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Scot who fought Nazis as a codebreaking Wren

Barbara Rickmann, Wren and manageress. Born: 8 August, 1925 in Aberdeen. Died: 13 March, 2020 in Dundee, aged 94.

She always said she signed up for the Wrens because she loved a hat and they had the smartest uniform. There was also the small matter of escaping her mother’s dreadful cooking.

But despite the frivolity and wit, there was an intensely important side to Barbara Rickmann’s wartime service, one that took her into the realm of Scotland’s classified operations at the country’s naval air stations.

Having responded to the slogan “Free a Man for the Fleet”, around 75,000 women joined the Wrens to fulfil roles during the Second World War, including as radio operators, meteorologists, cipher officers and coders.

Barbara was among the latter, mastering top secret methods of sending and receiving codes at a Royal Navy signals training centre and going on to work on direction-finding equipment.

The daughter of master cabinet maker William Milne and his wife Frances, she was born in Aberdeen but moved to Dundee at the age of eight. Educated at the city’s Ancrum Road Primary and Logie Secondary schools, she started work in the office of furniture business Fisher Gillies & Co, where her father also worked.

But by 1943, when Barbara turned 18, she was determined to serve her country in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. She left for training at HMS Cabbala in Lowton St Mary’s, Lancashire, with advice from her father and brothers on how to deal with any amorous sailors – not surprising, since there were reportedly roughly 600 men to 60 Wrens on the land-based ship.During a six-month course Wrens, who came from all over the country, had to pass six subjects – procedure, coding, receiving, transmitting, technical and theory – and were trained to send and receive in Morse at up to 25 words a minute. The teenager from Dundee became a coding specialist involved in the classified work of very high-frequency direction finding, nicknamed “huff-duff” and used to pinpoint enemy radio transmissions.

She loved the camaraderie but, when posted to HMS Jackdaw, the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at Crail in November 1944, often found herself on lone duties in a tiny hut along the airstrip. From January 1945 she spent a couple of months at HMS Condor, another naval air station near Arbroath, before returning to Crail until May. 

Around the time of Victory in Europe but while the Allies were still at war with Japan, Barbara was stationed at HMS Sparrowhawk, RNAS Hatston near Kirkwall in Orkney and loved the islands so much that she later returned with her husband.

Demobbed in October 1945 from RNAS Halesworth in Suffolk, she arrived back in Dundee, found a job in the office of the Verdant Works jute mill and met the man she would marry, former Prisoner of War Fred Rickmann. He had been in the Royal Army Medical Corps but was wounded and captured at St Valery in 1940 with much of the 51st Highland Division. Repatriated after a long captivity in Germany, he became a bus conductor and spent all his working life with Dundee Corporation Transport, retiring as an inspector.

The couple married in 1947 and had three children, Fred, Allan and Babs. Barbara worked morning and evenings as a cleaner, so she could be there for her family during the day, and later joined Lyon Brothers jewellers, working as manageress in their Lochee and Hilltown branches. 

She took early retirement following a spell serving school meals to children with special needs.

A keen tap dancer and badminton player, she was also a member of the Order of the Eastern Star and the driving force behind a fitting tribute to the Black Watch, for Armed Forces Day 2014, when National Express Dundee unveiled a single-decker featuring specially commissioned Black Watch tartan livery.

Petite, blonde and seemingly indefatigable, Barbara was president and the last surviving member of the Association of Wrens and of Dundee and District ex-Wrens Club. Although officially decommissioned in 2004, a small group of Dundee Wrens continued to meet each month in a local hotel to swap stories and enjoy the enduring camaraderie that sustained them during their war service. 

She also took part, sharing her wartime experiences, in an audio history project for the frigate HMS Unicorn, one of the world’s oldest ships and headquarters of the senior naval officer in Dundee during both world wars. 

Fittingly, for her 90th birthday, her celebration cake was modelled as a battleship.

Widowed in 1996, she is survived by her two sons and daughter and extended family.

Source: ALISON SHAW, The Scotsman