As Features Editor of British Vogue 1937-45 during the Second World War, Lesley Blanch was on the front line of women journalists covering a wide range of topics with the aim of raising the morale of women.
For Remembrance weekend, held to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars, W.R.N.S. on the Job is the first of three special features written by Lesley Blanch documenting the lives of women in the forces, originally accompanied by the photos of her friend the photographer Lee Miller.
It is an indisputable fact that occupations and professions breed their own particular type. There are occupational faces, as there are occupational diseases, except in the case of the bored, spoiled, overfed idler, now fortunately rarely seen, save at luxurious hotels in ‘safe’ areas, where the face, and its accompanying malaise, might be described as non-occupational.
The ostler cannot be mistaken for the chauffeur, though doctors and lawyers, like poets and scientists, often pair indistinguishably. But the soldier, the sailor, and the airman are each distinct and apart front each other.
Already I observe that these type distinctions are crystallising in the women’s services. The W.A.A.F. product is entirely different from that of the A.T.S. The Wrens, in their turn, have produced an individual type: a face, manner and spirit as much their own, and the outcome of navy traditions, as the ‘bell-bottom serge’ uniforms they wear so well.
Officers and ratings are alike in forming this definite Wren type. In abstract, the Wren has a serenity, even a faint austerity, a balanced detachment: a quietness which is not dull, a dignity which is not pompous. They are disciplined rather than dragooned, unified, rather than uniform. And lest these sober eulogies give the impression that the Wrens are smug patterns of female virtue, icily removed from the pleasures and tempo of the times, I hasten to add they are pretty and feminine, as well-groomed as well-dressed, and as concerned with complexion, manicure and hairdressing as any other women, in or out of uniform.
While collecting material for this feature I was fortunate enough to stay in H.M.S. Heron. This is one of the many Fleet Air Arm Training Stations, known as a ship, and run on strictly naval lines, with a Captain in command. But it is a landlocked ship, gone to earth: surrounded by nothing more chopped than ploughed fields, nothing more billowy than green hills. Here there are a prodigious number of personnel: Navy, ‘wavy’ Navy, pilots, technicians, ground staff, blue-jackets and Wrens.
I shall not describe the many kinds of work open to Wrens, or outline their timetable, regulations, pay and prospects. All that is for the asking, if you are interested. The most outstanding fact is that there are Mobile and Immobile Wrens. Immobile ones live at home, and attend their work, each day. Mobile ones live in, like the other women’s services. But since every Wren must start as a rating ― achieving the splendours of the Wren Officers Training College at Greenwich only by her work in such stations as H.M.S. Heron, the ports and faraway naval bases, to which she returns, when she has her commission ― I feel that Greenwich, for all its proud perspectives, its colonnades, ornamentation and history, forms but a brief and transitory period in a Wren’s life: less typical, if more photogenic, than the unvarnished actualities of H.M.S. Heron.
It was a strange, bewildering and shifting scene. A kind of elemental hodge-podge of earth air and water, with the Wrens living up to their motto ‘Never at Sea’ and performing the terre à terre duties, cooking, clerical work, repairs, transport, etc., the pilots and the plane representing the air, and blue-jackets and naval personnel representing the water; yet all merged into a complete and working whole.
I watched the Wrens at work and play. I saw them in the galleys, (they cook for the entire station), charging the batteries, at complicated switchboards, working at decoding, ciphers, morse signals; as ‘ writers,’ on clerical work, as transport drivers, as checkers, going over each intricate piece of the newly-assembled planes. I watched the formalities of pay-day, and saw their strict salute and drill formation change to a scamper as they rushed to the N.A.A.F.I. canteen, for sweets, cakes, face powder . . . I saw them in the airfield, windswept almost off their feet, rustling messages to the pilots.
I saw them packing and repairing parachutes, (Wrens were the first women to do this); it requires strong nerves and hands, and absolute accuracy. I saw the vast white billows of parachute silk, swaying like so many exotic tropic blooms, in the hothouse temperature required to air them. I saw them testing the busty pneumatic lifesaver suits, known, even officially, as Mae Wests. I heard the Petty-Officers “addressing”, (or “dressing down”), delinquents. I saw them bring their personal problems to be sorted out by their understanding First Officer. I saw their dormitories, where each Wren has her own oddments arranged on her chest of drawers . . . china rabbits, photographs, lace mats, flowers . . . flowers everywhere. (I remember a solitary Wren pattering along to an early morning shift, stopping to snick a drooping dahlia — it was eloquent of the Wren organisation, where iron discipline leaves freedom of expression for such an individual, domestic detail.)
And, since this is a woman’s magazine, in point of fact a fashion magazine, let me add how infinitely becoming I think the uniform — particularly the hats, both the tricorne and the roundabout pull-on, for they are adaptable to every wearer and never ape the man. Just how good the Wren ratings’ uniform can look is one of the many points of interest in the new documentary, ‘The Wrens,’ which will be shown in many cinemas almost immediately. There are magnificent shots of such traditional settings as the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, as well as some of the more urgent, operational aspects of their vital work.
With the slackening off of the day’s work, I stopped taking notes, and eyed the scene. A whole town of solidly built huts: giant hangars verging the flying field, daubs of camouflage, some tennis courts: a lot of flowers, complicated and marine-looking flagstaffs, where the colours are saluted with ceremony and bugles, at sunrise and sunset. A whiff of roast and two veg as we passed the galley. A bell-bottom sprinting down the cinder-path to jump a lorry loaded up with late-pass boys and girls jaunting off to the cinema.
A solitary, late ‘plane zooming down out of the dusk, taxi-ing along the tarmac, buzzing like an angry insect, and being coerced into its lair for the night. Dinner in the wardroom, for Wren officers mess with the officers. Good food. Figgy-duff, sustaining bombe bâteau, so to speak. A group of American Ferry Pilots discussing the Marx Brothers with a pretty red-headed Wren. The kindly papa-like geniality of the Commander, who was apologetically waggish that he had never “been up in a parachute.” The starched efficiency of the Wren mess stewards.
Snatches of conversation, shop otherwise . . . “She’s seeing the Captain,” (getting promotion). “He may have been at Matapan, but he’s not safe on a bicycle.” “Don’t you think it would be more chic in pink, Ma’am?” (Wrens always address their senior officer as Ma’am.) The blue-and-white crested china, matching the quilts ranged along the ratings’ dormitories. Wren officers have single cabins; and among the austere, sea-chest furnishings, their crêpe de Chine nightdresses and mules look incongruous, especially luxurious. (Wren ratings sleep in chintz-curtained dormitories, and are allowed to wear their own night things.)
The chocolate leather armchair, and the smoke and the silence of the wardroom after dinner; some Wren officers playing bridge in their own sitting room. The beer and skittles of the Petty Officers’ dance with a slap-up band, potted palms and bunting and the pinwire antics of a visiting Gob, or Yankee sailor, “truckin” and “goin’ to town.” Wrens, and more Wrens, now all in party mood, thinner stockings and their shirt-sleeves rolled up, as all official concession to gaiety. Why does my heart go Boom? ask the band. “See you at the Tree, Saturday,” breathes Able-Seaman Jones to Leading Wren Smith, who nods blissfully. “I’ll get the bikes and pick you up at the Tree tomorrow,” says Lieut. Brown to Third-Officer Robinson. The Tree is a famous trysting place at this station. Symbolically, it is an oak.
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