Excerpt from the memoirs of Valerie Pinker
It was 1946, I was nearly nineteen and I was getting restless about my future. It would be years before I could earn money from my art and my parents were no longer well off. My friend Polly and I were miffed that we had been too young in the war to do anything exciting and we hankered after joining the Women’s Royal Naval Service, affectionately known as the Wrens. Somehow we found out that there was a branch called Aircraft Direction in which there were no female officers, and we talked our parents into letting us apply. We were called for interview at Queen Anne’s Mansions but to my dismay, Polly didn’t turn up on the day. However, I decided that as I was there I must brave it out without her.
Three Naval Officers, smothered in gold braid and a formidable Wren Officer faced me across a wide, highly polished table at the end of a huge room. Although quaking inwardly, all went well until they asked me if I was good at maths. I had to make a split second choice between a barefaced lie or risk being turned down. I didn’t even blush so determined was I to see the world. A date was made for a medical.
The medical was straightforward but I was surprised when I was asked to lie down to be examined. My stomach was pressed and prodded and my appendix scar scrutinized. I was baffled by all this interest in my tummy and it was only much later that it dawned on me that they were checking for pregnancy. They did not need to worry on that score. Mentally my chastity belt was firmly fixed.
A few weeks later the Admiralty instructed me to proceed to Burghfield, near Reading, the initial training camp. At the station a large truck waited with a naval driver and quite a few girls clambered in. After we had been signed-in we were given our cabins – oh, yes, we were in the Navy alright. My cabin mate was a lively, attractive girl called Paddy who is a dear friend to this day. A loud tannoy summoned us to the Quartermaster’s Stores to collect our uniforms.
There was a long queue and first we were measured up and then, horrors, given thick white vests and long black lock-knit knickers, ‘closed at the knee’ according to Regulations but known as Blackouts, followed by black woollen stockings, bras and suspender belts in thick pink cotton. Then there were white shirts, a black tie, jackets and skirts in extremely tickly material and, to top it all, a heavy greatcoat. This was double-breasted and had quite a military swing to it. With our round, flat caps, the whole ensemble could look pretty good if you had a slim figure. And in those days, I was size 10. (Sigh).
Little did we know that the next six weeks were to be an endurance test! Each morning at 0630 a shocking whistle blast followed by a Wakey! Wakey! had us leaping out of our bunks. At 0700 we had to report to the Quarters Petty Officer for our first cleaning duties of the day in the Ablutions Block. Breakfast followed if you still had an appetite, then it was off to our cabins to get them ready for inspection. Every day the bedclothes had to be stripped off and folded with geometric precision and stacked on the bunk. Our uniforms had to be laid out with nothing missing, and the whole cabin spotlessly clean. Woe-betide you if there was a hair in the basin. A posse of Wren Officers and Petty Officers would march into the cabin and if anything was amiss, leave would be stopped. Once this was over, we scurried off to our various duties. I remember polishing acres of floor in what they called the Recreation Space, on my hands and knees. No electric polishers in those days.
So far, cleaning skills seemed to be the main requirement followed by extreme neatness in appearance; hair had to be off the collar at all times and this was one of our greatest trials. The camp hairdresser was kept very busy. Then there were the lectures on naval life where we learnt a whole new language, Daily Orders, splitting the Main Brace, the floor was the deck, canteens were mess decks and leaving the camp was called going ashore. We also needed to know how to recognize various ranks. This was more interesting and we looked forward to putting it into practice. At Burghfield, Wren officers were predominant and saluting them was compulsory, but later in our careers it caused endless amusement to salute our boyfriends.
Every afternoon, a long-suffering (male) Petty Officer would take us for Drill. Each intake of recruits numbered from two to three hundred and we started under a great disadvantage. Just why are we so bad at Left and Right? The P.O. tried everything, rhyming slang and other tips but was often reduced to near despair as, at an order, half of us would peel off in the opposite direction. This, of course would reduce us to helpless giggles and discipline (did I say discipline?) would disintegrate. There was one classic occasion on a route march when half our section went on marching for quite some time having missed an About Turn.
