As a result of the dangerous situation that was developing in Europe, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was re-formed in 1939. Few places were available in a male-oriented military unit and those who were given a place in the WRNS usually had some form of family contact in the Royal Navy. The Director of the WRNS was Vera Laughton Mathews.
As with the ATS and the WAAF’s, work in the Women’s Royal Naval Service was initially limited to driving, clerical and domestic work. Any thoughts about going to sea were quickly dispelled. Recruitment posters for the WRNS clearly stated that the task of any woman who joined the WRNS was “to free a man for the fleet".
However, the manpower shortage in 1941 broadened the work of women in the WRNS who were allowed to work on small vessels in harbours – though not in open water. Most Wrens served in Britain at shore bases but a few did get postings overseas to places such as Singapore. The number of women in the WRNS peaked in 1944 at 75,000 and in total 100,000 women served.
While their range of jobs increased as the war progressed, many did work as cooks, stewards, laundry maids and cleaners. Some naval air stations, however, did have all-female anti-aircraft gun teams while the Admiralty used WRNS motorbike dispatch riders. Wrens were also drafted into the top secret Bletchley Park where they supported the work of the Enigma code-breakers.
303 Wrens were killed during World War Two.
Like in the WAAF’s, women in the WRNS initially found that men were hostile to their presence. But once it became clear that they were making a positive contribution to the war effort, such hostility mellowed.
“I did not want WRNS but as I had to have them I made the best of them and I must say we have been very lucky in our WRNS." (Senior Royal Navy commander)