WRENS Memories Shared by Anne McGravie
Posted on Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 8:44 PM
It is my belief that events that change one’s life should be heralded with trumpets blaring. Not so, my first acquaintance with the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).
On a late-July day in 1944, I was on George Street in Edinburgh, enjoying an unusually sunny afternoon, and stopped to do as I had done several times in the last few months, read the posters outside the WRNS recruiting office. This time, I was greeted by a smartly-uniformed woman officer, who invited me inside “for a chat.” An hour later I was riding the tram home, forming in my mind the argument that would allow me, at age 17 ½, to become a wren. On a balmy evening in early September my mother bade me a tearful goodbye at the Waverly Station as I boarded the London train, a wren in the making.
After initial training in London, I was sent to Leeds for specialized training as a paywriter. From there I was sent to HMS Sparrowhawk in the Orkney Islands, where I would be stationed for two years.
Royal Navy personnel carried their papers containing their full history, including earnings, allotments, pro- and demotions, with them at all times. Paywriters had the responsibility of keeping these papers up-to-date and replacing them when they were lost-usually by ship sinkings. Wren, then leading wren, paywriter became my new occupation. I wore a smart new uniform and considered winning the war a personal responsibility.
My two-and-one half years in the WRNS was an experience I would not have missed. I shed my parochial view of the world, met girls from other parts of Britain, discussed our differences, argued our religions, and learned to live in a Nissen hut with one tiny stove for heat. Learned discipline and being responsible for myself. Was homesick yet treasured my newly found independence.
Many years later, when I first thought of writing about these experiences, I didn’t know where to begin. It took me twenty years, on and off, to write a play that was even close to what I needed to say. It was workshopped at the Milwaukee Rep, was a finalist in the CBS-Dramatist Guild Contest, gained mention in several other competitions. It was when it was chosen to be read at the Famous Door Theatre, with Karen Kessler directing and Tara Mallen playing the role of Gwyneth, that the play “Wrens” began the journey that’s led it to its present production.
The years of World War II are fading into history; for me they are as vivid today as they ever were.