Quite a few recruits gave up on Burghfield and went home, but Paddy and I stuck it out. It was the Ablution Block that was the main bugbear, but we had our sights firmly set on better things. We were given a description of the various Branches in the Navy and discovered there were vacancies in Aircraft Direction Centre in Pembrokeshire. By that time there was a group of us, all keen to stay together and as Passing Out Day loomed, we waited with impatience to hear first, if we had been accepted into the Navy and if we had been selected for the Branch we wanted, and if we would go to Pembrokeshire. I certainly didn’t want to be a cook, or a writer, or even worse, Boats Crew. At last the great day dawned. All was well; our entire group was posted to R.N.A.D.C. KETE, H.M.S. Goldcrest, near Dale, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire. I was let off the Parade as, embarrassingly, I had a large boil under my arm and couldn’t swing my arms properly.
So on 18th November 1946, we all arrived at Kete. It’s an easy date to remember, as it was also Paddy’s birthday; she was eighteen. But also it really was a major turning point of my life.
We were met at the station by naval transport and bumped fifteen miles over Welsh hills, through Dale village and up a long, long hill to the Base, which was on the cliff tops, near St Anne’s Head. Once we were officially passed through the Guards at the Gate, we were trundled down to Wrens Quarters to report to the Chief Officer and be signed in. This was in the Wrens gatehouse just inside a perimeter fence ten feet high designed to keep us safe from marauding sailors. The Wrens slept in long Nissen huts. We were taken to Cabin 88 and we had it all to ourselves. Halfway up there was a big, black stove and its warmth was very welcoming even though we had to become instant stokers, fetching the coke in from bunkers across the square. It was dark by now, but even though we were pretty exhausted from the long journey, we were much too excited to go to sleep. A kettle was found and somehow we got some cocoa going. Bunks, chests of drawers and hanging cupboards were all round the hut, with tables up the middle and there was a lot of pushing around, deciding which bunks we wanted, who was going to sleep up top, who in the bottom. Kitbags were unpacked, photos
appeared, and finally we explored the block to find the bathrooms and loos. The hot water had long gone for the day, and in any case, there wasn’t a bath plug to be seen. Lesson number one; always carry your own bath plug.
It couldn’t have been very easy to sleep that first night. Those bunks were narrow, some girls were restless and talking in their sleep, some snored, but I suppose that all those years at boarding school made it easier for me. It was the same for Paddy. She was in the bottom bunk, I was up top.
Next morning after breakfast a friendly Wren Petty Officer introduced herself, Hazel Ditcham, and told us she would be moving into the room next to the cabin door to the corridor that linked us to all the other cabins. She was Aircraft Direction category, known as A.D. and would be involved with our training and general welfare. The first thing we had to do was to go up to Stores and get kitted out for life at Kete.
We were issued with ramshackle old bikes, all with crossbars, of course. In spite of thousands of Wrens in the service Their Lordships still turned a blind eye to the fact that there are two sexes. In order to ride the bikes we were given bell-bottoms, known as bells, and seamen’s jerseys, and thick white knee-length socks to wear inside our boots. Everything was man-sized and I was kept very busy shortening everybody’s bells while off-duty, usually being paid with sweet coupons! Oh, yes, that sweet tooth of mine has been with me from the beginning.
Next was a guided tour around the camp. Quite a distance from the training huts were the quarters for the Wrens, Officers and non-commissioned ranks. Then there were the various messes and recreational huts, radar buildings, the Met centre and the cinema, and then there was the Sick Bay.
By now, the boil in my armpit was as big as a ping-pong ball and I could no longer ignore it. I had been so determined to get to Kete, I hadn’t made too much of a fuss at Burghfield, but now it was really getting to me. The size of the lump caused a stir at Sick Bay and they decided it must be lanced without delay. I was stretched out on one of the iron beds and I lay quivering as Bones (Navy for doctor) advanced towards me with what looked like an instrument of medieval torture. I was punctured, drained and left bandaged up to recover.
My first visitor was Paddy and she brought a letter from Malcolm. Great excitement. He wrote that he would be coming over to see me early in the new year. Paddy was bursting to tell me about the first day of training. Incredibly, we would eventually train Navigation Officers in intercepting enemy aircraft, using radar. Shock. Mindboggling. What? Us girls? Fresh out of school, teach officers how to shoot down enemy planes?! The same officers having been in the war and had quite a few years of naval experience anyway? “No, no, said Paddy, we train the Navigators how to direct the pilots to intercept the said enemy planes.” During the war our aircraft carriers had been fitted out with radar sets, then fairly rudimentary, and Direction Officers presided over their operations. Now the Admiralty had decided to set up the training centre ashore and that was Kete. You may wonder why enemy aircraft were still a possibility when we had won the war, but it had all been such a massive conflagration, I suppose there were worries that embers were still burning somewhere and that wars in the future were inevitable.
