Women's Royal Naval Service

Women's Royal Naval Service


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The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) of the First World War was demobilized in 1919 and was reformed until April 1939. The main objective was for women to replace certain personnel in order to release men for active service. At first the Wrens were recruited from navy families living near the ports.

During the Second World War the Women's Royal Naval Service was expanded rapidly. Between December 1939 and June 1945 numbers increased from 3,400 to 72,000.

WRNS units were attached to most naval shore establishment in Britain. A large number of women served abroad in both the Middle East and the Far East. Some members of the service were employed in highly secret naval communications duties.


The Women’s Royal Naval Service was formed in 1917 as a branch of the Royal Navy. It disbanded in 1919 and then reformed in 1939. The service was disbanded fully in 1993 when women were allowed to join the Royal Navy. Initially Wrens undertook domestic duties like cleaning and cooking. This was later expanded to a greater variety of roles such as wireless telegraphists and electricians. Most Wrens were based in the United Kingdom.

Registers of Women’s Royal Naval Service officers (1917-1919)

Consult the registers of appointments of WRNS officers (ADM 321) (download and browse for no charge from our catalogue) and the service record cards and files ( £ ) (ADM 340) for registers of appointments, promotions and resignations of WRNS officers.

Details of service during the First World War (if an officer served in the Second World War) are also included.

Service records (1917-1919)

Search the Women’s Royal Naval Service records online ( £ ) for a person who served as either an officer (ADM 318) or a rating (ADM 336).

Naval medal records (1914-1920)

Consult the Roll of Naval War medals in ADM 171/133 to find a person who received a decoration during the First World War. You can download digital microfilm versions of these records for no charge direct from our catalogue (searching by name will not be possible) or search by name from Ancestry.co.uk ( £ ).


Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service

The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) was established on 31 July 1942 during the Second World War. It was the naval counterpart to the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, which had preceded it in 1941. The WRCNS was established as a separate service from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). It was disbanded on 31 August 1946.

Wrens on parade at the WRCNS basic training school, HMCS Conestoga, December 1942.

Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service: Key Facts

Founded on 31 July 1942
Disbanded on 31 August 1946
6,783 women served in the WRCNS
11 died on active service (from sickness or accidents)
Personnel served in Canada, Newfoundland (then a separate Dominion), the United States and Great Britain
“Wrens” served in 39 trades, including administrative and clerical work, signalling, coding, and wireless telegraphy


Origins

When Canada entered the Second World War in September 1939, thousands of Canadian men volunteered for service. However, recruitment failed to keep pace with increasing demands. In April 1941, representatives from theCanadian Army,Royal Canadian Navyand RCAFmet inOttawato discuss the possibility of women entering the service in non-combat and non-medical roles. Although they initially decided against this idea, the air force soon changed its mind. In July, the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF) was established it was later renamed the RCAF Women’s Division. The Canadian Women’s Army Corps was created in August.

The navy was the last service to create a women’s auxiliary. The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) was founded in July 1942. It was patterned on the British Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS). The term “Wrens,” by which WRCNS members were known, was the logical slurring of the British WRNS. Indeed, with no existing Canadian naval model, the WRCNS closely followed the British example, with initial senior leadership positions filled by British Wrens on loan. Three WRNS members arrived in Canada in May 1942 to develop the nucleus of the new organization. WRNS Chief Officer Dorothy Isherwood was the first director of the WRCNS, serving in that position until September 1943.

Training

In September, an initial cadre of 67 Canadian women underwent a probationary course at Kingsmill House, Ottawa. Soon after, the basic training centre HMCS Conestoga was established at Galt, Ontario, in — to the reported amusement of the women — a vacant girls’ reformatory school, with the first class starting in October 1942. Unlike male sailors, who were recruited into the Royal Canadian Navy as either officers or (non-commissioned) ratings, all but a very few Wrens began their service in the non-commissioned ranks, and as such passed through Conestoga. Some women were selected to become officers and underwent further training at Hardy House, in Ottawa. The first of an eventual 21 classes was held in February 1943.

Leadership

In June 1943, Lieutenant-Commander Isabel Macneill, one of the graduates of the first course, was appointed commanding officer of Conestoga. She was the first female to command an HMC “Ship.” (In naval terms, a commissioned shore establishment with the HMCS designation is referred to as a “stone frigate.”)

