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Remembering the WRNS – Student Project (Part Two)

By Sara Higson,

Sara has been working with the Scottish Maritime Museum on the collection associated with Helena Adams Henry and has been investigating the important, and often overlooked, involvement of women as part of the Royal Navy. 

  Helena (middle row, far left end) and fellow wrens in ‘Theseus Division’, 1964.

In the previous blog post I investigated the life of wren Helena Adams. I wanted to better understand the history of the WRNS as an organisation and how it came into being. The objects in Helena’s collection are the beginning of what the SMM hopes will be a growing archive of artefacts from naval servicewomen. The museum has a particular interest in gathering objects and stories from Scottish women (Helena was born in Dundee) and the museum is seeking to address the lack of artefacts and stories from women involved in naval and maritime work in its collections. This new collection will contribute to better representation of women in the Royal Navy and maritime industries both historically and in the present day.

Helena (left) with fellow wrens.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was established in 1917 during World War I, despite widespread resistance to women participating in any branch of the military. Male conscription was introduced in 1916, which led to more men being sent to mainland Europe, and women stepped up to fill the open positions that conscription created. These included jobs in manufacturing in support of the war effort and non-combat military work. The goal was to free up men to participate in more active military duties (wrens were explicitly prohibited from serving on ships until the 1990’s). Over the course of the conflict women increasingly took on more historically male-dominated work including aircraft maintenance, coding, driving, and sail making. The fact that women were allowed entry into the Royal Navy and other branches of the military during World War I was a matter of national necessity, and the WRNS was disbanded after the war ended in 1919 because it was not considered necessary.

The First Chief Controller, QMAAC in France, Dame Helen

Gwynne-Vaughan, CBE, DSC. Painting by William Orpen, 1918.

Source: © IWM Art.IWM ART 3048.

Several women’s reserve organisations sprang up during the interwar years. They were mostly supported by wealthy, well-connected women including the marchioness of Londonderry, Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, and Lady Margaret Loch. As international relations grew more tense in Europe, women from across the socio-economic spectrum demanded the creation of services they could join to help the war effort. By the late 1930’s there was still no strategy in place to figure out which women would be able to serve, should the need arise. Pressure from women, as well as the growing awareness that Britain was going to join the war in Europe, helped convince the government to re-establish the WRNS along with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).

What happened in World War I occurred again: men were needed for active military duty during World War II and the services once again were opened to women. While the WRNS, ATS, and WAAF initially operated on a voluntary basis, conscription was introduced in 1942, though female conscripts made up less than twenty-five percent of women who served and the majority signed up of their own accord. Women increasingly took on roles in heavy industry and security. Members of the WRNS worked in communications, mechanical engineering, and radar plotting. They also worked at Western Approaches HQ in Liverpool and were instrumental in developing the successful tactics used against the German U-boats which threatened Britain’s supply chain off the Atlantic coast. National necessity again allowed women to demonstrate their abilities and skills as members of the military. Yet when the war ended in 1945 women were expected to give up their wartime jobs and return to what had been their previous employment. The experiences of women while serving, however, were pivotal for many and involvement in the WRNS (as well as the ATS and WAAF) on a voluntary basis remained an option for women. The WRNS officially merged with the Royal Navy in 1993 and servicewomen were finally subject to the same requirements and discipline as their male colleagues.

Clementine Churchill (centre left) and Vera Leighton Matthews (centre right), director

of the WRNS at WRNS Headquarters. Photographer unknown, 1941.

Source: © IWM A 5485.

The history of women’s participation in the WRNS is still not very well known and as a result it is underappreciated. At the start of my work placement, I knew very little about women’s involvement in the Royal Navy. When I imagined any branch of the military, I mostly imagined men. This lack of awareness doesn’t feel altogether unexpected, however, given that historically depictions of the military, in media and literature primarily feature men. And it is almost always men who are remembered for their military service in the form of public memorials and monuments. While many of Britain’s war museums increasingly have space dedicated to representing the WRNS, there are very few acknowledgements of women’s wartime contributions on public monuments. Mention of women’s contributions to the war effort on public monuments is so uncommon that the heritage organisation Historic England highlighted this rarity when in 2017 it listed a memorial in Harrogate as Grade II (Grade II sites are ‘particularly important and of more than special interest’) because it identified women who served in both WWI and WWII by name. This imbalance is not historically accurate, as over the course of WWII over 640,000 women joined the services, not to mention those who became nurses or civilian workers, and hundreds were killed on duty, despite being banned from serving at sea. Overall, an estimated 90 percent of single women and 80 percent of married women joined the services or performed necessary civilian work.

The ‘Monument to the Women of World War Two’ was unveiled in London in 2005 (50 long years after the end of the war). It honours all the women who contributed to the war effort, whether they were enlisted in one of the three services (the WRNS, WAAF, or ATS) or performed crucial civilian work including factory and agricultural work. I am not highlighting this monument to say there is a hierarchy of work women performed: all the women who participated in the war effort should be commemorated. Rather, this example led me to wonder if these workers deserve their own monuments celebrating what they specifically did instead of being grouped together as a single entity. Somehow, one monument for all British women involved in the war effort doesn’t seem like quite enough. The sculptural brass monument depicts the military and civilian uniforms that women wore during the war hanging on hooks as if abandoned once their services were no longer needed. It is intended to show the reality that civilian and service women faced upon the war’s end, as they were expected to give their wartime jobs back to men and return to the more restrictive occupations they had held prior to 1939. Despite this, after WWII the services were not disbanded as they had been after WWI and women have been able to join up ever since, slowly gaining access to more equality in the services through the decades. Progress is being made, but women’s different needs are still not fully considered. In July 2022 the Royal Navy finally agreed to provide female service members with properly fitted sports bras, after a study published in 2021 found that three-quarters of female Army recruits reported the bras provided were inadequate during basic training.

           Helena (third from left) during basic training, HMS Dauntless, 1964.

Working on Helena’s collection, learning about her life, and doing research on the history of women in the Royal Navy and other branches of the forces has been so informative for me personally and helped to shift my perception of who is and has historically been in the Royal Navy. When I think of the service now, I imagine men AND women. I have a much more informed understanding of just how much women wanted to join up to protect their country over the course of both World Wars and afterwards, and a newfound appreciation of how much serving in the Royal Navy meant and continues to mean for women.

    Helena (middle row, far left end) and fellow wrens, HMS Raleigh, 1966.

If you would like to find out more or would like to donate anything related women’s work in the navy please contact one of our curators at – 

Abigail@scotmaritime.org.uk

James@scotmaritime.org.uk

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