Women at War interview of a former wren who served at HMS Owl

One main goal of Women at War was research the role of women at HMS Owl and to identify key tasks they were involved with. Women at War looked at variety of sources which included a war time diary, testimony recorded as part of the BBC people’s war project, the Tain through Time website, as well as an interview with a former wren who had served at HMS Owl. The results of this work is summarised below.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service, also known as the Wrens, first arrived at Fearn airbase on 1st September 1942 (Tain Through Time website). Originally there was just one camp for the Wrens, but another was soon built to accommodate extra people, and they were known simply as Camp A and Camp B (Mrs. Munro, pers.comm 2013).

Accommodation was in Nissen huts and was relatively basic. The women’s cabins did have an internal lining to provide some extra insulation, but it was still extremely cold in winter. Mrs Munro (pers. Comm. 2013) tells of how, if you left a damp washcloth by your bed it would be frozen when you went to use it in the morning. The women slept in one large room, in bunks, with a chair each and a chest of drawers for each bunk (two drawers per person). There was a separate room for the Petty Officer and a spare room for storage, where luggage and so on was kept (Mrs Munro pers. comm. 2013). The bunks were extremely small and perhaps originally made for children, so sleeping could be a little uncomfortable at times, but the women seemed to get used to it (ibid).

There were no showers on site, but there were baths and toilets. The bathroom floor was covered in duck-boards, which were no terribly clean. The women would dry one foot and out their shoe on immediately, rather than stepping on the dirty floor, then do the same with the other foot (Mrs. Munro pers. comm. 2013).
The food was simple, but the women did not go hungry and it was common for them to go back onto the mess later in the evening, when they could help themselves to any leftovers (ibid). The locals would often give them extra food too, such as eggs and milk (ibid).

Pay was £2 a week, which increased to £3 once a Wren had earned their ‘strip’. This may not seem much, but most things were already paid for, so there were no extra expenses for accommodation, food and so on. Many women had enough money to spend on clothes and some small luxuries (Mrs Munro, pers. Comm. 2013). There were also cigarette and sweet coupons given out, with non-smokers often swapping their cigarette coupons to get extra sweets instead (ibid).

All the Wrens had navy bell-bottom trousers, navy blue work shirts and white ones for smart occasions. For outer-wear they also had thick navy jerseys, duffel coats and smart jackets (Mrs Munro, pers. comm. 2013). Laundry was done once a week, with the uniform being sent away, like the bed linen, to be washed. The women washed their own underwear, which they could choose and buy themselves, although they were issued official underwear too (ibid).

The Wrens often walked around the base, although as it was large, they tended to bring their own bicycles with them, which they would use for getting around (Mrs. Munro, pers. comm. 2013). There were also trucks that would transport them, although as petrol was rationed, this was carefully regulated. On days off the women would sometimes take the train somewhere and then walk, or cycle back later in the day (ibid).

There was no active service at Fearn, it was training and general support duties. Mrs. Munro mentioned that there was only a German plane overhead once during her entire time at Fearn (about one and a half years) and she never felt threatened or scared. However, it was vital work

Work was often varied, regularly spending time on watch in addition to other duties (Pauline Arnold 1943). Among the roles carried out by the Wrens were; battery chargers, aircraft washers, air radio mechanics, radar mechanics, de-coders, tractor drivers and cine gun assessors (Fleet Air Museum 2009: 4-5). Some of the Wrens at Fearn were trained to look after naval dinghies and parachutes, and were in charge of mending, checking and packing them. The parachutes needed to be aired once a month, to prevent creases setting in (Mrs Munro, pers. comm. 2013). They needed height and warmth to hang and dry the parachutes and a high building with a boiler in it, near one of the hangers, was set aside for this (ibid).

The women worked hard, but felt valued and knew it was for a good cause, with everyone working towards a common aim (Mrs Munro, pers. comm. 2013; Pauline Arnold 1943). They usually had Sundays off and sometimes Saturdays too, when they would have time to either relax on the base, or go further afield (ibid).

There was little formal entertainment on site and no real spaces set aside for socialising, but the women would spend spare time in their cabins reading or chatting with friends. There was a putting green and cinema on site too and, in her diary (1943), Pauline Arnold mentions very frequent visits here to see films. There were often dances put on, which the women would attend and these provided an opportunity for interaction with men based nearby (Mrs. Munro, pers. comm. 2013).

The women would often venture further afield together on their days off and go into local towns, like Tain and Balintore, to go shopping, have tea or coffee, have meals out at hotels and so on. They found the locals to be very friendly and accommodating (Mrs. Munro, pers. comm. 2013; Pauline Arnold 1943).

Living and working so closely, the Wrens often developed friendships on the base, both with each other and with the men stationed on other camps. However, as staff were often only stationed there for short periods, deeper friendships could be harder to make (Mrs. Munro, pers. Comm. 2013). Pauline Arnold’s diary highlights how it was very common for Wrens to go on dates with men stationed in and around Fearn, and for relationships to develop. However, rules on the base were very strict and the Wrens had to sign in and out, so the alarm would be raised if anyone did not come back at night. Men and women on the base were separated by a barbed wire fence (Mrs. Munro, per. comm. 2013).

On the whole, sources such as Pauline Arnold’s diary (1943) and Mrs. Munro (per. comm. 2013) show that life for the Wrens at Fearn was happy. It could be hard work at times, but they saw the value in it and were happy to muck in. Although living conditions were basic, the women were relatively well provided for and their youth enabled them to make the best of the situation. Everyone seems to have made the most of their free time, exploring the local area, building friendships and learning useful skills for their future lives.

References

Mrs. Munro. Interviewed in 2013 for the Women at War project, about her experiences at Fearn.
Pauline Arnold. Diary dating to 1943, of her life as a Wren, including time spent at Fearn.
BBC People’s War website (2014), available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/68/a6676068.shtml
Tain Through Time, Tain Museum website, page on HMS Owl (2014) available at:
http://www.tainmuseum.org.uk/hms_owl_g.asp?page=132
Fleet Air Museum (2009) The Wrens 1939-45 (PDF file available at http://www.fleetairarm.com/womens-royal-navy-service-wrens-tpyf.aspx