On 18 September 1943, Commander (later Captain) Adelaide Sinclair became the first Canadian director of the WRCNS, an appointment she held until the service was disbanded. Formerly a lecturer in political science at the University of Toronto, Sinclair went on after the war to prominent positions in public service. From 1957 until retirement in 1967 she was deputy executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef).

Lieutenant-Commander Adelaide Sinclair, the first Canadian Director of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), August 1943.

Operations

The navy had lagged in the creation of a women’s division due in part to a certain narrow-mindedness. Another important factor was that the navy grew at a slower rate than the other services because of long lead times for shipbuilding. Demands for manpower were therefore slower in the navy than the army and air force. Full mobilization of the WRCNS in turn was delayed by initial problems of recruiting. This was resolved after December 1942 by integrating the recruitment of women with that of males and by building suitable new accommodation in major naval population centres.

By 31 August 1945, 6,783 women had enlisted overall in the WRCNS. At its peak, the organization had 5,893 members, more than 1,000 of whom served outside Canada. None were killed in action, but 11 died on duty, due to illness or accidents.

The women filled some 39 different trades. Wrens in Canada served primarily in administrative positions at the naval bases in Halifax and Esquimalt and associated naval training establishments, and at Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa. They are probably remembered best for staffing the operational map plots in command headquarters, and for taking on the bulk of duties at the various naval signals intelligence sites on both coasts.

More than 500 Wrens were stationed at the Canadian naval base HMCS Avalon in St. John’s, Newfoundland (then a separate Dominion). Another 500 were stationed at the shore establishment HMCSNiobein Great Britain (mostly in London, Plymouth and Londonderry), and some 50 at naval offices in Washington DC, and New York City.

Canadian Wrens arriving in Britain, October, 1944. Wren signallers monitoring the entrance to the harbour at St. John's, Newfoundland, April 1945. Wrens staffing the operational plot room in Naval Service Headquarters, Ottawa, December 1943. Canadian Wrens on parade at HMCS Avalon, Newfoundland, being inspected by Commodore C.R.H. Taylor, Flag Officer Newfoundland Force, 1943.

Korean War

A women’s division was re-constituted in 1951 during the Korean War as part of a re-organized Royal Canadian Navy (Reserve). In 1955, a women’s component of the regular navy was authorized, but no longer as a separate service. The name Wrens remained popular with female sailors, however, and continued in use after disbandment of the Royal Canadian Navy with unification in 1968. The name was particularly popular in the naval reserve, which maintained a higher proportion of serving women than the regular force.

Today, women are fully integrated into the navy, including in combat roles, and the term Wrens has fallen into disuse other than for sentimental, nostalgic associations.


Fact File : Women's Royal Naval Service


A member of the WRNS makes fast the motor boat she has been using to ferry mail and goods to ships at anchor©

Wrens were initially recruited to release men to serve at sea. This was reflected in the recruiting slogan 'Join the Wrens today and free a man to join the Fleet.' As the wartime navy expanded, the WRNS followed suit, taking on tasks that the Royal Navy had previously considered beyond their capabilities. WRNS responsibilities 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 either worked in mobile units or in London. Many Wrens were involved in planning naval operations, including the D-Day landings in June 1944.

Wrens with language skills 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.

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.

As well as the Home Front, thousands of Wrens served in overseas units. They also worked in the different branches of the Royal Navy, including the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Marines. Australia, Canada and New Zealand formed their own Royal Naval Services. The Women's Royal Indian Naval Service (WRINS) contributed significantly to the running of Royal Indian Navy shore establishments.

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 naval 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. As in the ATS and the WAAF, women from all backgrounds learnt skills and took on responsibilities in the WRNS that would have been unheard of before the war.

The WRNS reached its largest size in 1944, with 74,000 women doing over 200 different jobs. 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.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


Remembering The History Of The Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service (WRINS)

The W.R.I.N.S or the Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service was formally set up in January 1944 as the naval wing of the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India) in response to the increasing demand for labour to fill up “shore jobs” during the Second World War. Nearly three decades after the formation of their counterpart, the Women’s Royal Naval Service or the WRENS, the WRINS became a symbol of a new India, subverting gender norms and laying the steppingstone for a new, independent India and an emancipated Indian woman.

Though neither the WRINS nor the WRENS were allowed to go to sea, they became instrumental in naval life and played a vital role in defeating the enemy. They took up clerical roles, decoded secret messages, were trained in gunnery tactics, maintained equipment, and more. Through confidence, a sense of duty, and pride of service, these women were able to make a lasting difference, directly confronting issues that affect us today—those of caste, class, and gender inequality.

