Tuesday, 14 January 2014

WW2 un/welcomes to servicewomen on warships

(Wrens were seen as suitable for serving grog ashore, not for drinking it at sea along with shipmates.)

Most people think women were never, ever, on warships in WW2. But I’ve just been to Portsmouth’s National Museum of the Royal Navy to give a very illustrated talk: ‘Grog, darning and gendered un/welcomes; Wrens and QARNNS nurses on WW2 warships.’ (Jan 8)
The point was to discuss the women who were exceptionally given passage on Royal Navy vessels in WW2, as semi-members of the crew. They were either Wrens being evacuated when overseas, or naval nurses (QARNNS) assisting homeward-bound British POWs as the war ended. Their warship was the first available ship that could take them.
For example, Jane Eldridge (below)was on HMS Renown because she was cyphering for Churchill, going to and from the crucial Tehran conference on this fast ship. He needed cypherers and coders with him.
(with thanks to the Association of Wrens: http://www.wrens.org.uk/gallery/?start=54)

Welcomes for these ‘lady intruders’ varied, depending on the time in the war, the seas, and the women’s roles and attitudes. They got in trouble if they asked for grog or got in the way of battle. But they were welcomed if they darned and kept to women’s traditional place.
A large portion of my talk was built around a fascinating 2004 mini-memoir by Mary Sturt (later Pratt) (Recollections of a War-time Wren, part 2,http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/67/a3436067.shtml)


Giving talks is a wonderful activity because of all the expertise you are offered by an audience afterwards. This evening was particularly useful because so many men there had been or were in the Royal Navy. They were able to say how the situation looked from their perspective.
Several sent me follow-up multi-page emails full of background information and advice about where to look for more evidence. The topic could well make an article.
Certainly the new knowledge I’ve gained will feed into the book I’ll be writing for 2017, on the history of women in the Royal Naval service (IB Tauris).
Thank you, everyone, including Radio Solent (Jan 8, the Julian Clegg show) and the Portsmouth News (Jan 13), who interviewed me and gave it publicity.

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