When the abscess had more or less healed up I was sent on sick leave, followed by Christmas, and I was a bit worried about catching up on all the training I was missing. Back at Kete I plunged headlong into a crash course on Radio Transmitter language which we were expected to quickly master – Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, etc. We would sit in individual cubicles, wearing headsets and taken through situations with imaginary pilots. ‘Angels’ meant height in thousands of feet, ‘Bandits’ were enemy aircraft, ‘Roger’ was Message Received, and a lot more to learn. The officer in charge of this exercise was George E., the most randy man I’ve met, before or since. He would fire off at us and we were supposed to make responses and issue directions in fluent R.T. language. If you got stuck or defeated, George would come into your cubicle and, provided you didn’t look like the back end of a bus, start exercising his charm. “Now, I’m not going to shout at you, although you obviously haven’t been working on your R.T., but let’s just see how I can make this a bit easier for you. Take off your headset and tell me your name and what are you doing tonight?”
Then there were the Radar plotting huts with skiatrons – circular tables with an electronic radar picture on top – upon which aircraft tracks are plotted and planned, and directions issued to the A.D.s
sitting behind a huge perspex screen called the M.A.D.P. We had to draw the plots in reverse, with reversed figures and letters, which came through our headphones.
Other Staff officers were around and one of our favourites was Don Sealey. He was a young Lieutenant, on the training Staff, easy-going and never seemed to mind if we got into a muddle, and if the weather was bad and exercises cancelled, he’d let us sit behind the M.A.D.P. and do our knitting, and bring our buns and tea in from the van that came round at ‘stand-easy,’ and we would get him to tell us about the next dance, or what was coming on at the camp cinema as he was the all important Entertainments Officer.
Every other Friday it was payday. You wouldn’t believe how little our pay was. At Burghfield it was fifteen shillings a week. That’s 75p in today’s money, although with inflation it would have equated to about £50 now. We were paid fortnightly. How well I remember that first pay parade, marching up to the pay desk, saluting and solemnly accepting the brown envelope with thirty shillings in it. Not long after I arrived at Kete the pay went up significantly to something like twenty-five shillings a week. A lot of mine went on the N.A.A.F.I. canteen. If the food in the mess had been particularly inedible, you could get baked beans and a fried egg for about a shilling.
We had coupons for Nutty (Navy for sweets) and we soon became very skillful at spending them several times over. I was no intellectual snob, but the girls Their Lordships had recruited for the N.A.A.F.I. seemed to be slower on the uptake than a child in their first year at infant school. We would saunter up to the counter, flip open our book of coupons and ask the girl to see if anything new had come in. She’d come back from the stores, we’d slap down the money, and somewhere in the back of her mind the sight of our coupons would have registered enough to think she had taken them. You couldn’t call it stealing, it was just sheer necessity to keep our morale up.
In actual fact, the food in the Mess wasn’t all that bad; it was the smell of the galley that spoilt things. We’d queue up at a long counter to pick up our nosh, which could be stew, toad-in-the-hole, bacon and eggs, fish, all with chips. Best of all were kidneys in thick brown gravy on fried bread. I still love it today but have never been able to enthuse my family. The puddings were spotted dick or treacle tart smothered in custard. All good canteen stuff, but appetites were strong and again, the greedy amongst us, which included me, could con the servers into giving us meals twice over by merely removing our caps the second time we queued up. Never an ounce of fat did I put on – I was 34-23-33. Those were the days. I remember lying in the bath, looking down at my flat tummy and yes, I did rejoice. Actually, there weren’t many plump wrens around, probably because of our food-rationed youth, though some of the cooks were rather rotund.
I can recall quite a few names at Kete. In Cabin 88, there was Liz Saunders, with a lovely soft Scottish accent, but who also could be screamingly funny, Eileen Spotteswood, Jennifer Paterson, a bit of a scatterbrain, Olwen Davies, very Welsh, Denise, very pretty, Benny, another clown, Joan Dent, Jean Elliott, Pam Griffiths, Alma Bush, Pauline Boreham, Toni Whytehead, June Norris and Pat Riggs-Miller, whom we called Riggs, fresh from Southern Ireland and the most enormous fun, and Joan Winstone, very blonde and glamorous. I was nicknamed Larry – there was a show running then in the West End called ‘Happy as Larry’ and as it seems I was always smiling and giggling, and it was phonetically the second half of my first name. I quite liked it. Paddy and Toni, and Riggs call me Larry to this day.
