THE WRNS IN WARTIME: THE WOMEN’S ROYAL NAVAL SERVICE 1917-1945

Reviewed by: John Burgess

My first experience of the WRNS was as a 17 year old Artificer Apprentice. I was dancing with a young Wren, a little older than me, when she stopped, put her hands on my shoulders and said, “John, you got rhythm but it don’t circulate.” That’s probably my epitaph but for the next 40-odd years those remarkably astute Wrens were there, challenging the rhythms of naval life and not just on the dance floor.
Hannah Roberts is Head of Sociology at Godalming. When it comes to social and gender issues and war studies, she knows her stuff. Though this book is about the WRNS, at least half of it is about the social and sociological effects in society on the Armed Forces during the first half of the last century.
I had some difficulty when first reading the early chapters about the introduction of women’s auxiliaries during World War I, and I found myself saying, “yes, but…” to a number of her assertions. Here are a couple of examples. She lauds Eric Geddes who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, did much to help introduce the women’s auxiliaries, not least the WRNS. No mention at this point of the brutal damage to communities in Rosyth and East Fife as a result of the Geddes Axe which took away thousands of livelihoods, literally overnight. He may not have instigated that decisions, but it happened on his watch and to this day the bitterness remains. Another example is how she often refers to “middle class officers” and the lack of social mobility in the whole Navy. Yes, but we were recovering from the narrow minded Victorian and Edwardian days when our true ethos and culture became muddled. Go back to Georgian times and read how admiring Patrick O’Brian was about officers who came up through the hawse-pipe to command so many of our great ships. It took until World War II to get back on track. Of course, since then flexibility and mobility have been the basis for advancement and for developing our officer corps, not least in the WRNS and the Royal Marines.
Hannah Roberts properly point out that women in all the services were not allowed to engage in combat. Yes, but my wife served for much of the Second World War on anti-aircraft gunnery and search light batteries. She told me that firing a gun was the easy bit and at times they had to do it despite the rules. The difficult task was finding and tracking the target and giving the guns the information. The women were far better at this than the men. I watched my wife dismantle and re-assemble a Lewis gun and, yes, the women did use them, shooting down a Messerschmidt 110 that attacked them. The unit got the credit, led of course by the men. There are so many examples of the WRNS too doing what in theory they should not.
These minor irritations say more about me and my background than the author. She is keeping her early chapters to the point and uncluttered. As I read on to the reintroduction of the WRNS in the 1940s she answered all of my “yes, buts” and more. Her analysis of the development and work of the WRNS and the parallel history of the other services is deeply and forensically researched. So often when talking with former Wrens she gets drawn to the working level, where things could be so different to the staff perception. She has the rare skill to put it all into the context of wider social and gender relationships. Her conclusions match those of us who served with and gained so much from our WRNS colleagues within the Navy, not just part of the Naval Service.
Just one last story. So many of our sailors were in their teens, and in one of my commands I was talking to a bunch of juniors and casually asked how they got on working with, and sometimes for, women. I was moved when one of the youngsters said that having just left his mum and sisters at home it was great to have girls helping and looking after them, in some way replacing the family. Amazing, and Hannah Roberts touches on this same unwitting connection in her book. No doubt the smaller number of women now serving alongside the men will have a similar impact, but the collective contribution of the WRNS in so many ways has been lost, and they are missed. When Julian Oswald finally decided to change the way we employed our women I asked him why now, when the Navy was reducing in size and we didn’t need them at sea. He said, “John, the world is changing around us and we must catch up and follow.” Questions of strength, sex and competitiveness were not an issue. Hannah Roberts shows us how right that was and is.
So what of this outstanding and most readable book? Thoroughly researched and so well put together and written. For as long as anyone is interested in the Naval Service it will sit on our bookshelves as the iconic and standard reference to the development and the service of the WRNS up until 1945. It is that good. Hannah Roberts has added a short postscript on the post-WWII WRNS covering more than forty great and successful years. That deserves another book and I hope that she will write it. So, well done Wrens and well done Hannah Roberts, too. And thank you both.