What Life Was Like for a Woman in the Navy During World War Two

History Hit Podcast with Eve Wharton

8 mins

10 Sep 2018

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.

During World War Two I worked for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), carrying out night vision tests on pilots. This work took me to pretty much all of the naval air stations in the country.

I started off at Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire and then went to the Yeovilton airfield in Somerset. I was then sent up to Scotland, first to Arbroath and then to Crail near Dundee, before going to Machrihanish. I then went over to Ireland to the air stations at Belfast and Derry. There, they kept saying, “Don’t call it Derry, it’s Londonderry”. But I said, “No, it isn’t. We call it Londonderry, but the Irish call it Derry”. 

This work was an extraordinary thing. But because of my (privileged) background, I had been taught how to entertain older men and people of rank and to draw them out – if you felt tongue-tied, you asked them about their hobbies or their latest holiday and that got them going. So I treated all the senior naval officers in much the same way, which wasn’t really allowed at all.  

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My job involved a lot of organising, particularly when it came to arranging the tests for different squadrons each day. And if you could chat away to officers normally then it made all this organising much easier. But if you were calling them “Sir” and saluting them every five seconds then you got tongue-tied. The way I spoke to them caused a lot of amusement, apparently, which I didn’t hear about until afterwards.

Overcoming the class divide

Most of my colleagues were from a different background to me and so I had to learn to be careful of what I said. I was given advice not to say, “actually”, because it wouldn’t go down very well, and not to use my silver cigarette case – I had a pack of Woodbines in my gas mask case, which we used as handbags – and I just learned to watch what I said. 

The girls I worked with on the night vision testing were all from the same background as me because they had been trained as opticians and so on. But most of the girls I came across in the service probably would have been shop girls or secretaries or just cooks and maids. 

Members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) – otherwise known as “Wrens” – take part in a march-past during a visit by the Duchess of Kent to Greenwich in 1941.

I never had any problem getting on with them at all because I was brought up with a big staff of servants – which was normal for people from my background then – and I loved them all, they were my friends. At home, I used to go and natter in the kitchen or help clean the silver or help the cook make a cake.

So I was quite at ease with these girls. But it wasn’t the same for them with me, and so I had to make them feel at ease.

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Doing things her own way

The girls from a different background to me did think it was a bit odd that I spent my free time riding ponies instead of sleeping, which they always did when they were free – they never went for walks, they’d just sleep. But I used to find a riding stable nearby or somebody who had a pony that needed exercising.

I also took my bicycle with me everywhere  throughout the war so that I could go from one village to another and find little churches and make friends with people along the way. 

Wrens from the Henstridge and Yeovilton air stations play against each other in a cricket match.

That was rather fun because when I was at Machrihanish, near Campeltown, I met a woman who I stayed friends with right up until a few years ago when she sadly died. She was quite different to me, very clever, had quite a secret job. I don’t really know how I managed to do the job that I did. I think I just did it without much thought and I think I had a lot of imagination and was able to help people. 

My job never felt like drudgery, it felt like being back at boarding school. But instead of bossy mistresses you had bossy officers telling you what to do. I never had any problem with naval officers; it was the petty officer class who I had problems with. I think it was pure snobbery, really. They didn’t like the way I talked and I was sort of doing things my own way.

The night vision testing was carried out in the sick bays of air stations and, working there, we weren’t really under the same jurisdiction as the other Wrens (the nickname for members of the WRNS). We had much more free time and the night vision testers were a little group of their own. 

Fun vs. danger

Able Seaman Douglas Mills and Wren Pat Hall King perform on stage in Portsmouth during the production of a naval revue called “Scran Bag”.

During my time in the WRNS, we were made to go to dances – mostly to help the morale of the young men. And because I knew so many of them from the night vision testing, I took it all in my stride. I think the excitement of moving from one naval air station to another and seeing a bit more of England and Scotland and Ireland was more my bit of fun. 

Because I met my future husband quite young when I was down at the HMS Heron (Yeovilton) air station near Yeovil in Somerset, that stopped me going out with other men. But I did join in all of the dances. And we had lots of fun away from the dances too. In our digs we’d have picnics and feasts and lots of giggles; we did each other’s hair in funny styles and that sort of thing. We were like schoolgirls.