Soon we knew most of the Staff Officers by their first names, and then there were the Course Officers. They were Navigators and came for three months and then went on to Dryad, a kind of H.Q. Of course, our particular Wren world revolved around the arrival of the latest Courses. Spies would be filtered-in to the Personnel Section and advanced details scrounged about the next batch. Important particulars like names, ages, nationalities, and above all, marital status were gleaned. Some were from India, Australia and New Zealand. The first day these victims appeared in the training huts (called models) they would be subjected to the most intense scrutiny from behind the M.A.D.P.s, and be pronounced good-looking, interesting, fun (which nowadays would be sexy) or downright boring. When there was a lull, the N.A.F.F.I. van would pull up outside, dispense tea and sticky buns, the lights would go on and the new Course would then have a chance to inspect us. Many a liaison was hatched by the van or in the models.
By then in the spring of 1947, my ‘love affair’ with Malcolm had withered away. He never did make it to Dale, and I was as ready to play the field as were my friends, mainly Paddy, Toni, Riggs, June and Pauline.
Every evening some kind of entertainment would be put on. Dances were on Saturdays and were in our part of the camp and supposed to be for other ranks only; Officers were not allowed to fraternize with the Wrens. Their Lordships must have been living on another planet. So everyone came to the dances and fraternizing happened all the time. Of course, Kete was rather a special case – we were so isolated being fifteen miles cross-country from Haverfordwest (known as Harrywestus) and the only way we could get there was by naval transport on Saturdays, and they left town at 6.00p.m. If you were lucky enough to have a boyfriend with a car, and money, you would be taken to The Mariners in Harrywestus and you’d really be one up.
The camp cinema doubled up as a dance hall, too, and films were put on two or three times a week. There would be much banging and scraping of chairs as we pulled them out into rows, checking out who from the Course had come in and making sure that we were in good sighting distance of any we had marked down as desirable targets. Glenn Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’ was invariably played just before the show started. If ever I hear that played now, I’m straight back in that hangar with a large lump in my throat.
Evening classes were carried on in one of the smaller huts, run by the Education Branch and I tried my hand at leatherwork as the issued leather was so cheap and I had ambitions to make a beautiful handbag, but compared to sewing it was so slow and the end result was a rather tired purse.
There was a squash court next to the camp chapel, and one evening after trying to play squash with Pauline, I heard someone playing the piano in the chapel. It was Hugo Huntingdon-Whitely (I think he was a Baronet). Hugo was a pale, aesthetic looking, old-Etonian and a great music lover. He ran the Music Circle once a week and I became a regular.
My friends teased me. They thought HH-W was completely eccentric. He didn’t go to the cinema or dances, in fact he had never been known to go out with anyone. This was an intriguing challenge! He was on the Staff, and one day, to my great delight, I got a message to go to the Drawing Office to see him. He wore wavy gold braid on his sleeves but I wasn’t aware of the significance of that till much later. Apart from being involved in the training programme he was in charge of the Drawing Office and needed an assistant. He’d heard on the grapevine that I had been at art school and here I was, just where I wanted to be, with Hugo, alone. I don’t remember doing much drawing, but we got on well.
Of course, he was way above me as far as music was concerned. Luckily for me, I could play a little Chopin whose music was one of Hugo’s passions and our romance blossomed in the camp chapel where he’d play to me.
He had a car and we started to explore the countryside. We went up to St. David’s and rambled round the Cathedral, and once we went much further afield to the Prescelly Mountains. On my return from each outing, the girls would cross-examine me minutely, “Where did you go?” and “Did he hold your hand?” and, “No, did you really go to The Mariners?” The affair progressed gently and it seemed some time before I could truthfully say that Hugo had kissed me. My letters home were full of Hugo.
