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Colourised photo of two Wrens reassembling a pom-pom gun in WWII

Wrens: The history of the Women's Royal Naval Service

Image: Two Wrens reassembling a pom-pom gun during WWII | Public Domain

U-Boat Wargamers tells the story of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) who helped take down Germany's fearsome U-boats. The show airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY.

The Women's Royal Naval Service was formed in 1917. With the initials WRNS, they quickly became known as the Wrens and they made a significant contribution to both the First and Second World Wars. The WRNS remained an important part of the armed forces until it became amalgamated with the Royal Navy in 1993.

When were the Wrens founded?

The First Lord Admiral invited Dame Katharine Furse to form a Naval organisation for women. In 1917, the Women's Royal Naval Service was formed, and on 29th November, George V approved the formation of the WRNS to support the admiralty when needed.

Their roles were initially limited to clerical and domestic duties, but in time WRNS officers took on roles such as secretaries to admirals, telephone positions, writers and other essential shore-based jobs across the service. In time they began to take on formerly male-only roles, such as aircraft handling.

By the end of the First World War, there were 5,500 members of the Wrens, and sadly one life had been lost, Josephine Carr of Cork, who died when the RMS Leinster was torpedoed. The WRNS was disbanded in 1919.

The Wrens and World War Two

After the declaration of the Second World War, WRNS was brought back into action with Vera Laughton Matthews as the service's director. Their services and activities expanded significantly, with women able to fly, transport planes and play a more direct role in winning the war.

Conscription of women

By 1941 the need for more people to contribute and do their part for the war effort meant the government passed the National Service Act. This allowed the conscription of women into war-related work in the armed forces. Women had a choice between joining the Wrens or the army or naval equivalents.

Initially, single women and those without children aged 19 to 30 were called up, but they quickly increased the age limit to 43. Women from all backgrounds were in roles they would never have considered or been allowed to consider before the war.

Tactical masterminds in the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU)

The Western Approaches Tactical Unit utilised the skills of the Wrens to build better naval strategies. It was created in January 1942 and worked on developing new tactics to counter the work of the German U-boats. Their tool for studying and countering the U-boat attacks was wargames, and the unit also trained naval officers in its tactics to show them how the strategy and tools worked.

Breaking German codes at Bletchley Park

The Wrens were also an integral part of the code-breaking teams at Bletchley Park. Around 8,000 women worked in Bletchley Park, and a significant proportion of these supported the work of cryptanalysis. While not many women were represented at the highest levels of code-breaking and cryptanalysis, their support work was essential. Women were involved in everything from operating cryptographic machinery to translating German documents to traffic analysis and clerical work. Women were vital in operating the code-breaking machinery, including the Colossus and Bombe machines.

Five Top Facts about the Wrens

1. WRNS uniforms feature blue stripes and badges

Traditional army and naval officers earn their stripes over time. They are usually gold or crimson, but the Wrens had their own officer stripes in blue. Officers' stripes were identical to those on navy officer uniforms, with some having a symbol on the top stripe and others not.

2. 74,000 Wrens officers were involved in World War Two

The WRNS was an invaluable part of the war effort in the Second World War. By 1944, 74,000 women were involved in 200 different jobs within the Navy, and by the end of the war, the WRNS had sadly lost 303 women.

3. The WRNS was made permanent as a testament to their service

The valuable contribution to the war effort in the Second World War led to the WRNS becoming a permanent service. This was made official on 1st February 1949, with service kept voluntary and with its own set of rules and disciplines separate from the Navy. The WRNS retained 3,000 women post-war to support the Navy and keep stations operating across the UK and overseas.

4. The Wrens' motto was ‘Never At Sea’

When the WRNS was founded, the belief was they would remain firmly on shore, supporting male naval officers from home. This was believed so strongly that the Wrens' original motto was ‘Never at Sea’. The service was initially meant to be confined to catering, cleaning and clerical work. Still, their services and skills in other areas quickly became invaluable, with women aboard ships as early as 1918.

5. Kate Nesbitt was the first naval woman to receive the Military Cross

While Kate Nesbitt, a pharmacy technician in the Royal Navy, was never officially a Wren, she is still representative of women within the Navy. She was the first female Navy member to receive the Military Cross and only the second woman in any of the armed forces to receive this accolade. Nesbitt received her Military Cross in 2009 for her actions in Afghanistan.