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But despite all this fun and being so young, I think we were very aware that something very serious was going on when squadrons would come back on leave and the young men looked completely shattered.

And when they flew out lots of girls were in tears because they’d made friends with the young officers, the pilots and the observers, and it made you realise that other people were doing a hell of a lot more than you were and risking their lives. 

The only time that I was nearly in trouble was when I got tied up in a dogfight while stationed at the HMS Daedalus airfield in Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire. I was late getting back from a weekend of leave and had to leap over a wall very, very quickly because the bullets were all coming down onto the road.

Condensation trails left behind after a dogfight in the Battle of Britain.

After the war broke out, but before I joined the WRNS, I used to still go out to parties in London – to hell with all the doodlebugs and bombs and so on, I thought. We did have one or two very near misses but you just don’t think about it when you’re 16, 17 or 18. It was all just fun. 

We did make a point of trying to listen to Churchill’s speeches, though. That really was quite the most inspiring thing. And although half of it went over one’s head, they made you realise that you might be homesick  and missing your family a lot and the food might not be all that wonderful and all the rest of it, but the war was a very close thing. 

Sex in the service

Sex wasn’t a subject that was ever discussed at my house growing up and so I was very innocent. Just before I joined the WRNS, my father gave me a little speech about the birds and the bees because my mother had previously gone around it in such a funny way that I hadn’t quite got the message. 

And he said something very interesting which had a terrific influence on me:

“I have given you everything in your life – your home, your food, security, holidays.  The only thing that you have for yourself is your virginity. That is a gift you give to your husband and not to anybody else.”

I wasn’t quite sure what virginity was, to be honest, but I had a vague idea and discussed it with my cousin.

So that was very much foremost in my mind when it came to the issue of men and sex during my time in the WRNS. Also, I had this business of keeping men at a distance because I believed I’d be bad luck to them – three of the boys in my friendship group had been killed early on in the war, including one who I was very fond of and who I probably would have otherwise married.

And then when I met my future husband, Ian, there was no question of having sex. To me, you waited until you were married. 

Masters-of-arms bride and groom Ethel Proost and Charles T. W. Denyer leave Dovercourt Congregational Church in Harwich on 7 October 1944, under an archway of truncheons held up by members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

Quite a few of the men in the navy sort of made suggestions and I think a lot of the girls did lose their virginity during the war; not just because it was fun but also because they felt that these boys might not come back and that it was something they could give them to think about while they were gone. 

But sex wasn’t anything particularly important in my life until I had the awful experience of being sexually assaulted by a commanding officer and facing the threat of possibly being raped. That really made me withdraw even more, and then I thought, “No, stop being silly. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it”. 

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The end of her navy career

You didn’t have to leave the WRNS when you got married but you did when you got pregnant. After marrying Ian, I tried my utmost not to get pregnant but it happened nonetheless. And so I had to leave the navy.

Married Wrens at the Henstridge air station receive a demobilisation farewell at the end of the war, on 8 June 1945.

At the end of the war, I was just about to have the baby and we were in Stockport because Ian was being sent over to Trincomalee in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). And so we had to send a message to my mother: “Mummy, come. Ian’s going off three days  later and my baby’s expected any minute”. So she came to the rescue. 

The navy was never a career, it was a war-time job. I’d been brought up to get married and have children – that was the way, not to have a job. My father didn’t like the idea of a bluestocking (an intellectual or literary woman), and my two brothers were clever so that was all right.

My future life had all been planned out for me and so joining the WRNS gave me a wonderful sense of freedom. At home, my mother was very loving and thoughtful, but I was very much told what to wear, what not to wear and when clothes were bought, she chose them for me.

So suddenly, there I was in the WRNS, wearing uniforms and I had to make my own decisions; I had to be punctual and I had to cope with these new people, and I had to travel for very long journeys all by myself. 

Although I had to leave the navy when I fell pregnant, my time in the WRNS was very good training for life afterwards. With Ian out in Trincomalee until the end of the war, I had to look after our newborn baby alone. So I went home to my parents while she was little and then went back to Scotland and rented a house, ready for Ian to come back to. I had to stand on my own feet and grow up and cope.