Meanwhile as spring arrived and the weather improved, we were sent out onto the sports field next to the training huts. At weekends, football, rugger, hockey and cricket were played in season, but during the week, weather permitting, it was used for the most bizarre form of training you could imagine. You won’t believe this, but it was all done on very large tricycles (shades of pre-war Wall’s Ice Cream) with perspex canopies and R.T. headsets, complete with compass settings on the steering wheel. We were the pilots and we were being directed by the N.D.s (Navigation & Direction Officers) in the nearest hut. You can imagine the most enormous fun we had – one minute I would be vectored onto Paddy, then attacked from behind by June, June driven off by Riggs and then, perhaps two of us pedalling madly off to the far boundary as the R.T. broke down and we were pronounced lost.
One Saturday, us Wrens were asked if they would like to play in a mixed hockey team and there weren’t many volunteers. At my school we played lacrosse where you hold your stick high, but it didn’t occur to me that on the hockey field that became an extremely dangerous habit. The men hit the ball so fast and hard, we spent most of the time hopping out of the way, but in desperation I
tackled a P.O. as he was about to score the umpteenth goal and, as his head came up, it hit my stick. Anyway, that was my story. The game had to stop as he was stretchered-off to Sick Bay, bleeding profusely. Later, after he’d regained consciousness I went to visit him to offer my apologies and a bit of my precious Nutty ration, but his pride had been irreparably damaged. To be knocked out by a Wren, bloody hell. He wasn’t going to forgive me.
Then I was dragged into playing cricket. I don’t know why I had this reputation for being good at sports, but this time the real truth emerged. When I was put on to bowl, the first ball trickled to an ignominious stop halfway down the wicket.
Notwithstanding this, when it came to a Wren’s shooting team, Wren Gowland was summoned again and we lay on our tummies shooting at rather distant targets. This time I managed not to kill anyone and did quite well. I’ve got a feeling that we were going to compete with the W.A.A.F. team from Brawdy, not far from Kete. We went to a few dances there but climbing in and out of Transport in your best party dress, negotiating puddles in the dark and mixing with beings from another planet wasn’t much fun. There was an Army camp at Manorbier and they asked us to dances, but as far as we were concerned, Kete was where the interesting men were.
As we could wear ‘Civvies’ to the dances, we were always on the hunt for something different to wear in case we needed to dazzle admirers. If you put in a request on Friday night, you could pile into a Transport on Saturday morning and spend the day in Harrywestus. We would comb the shops for nylon stockings (no tights in those days) but they were like gold dust. Often we’d draw a blank on our shopping trips and would repair to cafés for tea and cream cakes. I spent precious coupons on dress materials and ran up blouses and skirts on the one sewing machine on the camp. One day, a package arrived from my father; he’d found some nylons on a business trip to Paris. They were sheer, almost glass-like, and I had to guard them carefully as they were the cause of much ill-concealed envy. Black silk stockings were also a much-desired item; we hated the issued black woollen ones so much.
As summer went on, at weekends we made a beeline for the beaches, some were within walking distance of the camp. The Pembrokeshire coast is beautiful, with high cliffs and white sand. I’ve got snaps of Paddy, Toni, June and I, posed against the rocks, all in one-piece swimsuits, of course, in brilliant sunshine. Hugo and I had a wonderful day, once, at Littlehaven, picnicking amongst the rocks and having the whole beach to ourselves.
One day we were working in the Models when a different voice came over my R.T. It was being extremely rude to me. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” it said. I was outraged. I took off my headset and plaintively summoned George to the rescue. He put on my headset and immediately identified the monster. “That’s Dumbo,” he said. “Watch out, he’s back.” Minutes later the door was flung open and a stocky figure stamped up to the mock bridge and demanded to know which Wren was messing up the exercise. George covered for me though I was a bit worried as to the price I’d have to pay. Later I discovered that Dumbo was universally feared and unpopular. He was Lieutenant Brownrigg and had been away on a long course. I complained about him to Hugo who said he couldn’t stand the man. Dumbo was the Mess Secretary and didn’t seem to get on with anyone.
One weekend I took Hugo home to meet my parents – they were somewhat baffled to find that I was attracted to such an intellectual man, but found him absolutely charming. We went for a walk in the country and at one point were confronted by a field full of cows. I couldn’t be persuaded to get over the stile. So, Hugo went into the cows’ field and I walked along the other side of the hedge. As I got to the end, I heard shouting. Hugo was backing into the hedge, waving a stick as the cows converged upon him, and had to escape over to my side where I was helpless with laughter.