Though neither the WRINS nor the WRENS were allowed to go to sea, they became instrumental in naval life and played a vital role in defeating the enemy. They took up clerical roles, decoded secret messages, were trained in gunnery tactics, maintained equipment, and more. Through confidence, a sense of duty, and pride of service, these women were able to make a lasting difference, directly confronting issues that affect us today—those of caste, class, and gender inequality.

How Women Came to Serve

Around 1917, during the First World War, The Women’s Royal Naval Service(WRNS/Wrens) was created in response to the desperate need for volunteers to fill up “shore jobs” such as motor drivers, cooks, clerks, etc., so that more men would be able to join the war efforts at sea. Previously involved in only medical tasks, these women became an inalienable part of the British war efforts.

Subsequently, during the Second World War, when the threat of the Japanese invasion of India began looming large, the British formed the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India) or the W.A.C. in 1942 for women to contribute to the war cause. It was only in 1944 that the Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service (W.R.I.N.S.) was formed as the naval wing of the W.A.C.

The W.A.C. and the WRINS were the first and only time women served in the Indian Armed Forces in non-medical roles until 1992.

Wrins arranging models of ships, escorts and attackers in conformity with a tactical problem set
Source: The National Museum of the Royal Navy & The Better India Conducting maintenance work on a 40mm Bofors gun
Source: The National Museum of the Royal Navy

Recruitment

Around 1944, newly promoted Chief Officer, Margaret Cooper, began conducting an intensive campaign in British India to recruit women to the WRINS. Her campaign was largely successful with middle and upper-class Indian women who were excited by the prospect of serving in the Army and aiding war efforts.

Due to the lack of research and testimonies on the WRINS, there have been many misconceptions regarding the composition of the wing. Many incorrectly believe that the WRINS were either British or ‘Anglo-Indian’ however, starting with 41 officers and 204 WRINS in January 1944, the strength of the WRINS at the end of 1945 was 242 officers and 746 WRINS. Of the women employed by the WRINS in 1945, nearly two-thirds were Indian nationals. The recruits, who were mostly college graduates and school teachers, lived in military-style hostels run by women officers and trained for a multitude of “shore jobs.”

The WRINS took part in discussions, debates, and general knowledge tests which proved invaluable in developing the skills and broadening the future outlook of Indian women. They were assigned specialist tasks such as top-secret decoding, training in gunnery tactics, and much more. Writing in 1945, Chief Officer Margaret Cooper claimed that, ‘…for the Indian girls, it was the experience of a lifetime and broadened their outlook considerably.’ The lack of Indian testimonies in British records, however, make it difficult to verify Cooper’s claims. Regardless, it is interesting to note that though the WRINS and WRENS came from drastically different backgrounds and upbringings, their differences in opinion were forgotten in lieu of helping the Navy in its time of need.

Composition of W.R.I.N.S Officers
From From “Wrins and How They Served” Pg. 12 via Valentina Vitali (2019)

Symbols of New India

Around 1945, Second Officer Kalyani Sen was issued an invitation by Britain’s Admiralty to visit the United Kingdom for a comparative study of training and administration in the WRNS. She was the first Indian service woman to visit the United Kingdom. Sen and her colleagues were aware of the controversial nature of the job but they chose to contribute to the effort out of a sense of duty regardless of the prejudices. In an interview with the Daily Herald, Sen said, “In India, there is still a big prejudice against women working with men. But the women are so keen to get into the Services that they are breaking it down.” During her visit, a picture of Sen in a white shirt and naval jacket with a gold braid over her sari was published in many major Indian publications. The picture began to be hailed as a symbol of “new India”—one where women unapologetically existed in the workplace alongside their male counterparts.

A Wrin interacting with her Wren Counterparts
Source: The National Museum of the Royal Navy & The Better India

In the essay Women and nation revisited,Partha Chatterjee addresses the concept of the ‘new woman’ that arose as a consequence of the colonial enterprise and the nationalist project. The nationalist project aimed to create a ‘modern woman’ that was an object of aspiration for women themselves. While nationalism did assert the existence and value of tradition, it made space for a reformed understanding of cultural practices that conformed to the spaces of the modern world. Much like the sari and shirt attire of the WRINS, the ‘new Indian woman’ began to embody a link to both ‘modern ideology while maintaining the desire to preserve a culture. The spiritual freedom and self-emancipation of women became closely linked with the nationalist project. Women like the WRINS, who challenged prejudices, came to embody a revolutionary liberty that redefined the archetype of the post-colonial Indian woman. After leaving the WRINS, they were regarded as being a part of a progressive post-war India and promised a place of privilege.

