As an auxiliary nurse at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, Kathleen had found a role that suited her talents, but she still hadn’t quite given up on her dreams of joining the Navy. So when a letter arrived at her mother’s little house in Pembroke Road one morning bearing the stamp of the WRNS, she could barely contain her excitement. She hastily ripped open the envelope, scanning down the page until she had confirmed that it really did say what she hoped it did: finally, after many long months of waiting, they had found a place for her.
There was just one snag. Having failed the medical when she first applied to join the service, Kathleen would have to get her GP to assess her and confirm that she was in peak physical condition – as the most exclusive service, with the longest waiting list of girls eager to join, the WRNS insisted that all new recruits were passed Grade I.
But when Kathleen stepped onto the scales at the doctor’s office, he shook his head sadly. ‘I’m afraid you’re still underweight,’ he told her. ‘I’ll have to put that down on the form.’
Kathleen looked crestfallen. ‘No, please don’t,’ she begged the doctor. ‘I really want to get in, and I think this is my last chance.’
The doctor thought for a moment. He was a good friend of Kathleen’s mother and didn’t want to disappoint her. Finally he said quietly, ‘Why don’t you put your shoes back on?’
Hastily, Kathleen slipped her feet into her shoes and stepped back onto the scales. She waited anxiously while the old man scrutinised the needle.
‘And your coat,’ he said after a few seconds.
Fully dressed, Kathleen weighed just enough to tip the needle over to a healthy weight. ‘Well, I suppose that means you’re in,’ the doctor said with a smile.
Kathleen soon received a railway warrant to travel to Mill Hill in North London. There she and several hundred other new recruits were rounded up and taken to a large modern building, shaped like an elongated ‘X’ and topped with a bright green copper roof. It had been designed for the Medical Research Council by the architect Maxwell Ayrton, best known for the nearby Wembley Stadium, but now it was the WRNS basic training depot. Like all shore establishments in the Navy, the facility was named after a ship, HMS Pembroke.
In fact, as she settled into her fortnight’s training in Mill Hill, Kathleen found that almost everything about life in the WRNS was built around the naval template. New recruits slept not in dormitories but in ‘cabins’, and their food was prepared in the ‘galley’. They learned to use ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ instead of left and right – and to say they were ‘going aloft’ rather than simply heading upstairs. Everything about the experience was distinctly nautical, even down to the particular method of saluting which the girls were taught – with the palm of the hand tilted slightly towards the face, a relic of the days when sailors on board ship didn’t want their superiors to see the tar on their hands.
In British military tradition, the Navy was known as ‘the Senior Service’, and the WRNS, whose history went back as far as the First World War, proudly saw itself as senior to the other women’s forces as well. Everyone knew that their numbers were much lower than the ATS and the WAAF, and this lent the girls an aura of exclusivity.
Certainly, the WRNS demanded a high standard of recruit. Sitting up in her bunk bed one evening, with a cup of thick Navy cocoa in her hand, Kathleen pored over the five-page booklet of regulations that she had been given on arrival. ‘Every member will on all occasions endeavour to uphold the honour of the WRNS,’ it told her, ‘and by the good order and regularity of her conduct prove herself worthy of the Service to which she belongs.’ There were special admonitions against engaging in ‘noisy or rowdy behaviour’ and ‘loitering’ in public, especially if there were men around.
Clearly, Wrens – whether officers or ordinary ‘ratings’, as the Navy referred to the lower ranks – were supposed to see themselves as a cut above other servicewomen. And judging from the clipped accents of many of the young women Kathleen trained alongside, there was certainly a fair proportion of upper-crust girls among their number. Many of them, in fact, seemed to already have connections in the Navy, and it wasn’t unusual to hear a shrill voice ring out, ‘Oh, you must be Cynthia! I think Daddy knows your uncle from the Admiralty.’
But despite the number of top-drawer recruits and the Navy’s air of self-importance, for much of the training period Kathleen and her fellows were treated as little better than deckhands. In between bouts of ‘square bashing’ on the parade ground, lectures on the history of the Navy, and demonstrations of how to tie a dozen different seaman’s knots, the girls spent hours every day on their hands and knees, scrubbing and polishing floors that had looked pretty much perfect to begin with. Paving stones would be swabbed with water and carbolic soap, wooden floors buffed with shoe polish, and windows scrubbed until they gleamed. Since the girls were still in a probationary period, they wore not the smart navy blue uniform that so many of them had long admired, but a pair of faded denim overalls – and despite their pride at being chosen for the WRNS, they couldn’t help acknowledging that they looked more like skivvies than anything else.
By the end of a fortnight at Mill Hill, a number of girls had dropped out of the training. Kathleen, however, was enjoying herself. Having worked as a nursing auxiliary she was used to putting in long hours, and she still couldn’t quite believe her luck that she had finally made it into the service. When the time came to don her smart blue serge uniform for the first time, she did so filled with pride.
The next stage was the allocation of the girls to different trades, and again Kathleen found she was in luck. After a brief interview and some fairly straightforward aptitude tests, she was assigned not to the drudgery of the kitchens or the tedium of office work, but to train as an armourer in the Fleet Air Arm.