It was decided that the A.D. Wrens should experience flying and see what it’s like to be on the pilot’s side of aircraft direction. Looking at my snaps I see that it was probable that Geoff Bagnall took Riggs up and as Frank Ireland has his arm round Paddy, I suppose she went up with him. I can’t remember who was my unfortunate pilot. We were the last to take off and even though I was pretty terrified (there seemed to be a lot of string holding things together) and problems arose when we were coming back to base and losing height. My ears really started to hurt. It was so bad we had to go up again, and this went on for a bit. In the end, I just had to endure landing and it wasn’t much fun being the target of snide remarks on the length of our flight while I was still in agony. Not long
after that we were asked if we’d like to try gliding and the boys swore blind that my ears wouldn’t hurt as gliders fly so low. I should say so! After we’d crossed the coastline and flown out to sea, we came back again over the cliffs and I was convinced that I was staring death in the face, we were so low. But I must say, when we were up above the countryside, it was lovely, engineless and I’ll never forget the sound of the wind.
Back at Kete, Paddy was getting involved with a very nice, young, fair-haired two-striper called Paul Satow, one of the latest Course. He was posted to Culdrose, a Royal Navy Air Station near Helston in Cornwall, and Paddy followed him. We all missed her very much, especially me and June, who moved into the bunk below me.
Then I had another blow; those wavy gold chains on Hugo’s sleeves denoted that he was in the Royal Navy Reserve, only serving for a few years and it was time for him to leave. He was only twenty-three and had done his time. I believe he went into music publishing. I was pretty heart-broken and life took on a grey tinge. I would walk past the drawing office with a heavy heart. The annual dance in the Officers’ Mess was looming and I was in danger of missing out.
One day I had a message to see the Mess Secretary – the dreaded Dumbo, no less. To be fair, quite a few people called him Brownie now and he appeared to be mellowing out a bit. However he still maintained his reputation for being a misogynist, although Rafferty, a really exotic Steward, maintained that he was really sweet once you got to know him. It transpired that he had heard rumour of my sewing prowess and wanted to know if I would make up the Wardroom curtains. Part of the deal would be that I could have the old ones for Cabin 88 and they would be a huge improvement. He set up a big table in his office and with Hugo gone my Sundays were now free. Also, I was so desperate to go to the dance I saw this was a chance to get invited. Yes, indeed, I truly must have been desperate. All my friends thought I was quite mad to have anything to do with him, but Rafferty egged me on. She said he was so lonely, not having any family… Whenever I heard that anyone was sad or lonely, I had this irresistible urge to cheer them up, probably even if they didn’t want to be cheered up, but there I’d be, beavering away to convince them that life could be so exciting, etc. etc. When I was growing up I used to daydream about starting up an orphanage.
I was obviously making an impression and I was flattered. Here was a Staff Officer, a misogynist to boot, who actually chose to sit behind me in the cinema, who flirted with me, in a very low-key way, admittedly, in the plotting huts and who eventually, invited me to the Mess Dance. I accepted in case there was no other offer. The current Course must have been very dull or married. The dance spurred him on and he took me out to dinner at The Mariners. I asked him what his real name was and the reply was unbelievably awful. Cecil. Who could possibly fall in love with a Cecil?
Another development was that Their Lordships ruled that A.D. Wrens should take on duties in the Radar buildings and learn how to operate radar sets. It all sounded a bit daunting and the sailors weren’t too pleased that their job was considered to be within the capabilities of those “scatterbrained, toffee-nosed A.D.s.” I felt completely defeated when I found myself sitting in front of so many flashing lights and dozens of buttons and switches. However, we soon discovered that there were only a few vital things to know and then we could get on with our knitting.
One day I was in the Wren gatehouse and reading the list of new arrivals when I was stunned to see the name Pigou. I couldn’t believe that my old enemy from school had followed me all the way from to Kete. She couldn’t have been too pleased to discover that MET personnel, of which she was one, were considered to be a boring lot of people – I mean, who wants to build their lives round telling us how awful the weather is going to be? I must have still felt a bit threatened by her and took a certain amount of pleasure in letting my friends know that her nickname at school was Piggy. When I sought her out I discovered that the duckling had grown into a swan and she had become an extremely attractive girl who was actually quite fun. Eventually she married someone who became an admiral.
