was due to depart the following day. And because he was a CO, if he hadn’t gone, the whole squadron couldn’t have gone.
I also didn’t want people to know about what had happened, which is quite interesting now that I’m older thinking about it. I was ashamed because I felt they might think that I’d egged him on.
So I said, “No, just let’s forget about it”, but it took me several days to get over it. It’s possible that he was so frightened himself, having to go to sea and on these carriers – the escort carriers were pretty small to land a plane on – that it was his way of sort of boosting his morale. I don’t know, but that was the only unpleasant experience I had during my time in the service.
Throughout the whole war, I never felt I needed to look over my shoulder because I might be followed, and I used to ride my bicycle at night from my digs to wherever I was working. So that incident came as a bit of a shock to me. But it was the only one and I reminded myself that I’d met hundreds and hundreds of boys during these night vision tests and so this man was only one out of thousands.