By Gemma Ashby, Assistant Keeper of History, Discovery Museum
Free a Man for the Fleet
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) is about to commence on a partnership project with the Imperial War Museums (IWM) examining stories of the Second World War and exploring its diverse history on Tyneside. Find out more about the project here.
One of our main focuses for this project will be to consider the experiences of women on Tyneside during that time: the women who stepped in to new roles, the women who had increasing caring responsibilities at home and the anxiety they must have felt, and those women who went into active service for their country.
This blog will introduce us to the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).
Second World War and service
The WRNS had begun in 1917 as part of the First World War effort, boasting 5,500 members at the end of the conflict. Though sadly disbanded in 1919, the WRNS was again re-started in April 1939 under the governance of Vera Laughton Mathews, a veteran of the First World War.
In the early period of the Second World War, more than 20,000 women enrolled, though initially only 1,500 roles were actually open and available. Training was broadly split into 5 key areas and categories: writer, driver, cook, steward and communicator (for both signals and wireless). The recruitment posters urged women to ‘Join the Wrens & free a man for the fleet’. The messaging worked to such a great extent that some women believed they would be directly taking the place of a man within the Royal Navy (1).
The Royal Navy News describes the initiation process the women would have gone through. When they were called up, the new Wrens had to attend a training depot where they received their first introduction to the discipline and procedures of the Navy. They then spent three weeks learning and developing both academic knowledge and fitness, as well as ‘Jackspeak, the language of the Navy’ (2). If they lasted the training, the new Wrens would be enrolled and issued with their kit and uniforms.
‘Only joined for the hat’
Due to many women not knowing what to expect of the different services open to them, the aesthetic appearance of the uniforms were known to have played a large role in the selection process. The WRNS were widely acknowledged to have had the most attractive uniform, beautiful navy pieces with gold buttons, which fashion designer Edward Molyneux had been commissioned to create.
The Wrens’ uniform came top in both style and colour, in comparison to the ‘frumpy’ uniform and underwear of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The WRNS hat was so popular amongst women at the time that it was redesigned in a variety of colours for civilian wear (3).
Within our museum collections we have a WRNS uniform, worn by Dorothy Robinson (nee Dixon) from Newcastle. She was a Wren from 1943 to 1946, serving as a third officer in the Fleet Air Arm. Her uniform was issued whilst on training at Mill Hill, London. Tailors came to the base, taking measurements and orders. The quality of the fabric was not standardised, but instead dependant on what each Wren could afford. It was worn with a white cotton shirt and a black silk tie.
Women in uniform became symbols of the Second World War, with uniformed Wrens even featuring in marketing for Kolynos toothpaste. It highlighted a key change in the perception of women in society: the authority and power conveyed by the uniforms demonstrated the new responsibilities and workloads that were available to them. However, not everyone saw this as a positive thing. ‘Women in uniform’ came top of a Daily Mail reader’s poll on what they most hated about the war.
Women also faced hostility and judgment for their wearing of uniforms during their time in service during the Second World War. Some women who wore uniforms were deemed to be too masculine and were thought to be more likely to behave like men, which was seen as a stark contrast to their expected displays of femininity. There was a strong notion that a “woman prepared to wear collars and ties and brass buttons — not to mention the horror of trousers — must be immoral” (4). Servicewomen also faced large amounts of sexualisation and degradation, with innuendoes about seducing them, such as ‘up with the lark and to bed with a Wren’ becoming widespread (5).
The work of the Wrens
The tasks undertaken by the WRNS expanded throughout 1941–42 and some travelled to Singapore, Washington, D.C and Gibraltar. Closer to home, they also undertook bombing range marking, parachute packing, made minor repairs to the surfaces of aircrafts and crewed small boats. By 1944, there were 75,000 officers in the WRNS, including 1,600 navy air mechanics (6). It is also now known that the Wrens played a hugely vital role at Bletchley Park, working to decode encrypted messages, a highly secret but essential part of the war effort.
Unlike the end of the First World War, the WRNS continued long after the end of the Second World War, though it did not become absorbed completely into the Royal Navy until 1993.
From our collections we know that, during her time in the WRNS, Dorothy Dixon trained as a radio mechanic and telephonist, but spent most of the war reading radar, tracking all Navy planes. Sadly, we know very little else about Dorothy’s experience of the Second World War and her feelings on the new opportunities that were suddenly available to her, nor what she did after her time in the WRNS.
Dorothy’s uniform highlights the further stories and experiences we are hoping to uncover about more women on Tyneside.
Do you have a female relative who served in the WRNS or other services during the Second World War? Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any stories, memories or images you’d like to share with us!
This blog is the first in a series on women’s experiences of the Second World War. Next month we will explore the development of the Lumberjills — the Women’s Land Army.
1, 4, 5: Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives During the Second World War, Virginia Nicholson (2011)
2, 6: Royal Navy: Navy News (July, 2017)
3: The Button Box, Lynn Knight (2016)