|A familiar view (author's photo)|
As regular readers of this blog will know by now, I'm a Southeast Londoner, born in Greenwich and continue to be a proud resident of the Royal Borough of Greenwich as we are now honoured to be called.
Centrepiece of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, built between 1696 and 1712 and originally designed to serve as the Greenwich Hospital, a home for retired and disabled sailors, in which role the magnificent buildings served until 1869. It was established as The Royal Naval College in 1873 and was designed to act as a centre for further education of officers - indeed it was described as "The University of The Navy" and over the years became an established part of officer training within the Senior Service. In October 1939, it gained a new function when the training of officers of the Womens Royal Naval Service, the WRNS or Wrens as they were affectionately known, began to be undertaken here.
The WRNS had originally been established in 1917 during the First World War and having been established solely as a wartime expedient, was disbanded in 1919. The coming of a new conflict in 1939 saw the WRNS re-born with a greatly expanded list of duties on offer for new recruits, which included piloting aircraft on ferry duties, acting as mechanics for a vast range of equipment and serving aboard small boats such as harbour launches. In their new incarnation, the Wrens made an invaluable contribution to the running of the Royal Navy.
They were again perhaps seen as a temporary expedient for wartime and one of their wartime recruiting posters which proclaimed "Join the Wrens - and Free a Man for the Fleet" tended to support this feeling. This time however, the sterling work done by the Wrens during wartime, ensured that they had a role to play in the peacetime Navy and the training of new officers continued at Greenwich until 1976. Over the years, the WRNS gradually became more and more integrated within the main service. The first Wrens served at sea from October 1990 in HMS Brilliant and in 1993, achieved complete integration with the Royal Navy when the WRNS was abolished as a separate service.
|Join The Wrens (author's collection)|
Sadly, since the war, a succession of governments have suffered from "sea blindness" and have taken any possible opportunity to slash the defence budget, especially that of the Royal Navy and one of the consequences of this was the closure of the Royal Naval College as a service establishment in 1998. Fortunately, the buildings continue to serve in an educational function, today being home to the University of Greenwich as well as the Trinity Laban College of Music.
To mark the centenary of the establishment of the WRNS and acknowledging the important role played by the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, a special exhibition - WRNS Untold Stories: The Women's Royal Naval Service at Greenwich - is being held at The Visitor Centre until 5 December 2017 and I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to this fascinating exhibition last week.
The exhibition tells the story through a mixture of film, still photography and oral histories of how the Wrens overcame initial skepticism and sometimes downright hostility in a predominantly male environment, to win the respect and affection of their colleagues. During the First World War, they were given menial tasks such as serving as cooks, drivers and telephonists, thus releasing men to serve with the fleet but as mentioned previously, during the WRNS' second incarnation, in the Second World War, the roles given to the Wrens were far more varied and responsible.
|W/T Operator (author's image from the exhibition)|
|Torpedo Wren (author's image from the exhibition)|
To emphasise this growth in the range of roles available, the exhibition is illustrated by some delightful drawings showing some of the new roles given to the young Wrens, which must have seemed completely alien to the vast majority of the new recruits. We also see some newsreel footage of the time shot at Greenwich showing the Wrens in some of their more traditional roles, such as cooking and being taught how to cater for large numbers of hungry sailors. Other new responsibilities for the Wrens included jobs such as Radio Operators, Meterologists, Cypher Officers and Boat Crews.
Sadly, as with all service personnel in wartime, there were casualties and the worst incident came when the ss Aguila bound for Gibraltar, was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of twenty one Wrens who were heading for their first overseas posting as Cypher Officers. The author Nicholas Monsarrat, aluded to this tragedy when he included a similar incident in his masterful novel on the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea.
The wartime training at Greenwich had to contend with the Blitz and the building attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe on several occasions. Perhaps the most notable incident came on 20 January 1943 during one of the so-called Tip and Run raids following the main Night Blitz of 1940-41, when the Admiral's House in King Charles Court was bombed with the loss of life of a Royal Navy Officer, Commander Alexander Reginald Chalmer. This was a day when for some unaccountable reason, the capital's balloon barrage was not deployed and the FW190 fighter-bombers used on the raid were also able to bomb Sandhurst Road School in Catford at low level, killing thirty eight children and six staff. The attackers also machine-gunned the streets of Greenwich and Charlton, with one eye-witness claiming that he could "see the pilot grinning as he gunned up the tram yard."
|The Admiral's House after the bombing on 20 January 1943 (author's collection)|
In 1949 with the war over, it was decided that the WRNS would continue as a part of the peacetime Royal Navy and the exhibition continues to tell the stories of the peacetime training that took place at the Royal Naval College right up until 1976, when the training of Wren officers was transferred to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.
|A group of Wrens being shown around the Painted Hall in 1961 (author's collection)|
|Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS|
The exhibition encourages visits from past members of the WRNS and features a 'Memory Board' at which former Wrens who trained at Greenwich are asked to share their reminiscences and experiences.
The exhibition, to which entry is free and which runs until 5 December 2017, is well worth an hour of anyone's time and I would thoroughly recommend a visit either as part of a wider day spent in Greenwich, or as a stand alone visit.
WRNS Untold Stories website
Red Alert - Lewis Blake, self-published, 1982