Women’s History Month: Wrens & Unicorn

Women’s History Month: WRENS & Unicorn

1. WRNS outside HMS Unicorn © HMS Unicorn

During the Second World War, HMS Unicorn was a headquarters for a branch of the Woman’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS), with over 1,500 recruits on board the ship (in 1942 there were 739 personnel stationed here alone).

When signing up, women were interviewed by a First Officer in the WRENS, who asked questions about their health and qualifications amongst other things. Most signed up just before their eighteenth birthday, as according to former WREN Olive, ’18 you were called up anyway and this way I got a choice. Otherwise I could have ended up in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the Land Army or been trained as a nurse’. Some women had to have their hair examined at these interviews for lice.

Women came from across the UK to train at Unicorn. Christina Dickson, who volunteered shortly before her eighteenth birthday in 1940, was posted at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, near Portsmouth, before discovering the wireless telegraphy course in Dundee. Another WREN, Margery Poole, said ;’(I) left smoky, old, bombed out London and arrived in Dundee to the most beautiful summer weather. The fresh air was bliss. The Dundonians were so very, very good to us. We were mostly young girls, leaving home for the first time and they opened their hearts and homes to us. So, began my love affair with Scotland!’ Other women were more local. Mary (May) Strachan Webster was born in Dundee on 15th October 1919 and joined the WRENS in March 1942. Her first post was at HMS Ambrose in Dundee where she worked as a supply assistant for just over a month (supply assistants were responsible for issuing clothing and other naval stores to service personnel). In April 1942 May was transferred to HMS Cressy – as Unicorn was then known – where she continued to work as a supply assistant and was promoted to ‘leading Wren’ in March 1943.   

After signing up, WRENS were given a grant of £55 towards the cost of their uniform, which had specific requirements. This included:

  • Jacket   – Navy blue cloth or serge. Blue distinction braid around the cuffs. Buttons for RN officers.
  • Hat – Tricome black ironed velour felt
  • Badge – As for RN (Royal Navy) officers, with blue leaves in place of gold
  • Shirt – White
  • Tie – Black
  • Stockings – Black, non-transparent
  • Gloves – Brown leather
  • Shoes – Black laced, low heel. No toe-cap.
  • Skirt – Navy blue cloth or serge to match the jacket. Two inverted pleats to front.

The WRENS also had to buy a greatcoat, raincoat, and watch coat with the allowance. Olive remembers ‘carrying one small suitcase containing only the clothes that were allowed on the list we received when we signed up – including two pairs of navy bloomers!’

When off-shore, the WRENS were stationed at the Mathers Hotel, now Malmaison. Olive said; ‘(I) was taken to Mathers Hotel where the beds hadn’t arrived, so we had to sleep on paliasses arranged in rows on the floor of the ballroom. Bunk beds eventually came and to be honest they weren’t much better – there were no steps to the top and the bottom was rather airless and claustrophobic’. Despite these complaints, the accommodation at Mathers was slightly better comparison to other regiments like the air force and the navy, as the WRENS didn’t have to take their beds apart and they had two drawers each and a small hanging space. Today, the cross you see in the Captain’s Cabin of Unicorn came from Mathers Hotel after a former WREN donated it to the ship.     

2. Mathers Hotel © Dundee Central Library

However, the WRENS weren’t the only guests staying. In a letter to her mother, Shelia Unwin wrote; ‘(…) Well today has been ‘a day’! To begin with 2 girls found visitors in their hair, and so we all had to be inspected by the Surg. Lieutenant. (Fellow WREN) Joy and I were ok – apparently I’m not the type that has ‘nits’ or my hair isn’t, so the Dr said. But 5 girls have to be disinfected – one, ‘the bearer’ is my next-door neighbour at table’. They later ‘had the room fumigated and scrubbed out with disinfectant – it’s never been so clean since we came here! Apparently, Dundee is alive with such things and you can pick them up in buses or anywhere and they say they always go for the cleanest people!’

The meals were in a large room canteen-style and Olivia remembers ‘on the whole the food was quite good. But soon we became aware of bits of foreign bodies lurking around – cockroaches!’ The WRNS had to either eat around the bodies or pick them out of their food.  Shelia was apparently unimpressed with the food; “First of all the ‘diet is unbalanced… a lot of bread and potatoes…lunch, soup, stewed steak, beans and potatoes, rice, apples and prunes and weak coffee’ and she asks for apples to be sent from home, where there is a glut. ‘I always buy something for tea’, although, ‘the cake shops aren’t so good in Dundee as in Dunfermline, mediocre’ even, with the exception of ‘such nice scones’ and ‘marvellous hot pancakes with maple syrup’, good for ‘cold feet’”.   

Many of the women trained to be wireless telegraphists; a six-month course which often included studying Morse Code, coding and decoding, basic Sonar and ASDICS (an early form of sonar used to detect submarines), and how to repair radio receivers. To be accepted on to the course, women had to be able to code 8 words per minute. These courses were delivered by the Merchant Navy at their various schools throughout the UK. You can try Morse Code for yourself here.

3. WRENS practice rifle shooting © HMS Unicorn

As well as their course, the WRENS also practised rifle shooting. Shelia says, ‘Oh we had such fun yesterday. We went down in the gunnery store and are being taught rifle shooting. Strange to relate, I was very good and got 16 out of 17 rounds on the card with 6 rolls! (…) Unfortunately, the range is very small, only 20 yards so you really can’t help getting them on the card (!) but no one else was at all good’.

When there was free time the cinema was a popular pastime, as was dancing in the Mathers ballroom and classical music concerts at Caird Hall but, lights out at 10 unless you were lucky to have one of the weekly passes to stay out until 11. There were also club nights for the WRENS stationed in Dundee. Shelia’s daughter Vicky Unwin says that ‘club life seems to have played an important part in keeping Shelia, and no doubt the rest of the WRENS, sane’. They sometimes had club nights at Marryat Hall, beside the Caird Hall, occasionally followed by various ‘tournaments’ such as ping-pong. Shelia remembers; ‘On Wednesday we were in the middle of a club night when the sirens went, and I went on fire duty. Likewise, on Thursday, when we were dashing up and down stairs half the night but managed to get some sleep. Last night I met (friend and fellow WREN) Elizabeth and her cousin Grizelda something or other and went to the flicks and the siren went up again – so we all dashed out and got a bus home. We went up and down to the shelter house and at 11 up to bed’. At 11 prompt the doors to their accommodation were shut, meaning it was sometimes a rush to return in time.   

After the war ended in 1945 the WRENS ceased to train on board Unicorn and in 1993 were integrated into the Royal Navy. However, Unicorn is still in touch with former WRENS; in 2016 these remarkable women were featured in the exhibition ‘A Woman’s Ship’.  

4. WRENS on board Unicorn © HMS Unicorn

By Louise Hurrell, HMS Unicorn volunteer