Another Staff Officer, Phillip O’Rourke, shared an office with Brownie, and he was quite an ally. He and Pauline were an item then and sometimes we made a foursome. (Some years later I met him again in Australia and he had married the sister of one of the girls at my school, Thornton Convent. Life has so many intricate patterns. I learnt that Brownie’s father had been killed before Brownie was born, but his mother had married again and Tom Phillips became a very distinguished Admiral who
went down with H.M.S. Prince of Wales off Singapore in the war. When I asked Brownie about his step-father, he spoke of him with great affection and said that he had treated him and his brother as his own. His older brother Jack had also been killed when the Japs took Singapore. There was no mention of his mother.
I felt more and more compassion for him. By this time I had decided to call him Gene as I liked Gene Kelly, although he looked really more like Claude Raines, but Claude as a name was just as awful as Cecil. Having no home of his own, Gene spent his leaves with a family friend from the past, Major Gerald Abraham; he had worked at the League of Nations before the war with Tom Phillips.
My family wanted to inspect this love’s young dream and we drove up in Gene’s treasured soft-topped Morris Minor. My parents did not take to him at all – he was nine years older than me to start with and they just couldn’t understand what I saw in him. I tried to explain that he was really nice when you got to know him, but they weren’t convinced. By that time they had moved to a lovely old farmhouse in Beachampton, in very rural Bucks. Chesham Bois had proved to be a bit too suburban for them. My sister, Ann was riding a lot and my brother Nigel was only interested in shooting – mostly uninvited on other people’s land, so he was a worry. Gene just didn’t fit in. But the family I think must have decided that if they voiced their doubts to me, it would only spur me on. Or, perhaps like Hugo, he would be posted elsewhere at some point soon.
One day, I was working in one of the plotting huts, opposite Gene when, during a lull in the proceedings, he went down on one knee and, very uncharacteristically, smote his chest, swearing undying love. It was all rather public and startling. However, when he tried to get up, several enemy aircraft having inconveniently appeared, he couldn’t, and announcing that he was stuck, collapsed with a low moan. I was convulsed with giggles and disbelief and the poor man was in agony for a while before I realized that he wasn’t fooling. Sick Bay was summoned and he was carried out on a stretcher. The cartilage in his knee had given up and he was removed to Haslar, the Naval Hospital in Gosport, Hampshire. He had a very painful operation and was on morphine for a while. His days as the wicket-keeping captain in the Navy cricket team were over. He wrote to say he had been about to propose before he left Kete and “How about it?” Romance never was his strong point, but by this time I really believed I was in love with him, and we became engaged. He was appointed to Dryad in Hampshire but what was much more exciting, he was to be on loan to the Australian Navy to train N.D.s on their aircraft carrier, H.M.A.S. Australia in 1949, and it was to be an accompanied posting. Paddy has said this is why I really married him. I wanted to travel. She was alarmed when I told her of my engagement. She and Paul were to be married in June 1948.
Meanwhile a new Course arrived in Kete. Here was the most lively and interesting lot that it had ever been our luck to meet. They seemed equally delighted with us and many a liaison was struck up within a very short time. Officially, of course, I was out of the running. I was flashing my diamond and sapphire ring, fresh from the famous Ogden’s jewellers in Burlington Arcade, bought on our last leave, but there were lots of men on this course and I was soon persuaded to join the social whirl. One chap, Peter H. was a delight. He had a fantastic sense of humour, which seemed to trigger off mine, and together we caused mayhem during naval exercises and were frequently being told off. Peter and I got on like a house on fire and at the end of three months, he was hinting at undeclared love, and we were in quite a confused state of mind.
How silly I was. Mistakenly, I was clinging to what I thought would be security and the beckoning adventure of Australia. Peter had a heart of gold, everyone loved him and I should have realized that the mere fact that I enjoyed his company so much and hardly missed Gene at all, was a danger signal.
Anyway, Peter and his crowd departed amongst tearstained farewells, and I had to reassure Gene that my heart was still his. I had told him about Peter and probably others had supplied more details, as he asked me very seriously if I still wanted to go on with our engagement. I thought it would be too difficult to turn back, wedding arrangements were in hand and I felt I couldn’t hurt my poor orphan man.
Their Lordships saw that Domestic Training courses were available for engaged Wrens, and these took place in Titchfield, not all that far from Dryad, whence I was dispatched. The war had been over only a few years, and rationing was still very strict. Few of the girls had had much opportunity to cook, but as there was so little food to learn with, we had to split into groups of three per recipe. I
learnt how to make a third of a chocolate cake and a third of macaroni cheese. Later this resulted in Gene and I eating macaroni cheese for the first three months of our marriage. We didn’t have enough sugar coupons for chocolate cake. Not a good culinary start to our new life.
