Fanny Hugill, Legion d’Honneur, D-Day Wren Officer, was born on 22 January 1923.
She died on 28 September 2023 aged 100.
When Third Officer Fanny Gore Browne learnt that General Eisenhower had postponed D-Day by 24 hours because of bad weather, she smiled to herself. She had been rostered for duty as plotting officer at Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay’s headquarters in Southwick House, Portsmouth, for the night of 5/6 June, 1944, the night after the original date set for the invasion. Now she would be plotting the great allied armada as it crossed the Chanel, in Eisenhower’s words, “to embark upon the great crusade … the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and the security for ourselves in a free world”.
Fanny Hugill, as she became on marriage after the war, was one of the last survivors of the group that called themselves “the Ramsay Wrens”. The Women’s Royal Naval Service had originally been raised in 1917 but disbanded in 1919, then re-raised in 1939 to release men for frontline duty. When Admiral Ramsay became naval commander-in-chief for Operation Overlord, the invasion of occupied Europe, the 21-year-old Fanny was appointed to work on final preparations for the invasion.
Fanny Tudor Imogen Gore Browne was born at home in Eaton Square, London, in 1923, the fourth child of Colonel (later Sir) Eric Gore Browne and his wife Imogen, nee Booth. Her father had won the DSO commanding a (Territorial) battalion of the Post Office Rifles during the First World War, afterwards becoming a director of Glyn Mills & Co0, bankers to the Southern Railway, of which he became chairman. Fanny was educated at Camden House School and then Southover Manor School in Sussex, not very happily, and finally at Queen’s Gate, Kensington.
Oxbridge looked possible, but the war diverted her to typing college. Then, to her mother’s perturbation, in 1941 she enlisted in the WRNS. Training included advice on handling men, principally naval ones. “Don’t lead the boys on – you can stop, but they can’t”.
She worked first as a shorthand typist for the admiralty’s chief clothing officer, but although enjoying London socially, the work bored her. One day her father, travelling from Charing Cross in the Southern Railway directors’ compartment, was joined by Ramsay. When he told him of Fanny, Ramsay said that he wanted Wrens but kept being told there weren’t any, and could he have his daughter’s name. A week later an astonished Fanny was told by her divisional officer that she was being posted to Dover, which was being bombed and was under fire from the sea and the French coast.
At Ramsay’s headquarter, dug into the white cliffs near Dover Castle, Fanny was trained in plotting ships’ movements in the Dover Strait, both friendly and enemy, on the operations’ room chart table. There were many visitors: the actor David Niven, who had returned from Hollywood to rejoin the army, charmed the Wrens in his inimitable way, and Fanny caught a glimpse of Churchill, solitary and in his blue siren-suit, gazing towards France.
After promotion to Leading Wren, and although officially still too young to be commissioned, early in 1944 she began officer training. Having thought she had done badly on the course, at her final interview she was asked if she knew what happed at Norfolk House, opposite the Army and Navy Club in St James’s Square, London. She did, but knew that she was not meant to, and said so, adding that it was where the invasion was being planned (by now under Eisenhower’s direct supervision). She was then told by Ramsay, now himself at Norfolk House, had asked for her by name.
The following week she became personal assistant to Ramsay’s logistics deputy, Rear-Admiral William Tennant, who had been senior naval officer ashore at Dunkirk, and captain of the battlecruiser Repulse, sunk by the Japanese in December 1941. There was no more demanding a headquarters in which to work at that time, especially taking notes of meetings with the Americans, who spoke the language differently. In April Ramsay’s staff moved to Southwick House to supervise the final preparations for the invasion. When the armada finally set sail, on June 5, “it was a tense night”, Fanny wrote in her privately printed memoir, Shaken and Stirred. “The mood subdued but confident. Ramsay went to bed to be called at 0500 if all was well, earlier if not … The enemy did very little and the few E-boats which left Cherbourg were attacked and turned back”.
She was one of the first Wrens to move to France, in September once the allies had broken out of Normandy. Later, Ramsay’s headquarters moved to the Chateau d’Hennemont in St Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris, still full of “Boche” stationery and furniture. There in October she met, and soon fell in love with, Lt-Commander Tony Hugill DSC, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, a member of they navy’s No 30 Assault Unit tasked with accompanying forward troops capture naval documents and cyphers. The unit was the brainchild of Commander Ian Fleming, later of James Bond fame, who led it during the invasion. The sugar-planter “Tony Hugill” in one his Bond novels, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), was named, if not actually based, on his former subordinate, who after the war would join the sugar refiners Tate & Lyle and later the main board.
In January 1945 Admiral Ramsay was killed in a plane crash. Fanny knew everyone in the aircraft. “The light went out of our lives”, she wrote. In 2017 she laid flowers on their graves when a plaque in Ramsay’s memory was unveiled at the Chateau d’Hennemont.
After VE Day, the headquarters moved to Minden in Germany, but in 1946 Fanny persuaded the navy to release her so she could marry. She and Hugill were wed that year at St Martin-in-the-Fields off Trafalgar Square, with the reception at the Charing Cross Hotel courtesy of the Southern Railway. Tony Hugill died in 1987. She is survived by their four children; Olivia; Victoria, married for a former army officer and solicitor; Sarah; and Charles, an advertising executive.
Fanny served as “chairman” of the WRNS Benevolent Trust, was a trustee of several other charities and in 2004 was awarded the Legion d’Honneur along with other Normandy veterans. In Debs at War (2006), to which Fanny contributed, Anne de Courcy wrote: “Horrors and tragedy became a commonplace but for all of them the feelings of liberation and self-confidence produced by wartime challenges changed their lives” – patently so for Third Officer Fanny Gore Browne.
The Times 11 October 2023
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