Lesley Blanch was Features Editor of British Vogue 1937-45. During the Second World War, she was on the front line of women journalists covering a wide range of topics, and documented the lives of women in the forces with her friend the photographer Lee Miller. This is one of three special articles she wrote about women in the forces.
This is the story of The Women ― today, as Clare Boothe Luce never imagined them yesterday. An all-star, all-women cast, it’s true, but there the resemblance ceases. These women are playing their parts in a world drama, but they remain limelight dodgers. And the scene is no demi-paradise of beauty parlours but the wild hills and lochs of Western Scotland.
Here, in pitching little boats, cutting through the mists and gales, on the big depot ship, swarming up and down plunging rope ladders, balanced, cat-like, to walk along the perilous jutting booms, picked Wrens undergo their boats-crew training. Or work as visual signallers, or service the torpedoes and depth charges aboard the motor torpedo boats and corvettes in the clanging uproar and grime of the Naval bases. One and all disprove the old wives’ or rather the old-fashioned husbands’ tale that woman’s place is the home, that women can’t get on together.
It is only recently that Wrens have taken over such specialised, seagoing work. Since the last war their motto has been Never at Sea ― it should be revised. Today, they are actively engaged in many different aspects of seamanship. Perhaps the most spectacular of all is the boats-crew training which is done on board the depot ship. This huge hulk lies at anchor in the loch; several seemingly sardine-sized submarines have sidled alongside for repairs or refuelling. The depot ship has impressive machine shops, foundries and blast furnaces all stowed away within; there is a constant sound of riveters at work; a faraway, fretful clanging which never ceases. The submarine must be off within twenty-four hours, and the engineers are working at top speed.
Meantime, away, aft, on the quarter deck, beneath the great camouflaged guns, a group of Wren ratings are being coached by a benign white-haired petty-officer lovingly referred to as “Pops.” He has been responsible for training the many Wren boats-crews who have been sent to the naval ports and bases lying all round the coast. Before they can man the motor launches and cutters they must be proficient in such subjects as the elementary theory of navigation, signalling in morse and semaphore and chart reading, boxing the compass, helm orders, and the rule of the road at sea. They must learn to handle various types of craft and to act as coxswain. They must keep their boats “ship-shape and Bristol fashion,” in the traditional style: polishing, scrubbing and swabbing to satisfy the most eagle-eyed Captain. They must also learn a certain amount of engineering, or mechanics.
Hanging over the rail of the ship, I watched the gymnastic tour de force known as manning the boat over the boom. At the word of command they must go over the side, down the iron boom ladder, and out, along the quarter boom, to where the rope ladder dangles over their boat, thirty feet below. The descent must be made in the correct Navy fashion, one foot each side of the rope to break the wind. There must be no shuffling and groping, no hesitation. The sailors do it in thirty seconds, pelting down like monkeys. The Wrens learn to do likewise ― thirty seconds to the tick. The first agonized tryout is a sort of “over the top” moment, dreaded by novices, but sympathetically handled by Pops, who babies them along with humour and praise. When they begin, it takes them a minute and a half, soon reduced to a minute, the final thirty seconds being pared off during the last week.
They must also be able to climb a single rope against some day when no ladders are handy; they do that, too, with the same concentration and determination they put into their chart-reading classes, or all the complications of rope knot-work, which they learn by tying, untying, reefing and twisting with traditional cunning. Then there is their practice on the Signal Bridge, where they learn naval code by means of miniature flag signals, before essaying the thrilling actualities of Visual Signalling at the signal mast itself, bright with all its significant bunting. These boat-crew Wrens sleep ashore, in Wren quarters, some round the harbours, others in one of the first of the old ironclads, now converted into an accommodation ship and quarters. They come out to the depot ship in the motor-boats each day and have their own mess aboard. At first their training was watched with some scepticism by officers and ratings alike. But time has proved their worth. Now, as each successive batch of leaves, a jealous, almost parental pride is visible in the attitude of the ship’s company towards “our girls” as they are always called.
An equal pride is felt in the girls who are manning the Signal station halfway up a loch I shall not name. Their work, which is vitally important, I must not describe. These girls are in sole charge on the station. Their little shipshape Nissen-hut quarters, as snug and trim as any cabins, were built for them as a rush order by men of a Combined-ops, battalion in training up in the hills nearby. Their Wren officer comes by boat to inspect them three times a week. Otherwise, they have one petty officer Wren in charge, who is also the cook and housekeeper. Stores are delivered once a week, from the nearest village and from the naval stores. Seagoing rations mean comforting extras, such as brown sugar, and, oddly, an occasional white loaf, pearly, purely white. Exotic and rare as any orchid these days, but the staple loaf for submarine crews since any other flour is not practicable for keeping. Their time is divided into watches, by day and night. Always some are standing by, ready for the morse flashes which suddenly spark out from the mists and shadows of those northern waters. Morse, semaphore, Naval and International codes, hoisting cones on the signal mast, and working with the 10-inch projector: these are all part of their job. And in their off-hours there is the radio; the three dogs and a kitten; their make and mend evening; sporadic gardening; though flowers and vegetables do not flourish in this harsh shingled beach; and reading – they are avid for any books they can get, so you, reader, why not make up a package now, and send it to the Royal Naval War Libraries, 14 William IV Street, London WC2?
But behind all the apparently serene routine existence, there are inevitable dramas and tragedies of wartime. I watched a Wren signalling a big ship heading for open waters, the sea. It melted into the mists and was gone, as she flashed a last Admiralty order. That ship was joining a battle squadron and her husband was aboard . . . but she did not give it one last glance. She went on, methodically, receiving and transmitting. Dot, dot, dot, dot, dash, went the monotonous code. No time for emotion; this is action; every Wren is at her action station. These are The Women ― today.
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