Saturday, July 8, 2023

British Women at War: The Women's Royal Navy Service

 The smallest and most elite of the women's services in the U.K. was undoubtedly the Women's Royal Naval Service or WRNS. Because its numbers never exceeded 75,000, the WRNS was never dependent upon conscription; volunteers were sufficient to fill its needs. It also cultivated and maintained a reputation as being exclusive and having higher standards.

Like the other women's services, the Women's Royal Naval Service had its roots in the First World War when it was created in late 1917 to help meet manpower shortages. The women were used to free up male ratings from shore-based duties primarily cooking, cleaning and clerical work, and in both world wars the Admiralty insisted that women would not serve at sea. The first WRNS was both small and short-lived. Roughly 7,000 women served in it during the less than two years of its existence; it was disbanded in 1919. Twenty years later,  in August 1939 the WRNS was reformed. Again, its mandate was to "free men for the fleet" by putting women in shore-based jobs, such as cleaning, cooking and clerical work.

Yet from the very start, the WRNS was different. For a start, it was technically part of the the Royal Navy services but not part of the Royal Navy. Legally, this meant it was a civilian support service and the WRNS did not technically come under the Naval Discipline Act until 1977!  Second, during the early years applicants needed "recommendations" -- preferably from RN personnel -- to be considered at all. Many of the first WRNS were the wives, sisters and daughters of naval officers. Furthermore, recruiting was at first confined to residents of the major naval ports of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Rosyth, and the WRNS were expected to live at home!

Furthermore, from its inception in WWI (which followed the scandals that had plagued the WAAC), the WRNS were jealous of their reputation. The leadership was explicit in dictating that "WRNS must ... avoid any behavior which, though not incriminating in itself, may be undesirable...." The catalogue of such undesirable behavior included smoking in public, drinking alcohol in public, and  loitering around with men. Already in WWI, the WRNS were known as the "prigs and prudes" -- and were proud of it. When the service was resurrected in WWII, this tradition was continued. 

On the other hand, the WWII leadership came from a younger generation -- a generation of professional women who sought to fill the ranks with not just "the right sort" of woman, but women capable of doing the job. Unlike the leadership of the ATS, the WRNS leadership was composed of women with a more egalitarian outlook than the service to which they were attached. The WRNS leadership adopted a policy of strict meritocracy. A key component of this policy was that no woman could become an officer without first being a rating and proving herself. This policy did much to improve morale -- and was notably lacking from the ATS where most officers were appointed directly, often without qualifications, on the basis of their accent or social status.

Although the WRNS started the war with seven limited categories of work which can be summarized as clerical, cleaning and cooking, the war rapidly forced changes. Soon the duties assigned WRNS expanded to motor transport, storekeepers, messengers, mechanics, telegraphists and R/T operators, signalers and small-boat handlers.  Eventually there were 129 trades including plotters, radar operators. meteorologists, codes and cipher specialists, intelligence officers and anti-aircraft crew. Fundamentally, from 1941 onwards, the WRNS took on all shore-based jobs that did not require physical strength or sea experience, including training RN personnel for their duties at sea.

Particularly striking was the degree to which the extremely conservative and hidebound "senior service" eventually handed over significant responsibility to WRNS. For example, WRNS were largely responsible for the dispatch of RN vessels. WRNS issued sailing orders and allocated berths. They also sent, received and decoded messages. Meanwhile, WRNS were required to be mobile and go where needed rather than live at home. The chic, feminine uniform distinctly different from the RN uniform and designed especially for women, was soon supplemented by overalls, bell bottom trousers, and other forms of practical clothing depending on the job performed.  Silently, the requirement for recommendations in order to apply also went by the board. 


Meanwhile, the WRNS particularly distinguished themselves as linguists and in the field of code-breaking and cypher work. It is noteworthy that the Admiralty had unofficially identified these areas as potential fields for women before the outbreak of the war. Dispatch riders was another category of work in which WRNS earned praise and recognition. The work entailed riding powerful (and very heavy) motorbikes at speed, often over long distances, on unmarked roads with inadequate headlights (due to wartime blackout requirements). Inevitably, a number of women had serious motor accidents, and recruitment for the trade was discontinued, but those who had already qualified were allowed to continue, several earning mentions in dispatches or medals for their work.

Although the Admiralty never allowed women to serve "with the fleet," starting in 1941, small harbor craft were "manned" by WRNS.  Although the boat crews never numbered more than 573 altogether, it was the most popular of all categories and some WRNS preferred to give up their petty officer status for the sake of being an ordinary deck hand on a boat.  There was also one small but notable exception to the otherwise rigid rule about women not serving "with the fleet." WRNS cipher officers were sent aboard the large troop transports such as the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth

Finally, WRNS were deployed overseas, which required them traveling for the most part by RN vessel to their new overseas assignments. WRNS were sent overseas starting in 1942 and by the end of the war 6,000 WRNS were serving in 37 overseas locations. In the course of the war, WRNS served in Alexandria, Port Said, Cairo and Suez, Durban, Kilindini (Kenya), Colombo (Cylon) and Singapore. 

At its peak in late 1944, the WRNS numbered 74,620 who served in all theaters of the war. In the course of the war, they had made themselves so useful and demonstrated the capabilities of women so effectively that the WRNS was not disbanded after WWII but continued until it was fully integrated into the RN in 1993.

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about them, their awards and read excerpts at:


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