At Titchfield it became obvious that Their Lordships had been so busy in the War, they hadn’t realized that on the domestic front, things had changed. We were solemnly taught how to operate a copper boiler, and an enormous wringer, which would deal with all the white shirts. Many hours were spent on how to iron the said shirts and press uniforms. Why on earth didn’t I recognize the mould I was being pressed into? A compliant naval wife, dutifully ironing mounds of uniforms, gaily smiling farewell to husband leaving for exotic climes, while she stayed at home, existing on near-breadline allowances, usually having to find her own accommodation. The Army and the R.A.F. provided married quarters, even when husbands were overseas, but the Navy never did.
So there weren’t many laughs at Titchfield, apart from the time Gene took me to a fair at Southsea and on one of the great wheels, just as we got to the top, the power failed and we were stuck for ages. When I eventually stumbled into Wrens quarters, very late, the P.O. said she had heard some excuses in her time, but this took the biscuit.
Paddy and Paul got married in Portsmouth and I was a bridesmaid. I seem to remember making mine and the other bridesmaid dresses for Paddy’s younger sisters. Gene was reluctantly invited. While I was helping her to get dressed she had another go at me, “How CAN you marry that awful man?” I told her, with stars in my eyes, that no one understood him like I did, that he was lovely really, and it would be so exciting to go to Australia, and what a relief it was not to have to think about how to earn a living when I left the Wrens. I still had a complete lack of confidence in my abilities in spite of being on the scroll of honour at Thornton. It hadn’t been helped by my mother, in latter years, sighing and saying mournfully, “Yes, but what are you going to DO?”
Gene had booked us in to The Queen’s Hotel for two rooms and later that night he knocked on my door. Cautiously, I let him in and I began to get the gist of what sex was all about, though miraculously I hung on to my honour in spite of urgent requests to stay the night. This was rather surprising as Gene had always been emphatic about saving himself for marriage and expecting his intended to do the same. I had great expectations of our wedding night; it would be incredibly romantic, of course. Somewhere in my psyche, I was Jane and he was Rochester, or Max de Winter.
Back I went to Kete to get on with making my trousseau, mostly summer dresses for Australia. My off-duty clothes were pretty sparse, but I do remember feeling good in some brilliant, puce pink wool trousers, and a chestnut coloured wool suit bought with birthday money the previous year. The skirt was pencil slim and the fitted jacket flared out at the waist into a peplum. That was high fashion. On one of my leaves I had managed to track down a pair of the much-coveted wedge heeled shoes, by Joyce, from America.
The time came to say goodbye to all my friends and it was quite a wrench. Riggs had left some time before to marry an army chap she had met pre-Kete, and Toni had been posted to Sheerness, but June and Pauline were still at Kete and they were to be my bridesmaids, my sister Ann having flatly refused. It had all been such a great experience and I hoped very much that we would all keep in touch.
There had been other characters at Kete I haven’t mentioned; David Attenborough, another R.N.R., was there in my first year. I remember dancing with him at one of the camp hops and asking him what he was going to do when he left the Navy. “As long as it has something to do with animals,” he said, “I’ll be happy.” Then there was Commander Knight (Bogey to us) who became, I believe, years later, Director of the Battersea Dogs home. Red Merson, an Australian on Peter H’s course, was very fiery and bombastic. He rose through the ranks to be an admiral.
Many years later I met another Kete Wren by an extraordinary coincidence. My daughter, Anthe, and her fiancé (No. 1) were sharing a flat with a friend, Peter Coast. One evening, Peter and Anthe discovered that both their mothers had been Wrens, at Kete at the same time. When Anthe told me, I recognized the name at once, Audrey Green, a very attractive, amusing A.D., she had arrived at Kete just before our lot and because she could type, sometimes she would work in the Captain’s Office. Audrey was in a different Cabin and her great friend was Sally Russell, one of the original
A.D.s who had served overseas and who, with several others like her, helped with our training. Sally was beautiful and had legions of admirers.
Even now, all these many, many years later, I do so enjoy reminiscing about those times with all the great chums I made at Kete.
|Thanks to Ianthe Blake for this very interesting submission.
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