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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Wrens at Work

Wrens at Work

THE MOST URGENT naval requirement in mid-1942 was in the signals department. The first Wrens were trained in various types of communications work and immediately began that successful invasion of this branch which might have been predicted from the previous achievements of women in the Post and Telegraph Department. Eventually a substantial proportion of the Wrens acted as visual signallers, coders, or telegraphists at larger and smaller ports and at the Waiouru naval wireless telegraph station. Similar full use of Wrens was made in naval accounting and stores work, while women replaced men entirely as cooks and stewards in officers’ quarters and in some smaller naval establishments.

The Wrens soon proved themselves in work which had not previously been undertaken in New Zealand by women. In Auckland both the city and the Navy were equally astonished and delighted by the smartly turned out Wren crew of the Commodore’s barge. This launch was kept in a state of smartness worthy of the best traditions of the Service and was handled on the water with grace and assurance. One degaussing range was also taken over entirely by Wrens, including the launch which ran out to ships, and the necessary technical work was capably performed by a Wren officer. Wrens operated the D.E.M.S. (Defensively Equipped Merchant Shipping) cinema projector, and a Wren acted as instructor in the ‘dome’ where films were shown to male ratings as part of their gunnery training before they joined the gun crews of merchant ships. Other Wrens were trained to operate radar equipment and took over watch-keeping duties.

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Wrens served as dental and sick-bay attendants, drove naval motor transport, worked in the torpedo branch (highly skilled and specialised work), and replaced men on equal terms in a variety of exacting tasks. At Wellington four Wrens gained commissions and took over from male watch-keeping officers in the merchant shipping office ‘very important operational work’. Wrens acted as plotters in naval óperations and in the control room of the direction-finding network. A group of Wrens at Blenheim was engaged in ‘very highly specialised and secret work’ independent of male control.

In Wellington a hostel was established for fifty Wrens; it was afterwards enlarged. In Auckland a similar number was accommodated in a private hotel taken over by the Service, and later some were lodged in barracks vacated by the Army. The nature of their duties scattered many Wrens here and there in groups of eight or twelve, and they lived in small houses, bought or rented for the purpose, close to their work. These Wrens did their own housework, cooking, and housekeeping besides their service duties.

Morale was always very high. The slow method of recruitment, ensuring that no one entered the Service until she had a definite job to go to, made every new entrant feel that she was not only wanted in the Navy but eagerly awaited. (The Director of the W.R.N.Z.N.S. once expressed her regret that the system sometimes resulted in the loss to the Service of some valuable recruits ‘who could not or would not wait’.) Nearly all entrants, beginning their career as probationary Wrens, went through a fortnight’s disciplinary training at H.M.N.Z.S. Philomel ‘to learn something of naval customs, traditions, procedure and generally acquiring the art of behaving like a Wren’. After this preliminary training most women either began specialist courses or immediately plunged into the job itself.

Everything possible was done to help Wrens get adequate exercise and recreation when off duty, although those stationed in the main ports had, of course, the best opportunities. The W.R.N.Z.N.S. sports clubs overcame considerable difficulties in their early stages caused by the current shortages of most sports equipment. When they were unable to buy gear for hockey, basketball, and other sports, they were usually able to borrow it; later, better supplies were available. The Wellington sports club soon found its main summer attraction in sailing, in an ‘Idle-Along’ yacht and a whaler.

The gaiety, contentment, and good sense which pervaded the W.R.N.Z.N.S. are seen clearly in the small cyclostyled magazine produced at irregular intervals, with its record of sport, its occasional touches of satire (Wrens joining a very ‘hush-hush’ shore station found that even the local schoolchildren knew all about its functions), and its cheerful humour. But perhaps the greatest achievement of the members of the W.R.N.Z.N.S. was to merge themselves so completely and almost indistinguishably in a service of strongly masculine bias; they entered thoroughly into its spirit, and made their own excellent contribution to it without changing its character or being themselves changed by it.