While women from higher castes were able to fit into these redefined spaces due to their relative privilege, women from lower castes did not play a defining role. The ‘new Indian woman’ was expected to be educated, she was to acquire refined tastes, and eventually represent India in the global field but women from lower castes did not have the same opportunities to be educated and acquire ‘refined tastes’.

While women from higher castes were able to fit into these redefined spaces due to their relative privilege, women from lower castes did not play a defining role. The ‘new Indian woman’ was expected to be educated, she was to acquire refined tastes, and eventually represent India in the global field but women from lower castes did not have the same opportunities to be educated and acquire ‘refined tastes’.

Then vs. Now

In 1992, the Indian Army began inducting women officers in non-medical roles. In December 2018, the IAF had 13.09% women, the Navy had 6%, and the Army had 3.80%. On 17 February 2020, the Supreme Court of India said that women officers in Indian Army can get command positions at par with their male counterparts. While this is a step in the right direction in terms of inclusivity and egalitarianism in the field, as feminists it is important to recognise that the military and army have often been tools used by the government to further their own agenda, inciting war and looking past the loss of lives in the quest for power. Although such recruitment should be lauded, a war-like mentality and a hostile code of conduct should be adequately critiqued.

While the Indian Navy is moving toward a more inclusive landscape with women reaching positions such as Lieutenant-General and Vice admirals, there is a lot of work to be done to be truly inclusive. Unlike the army, which enables women to occupy command positions, the Navy is still against allowing women as sailors on warships. Women are recognised as capable soldiers and officers, but unlike the men, their capabilities are considered limited.

Though the WRINS existed for only three years, the organisation provided a plethora of opportunities for middle-class, upper caste Indian women to be exposed to a global environment and experience a diversity of opportunities. In some regard, these women were pioneers of an Indian feminist sensibility that changed the dynamic of the Indian workforce. Their defiance of prejudices allowed young women to be emancipated from cultural norms that were holding them back. The WRINS created a global recognition and realisation of the capabilities of the Indian woman. In their unapologetic existence, they led a subtle revolution.

References

Featured Image Source: The Better India
Source: Feminism in India


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Women's Royal Naval Service

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30 Years Of Women At Sea – BFBS Interviews Women In The Senior Service

A glimpse into the lives of a few women who have served with the Royal Navy over the last 30 years.

It has been 30 years since the first admittance of women to seafaring roles within the Royal Navy.

To mark the occasion, BFBS conducted interviews with a number of women serving in the Navy.

One was Commander Lucy Ottley, who also spoke to us on Forces News.

COMMANDER LUCY OTTLEY

Commander Ottley also told BFBS’s Jess Bracey that she has enjoyed the challenges her military career has given her, saying at one point that the Navy, like all the services, is very good at giving people challenges and opportunities. In her case, for example, one of the things she was able to learn to do that she might not have otherwise was to learn to speak Arabic.

Opportunities have continued to widen for women within the Royal Navy. Commander Ottley told BFBS that it is right that other roles such as service on submarines, within the Royal Marines and as mine clearance divers are also open to women now.

While these newer roles for women were not available when she first joined up, Commander Ottley said much about the Navy has still remained consistent:

“I think the thing that has remained the same from my experience is you’re here to do a job, and the opportunities are out there – you just have to capitalise on them.”

“ … I think that if you’re doing a good job and you’re working hard people will respect you for that.”

One of the highlights of Commander Ottley’s career was, she says, serving on HMS Ark Royal.

As part of her service, this involved helping to deploy troops to Iraq during Operation Telic, the British portion of the war in Iraq.

Ark Royal was a light aircraft carrier that was decommissioned in 2011. It was the fifth Royal Navy ship to bear that name, with another one having served up until the late 1970s. (A report on a model of that Ark Royal can be seen here).

ABLE RATE JESSICA MASON

Going from an experienced naval officer to one still early in her military career, Amy Casey spoke to 18-year-old Able Rate Jessica Mason about her experiences in the Navy so far.

Able Rate Mason serves on HMS Albion, an amphibious assault vessel that transports Royal Marines, and the ninth ship to bear that name historically. She spoke about having performed a number of roles aboard the ship, including being a quartermaster, a boatswain’s mate, getting involved with helping the ship to enter and leave harbour and driving, or steering, HMS Albion.

When Amy Casey asked Jessica what she thought of how things compare now when women are permitted to serve aboard ships to the days when this was prohibited, she said the comparison seemed crazy:

“ … I can never think of it just all being men … “

She also discussed how being one of a small percentage of women in the Royal Navy has helped make her conscious of being a bit of a role model for other women who may follow in her footsteps:

“ … I have four younger sisters, and I feel like being in the Navy is just showing them what more (there is to life) … I know it was a man’s world … but now it’s a mixed world … we’re all equal.”

Amy Casey observed that Jessica’s family must be proud of her and asked what they said when she first went to sea.

Being only 17 at the time, Jessica said that they were petrified at first to let her go. She later pointed out that she has learnt to steer a warship before learning to drive a car, something she has not done yet. Though taking on such challenges at such a young age has clearly helped Jessica to grow. She said at one point in the interview:

“ … Oh My God, I can do this … there’s people … twice my age on here, and they’re doing the same as me … it is crazy.”

Able Rate Mason also said that being aboard a ship encourages a special kind of camaraderie and that it feels like she has a family aboard HMS Albion. Referring to this aspect of a Naval career, when asked about giving advice to other women thinking of joining, she said:

“I’d just say do it. You get to … meet so many amazing people, you form bonds you never thought you would have, or imagine you would have. You literally make a second family.”

ABLE RATE WHITNEY AMBRITON

Able Rate Whitney Ambriton also serves on HMS Albion and told Amy Casey that, since it is such a large vessel, one of the challenges of the work aboard it has been getting used to finding her way around!

Though, like Jessica Mason, Able Rate Ambriton has also found serving aboard Albion to have been a terrific experience for her so far.

Her primary role is that of a human resource administrator, which seas her deal with personnel matters - though she also said it is normal to take on secondary roles and to practice dealing with emergencies like fires and floods.

Although she has been enjoying her career in the Navy so far, Whitney admitted that it was not something she ever planned to do:

“ … it just happened, I would say … I was looking for a job back home, and my friend just told me about the Navy and … I looked at the opportunities that it offered such as educational qualifications … the ability to travel to other countries (while working) and I (decided to) give that a go.”

Whitney said that that highlight of her career so far has been participating in the ceremonial guard on the deck of HMS Albion during sunset.

Whitney explained that she had friends who were already in the Royal Navy before she joined and who had encouraged her to do so, and that, once she did, there was a sense of togetherness to help her through the challenges:

“… everyone helped me to get … my fitness up to the standard that it was required to be, and everyone was just … there for me.”

When Amy Casey asked about the 30-year anniversary of women being allowed into roles where they go to sea, and if she thinks about the issue of promoting inclusivity, she responded:

“ … I really do (think) about it, because … at some point … women weren’t able to join the military, let alone go to sea. I honestly completely agree with what’s going on in the world where we’re able to go to sea, do the same jobs that men are doing and that we’re basically treated equally.”

Whitney said that she is due to be at sea until December, when she will get Christmas leave, at which point she will go home and get some good takeaway food!

COMMANDER CAROLYN JONES

Wonder Women: The Munitionettes Who Helped Britain Win The Wars

Commander Carolyn Jones was a Wren when she first joined the Navy in 1986, which meant she had taken on a supporting role.

Officially, the first women to serve at sea with the Royal Navy did so in 1990, during the period of the first phase of the Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield.

However, the history of official service by women in the Royal Navy goes back further than that.

Women served with the Royal Navy as WRNS (the Women’s Royal Naval Service), or Wrens, from 1917 until they were first disbanded in 1919 following the cessation of the First World War. Although women were not in combat roles, Wrens were sometimes exposed to danger simply by being aboard a ship that was targeted by the enemy. The first Wren to be killed in service was Josephine Carr who died along with more than 500 others when the ship she was aboard, RMS Leinster, was torpedoed by a German U-boat while it crossed the Irish Sea.

RMS means Royal Mail Ship and Leinster was being used to take post between Ireland and Wales during the First World War.

The Wrens were re-established in 1939 when the Second World War broke out. Women continued to serve the Royal Navy through the organisation until it was officially disbanded in 1993 and women began to serve within the Royal Navy more generally as men did.

As the video below from 1950 shows, WRNS (or ‘Wrens’) performed non-combat roles such as wireless telegraphists, cooks, dental assistants, aircraft mechanics, and working in stores.

Commander Jones told Amy Casey that things have certainly changed a lot over the course of her career, beginning in a support role.

Despite not being able to go to sea, Carolyn still had a lot of good opportunities, she said

“The Radar branch was quite diverse in its employment. We did a lot of work … in mock ops rooms and bridges of ships where we would train the ships company when they came ashore … ”

“One of the most exciting opportunities I had was very early on in my career, in 1986 (or) 87, and I worked in the submarine attack teacher, which is where …. all the submarine command teams were trained … “

She explained that the women would be allowed onboard submarines in this capacity, including while they dived, because it was merely a training exercise and did not involve them actually being deployed at sea.

Carolyn said she also later volunteered to go to sea outside of just a training exercise when the opportunity came up later, and was trained for this at HMS Dryad in Portsmouth. (HMS Dryad is pictured as the cover to the first part of Carolyn’s interview, the image coming from the MoD).

She said it was an exciting time for her and that, “it was like entering this world we didn’t know … “

Once at sea, Carolyn said it became clear immediately just how much the danger of the situation encourages people aboard a ship to become a very close-knit team. She told Amy Casey:

“ . it’s also the camaraderie, the humour, it’s that Naval sense of humour – it’s also tiring … not everybody has the sea legs, not everybody is able to cope in rough weather. I find that quite exciting … but it’s not for everybody, but you just pull together … “

She also said that the Royal Naval Reserve have given her a fantastic second career with many more opportunities.

SUBMARINER JESS METCALFE

“It started once I completed two years at college and realised the uni life wasn’t for me … “

That was Submariner Jess Metcalfe’s way into the Royal Navy, looking for something that would fit her personality better than the academic path she had been on.

She want on the join the ‘Silent Service’, the Submarine Service, in 2015.

Like Able Rate Jessica Mason, Submariner Metcalfe has gone on to perform a variety of roles within her submarine, up to and including steering it.

She too told Amy Casey how being within a sub helps engender a sense of being part of an extended family, and for her Jess said her best moment so far has been qualifying as a submariner.

Jess too encourages other women to give the Navy a try, as long as they are willing to put in the hard work. She told Amy that she hopes to continue progressing. She is currently a petty officer and medical assistant and hopes to continue rising up the ranks in the future.

For more on women in the Armed Forces, click here.

Click here for more on Commander Ottley’s career, and click here for an in-depth look at the career of another woman in the Royal Navy, Commodore Mel Robinson can be heard elsewhere.


Women's Royal Naval Service

The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was first founded in 1917 during World War One. It was disbanded at the end of the war but reformed in 1939 when war seemed imminent. There were only a limited number of places available for women so places were usually given to people with a famiiy contact. The Director of the WRNS was Vera Laughton Mathews. Those who volunteered in the WRNS were nicknamed ‘Wrens’.

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 naval or air force equivalents, the ATS and the WAAF.

At the start of the war, work in the WRNS was limited to clerical, driving and domestic work. Recruitment posters for the WRNS clearly stated that the role of the WRNS was ‘to free a man for the fleet”.

Boarding Officers With the Naval Control Service-the work of the Women's Royal Naval Service, UK, 1944

Many Wrens carried out ‘domestic’ jobs such as cooking, stewarding, and cleaning, but over time their responsibilities expanded. In fact, some naval air stations had all-female anti-aircraft gun teams and others worked as motorcycle dispatch riders.

By 1941 the shortage of manpower increased the variety of work carried out by the Wrens. They were now able to work in harbours on small vessels, although they were still prohibited from going into open water. Although the majority of Wrens served in Britain, some were posted overseas in Singapore.

At its peak in 1944, the Women’s Royal Navy Service had 74,000 serving members. 100,000 women joined in total and 303 were killed in total.

Some Wrens also worked at Bletchley Park where they worked with the Enigma code-breakers. Wrens with language skills were also drafted to stations around the coast to intercept and translate enemy signals.

Like in the WAAFs, women in the WRNS were initially met with derisory comments from men who were sceptical of their role. However, once their importance became clear such hostility eased.


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