Womens Royal Naval Service

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was established in November 1917 and at least two New Zealand women joined it ranks. Its personnel served in a variety of duties before being disbanded in October 1919.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was created in November 1917 as a result of heavy naval losses in the previous years and a resulting shortage of manpower for active sea service. Many sailors were based on shore and it was felt that they needed to be released to the ships, although their shore jobs still needed to filled.

The myth about the creation of the WRNS is that the suffragette, Sybil Cholmondeley, Lady Rocksavage, was serving drinks to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Eric Geddes who was worried about the manpower shortage in the Navy and she suggested the use of women for shore jobs.  Although initially taken aback by the suggestion, he embraced it and the WRNS was established.  Unfortunately the truth is a little more prosaic.  Sir Eric had recognised the need to employ women, not just in the Navy but also the Army, as early as 1915, so if the conversation actually took place, Lady Rocksavage was preaching to the long converted.

There were two classes of Wren, “Immobile” who were only prepared to work near their home and “Mobile” who would serve anywhere and there were even units based overseas, the first one being in Gibraltar.

Initially, the Admiralty decided that only 3,000 women would be recruited and would mainly perform domestic duties, such as cleaning, cooking and serving meals.  Dame Katharine Furse was appointed Director of WRNS and she took a ‘hands-on’ approach to all aspects of the service.  By the end of the war over 6,000 women, including at least two New Zealanders, Assistant Principal Lily Winter and Section Leader Enid Bell, were serving, in a variety of duties including some that that originally been deemed too difficult for women.  In addition 2,000 women who had been serving with the Royal Naval Air Service had been transferred to the newly formed Royal Air Force.  There were two classes of Wren, “Immobile” who were only prepared to work near their home and “Mobile” who would serve anywhere and there were even units based overseas, the first one being in Gibraltar.  The first WRNS rating to be killed as a result of enemy action was nineteen-year-old Josephine Carr from Cork, when the RMS Leinster was torpedoed on 10 October 1918.  Twenty-two others also died during the war.

By the end of the war WRNS were employed in a wide variety of fields, including coding, motor drivers, mechanics, torpedo mechanics and mine net workers.

When the uniform was being designed, the Treasury forbade the use of gold lace on the women’s uniform and instead blue lace was used.  The officers wore a modified version of the normal officers’ badge, on a wide tricorn hat, while ratings wore a brimmed hat with a WRNS cap ribbon.  Ratings also wore blue badges indicating their specialisation.  The rating uniform dress had a miniature naval collar, but without the three stripes worn by seamen.  In time the WRNS adapted the male collar to fit their dresses.  The regulation dress hem was nine inches from the floor.

Although it was originally envisaged that the women would only be employed in tasks such as domestic and administrative duties, the range rapidly expanded.  By the end of the war WRNS were employed in a wide variety of fields, including coding, motor drivers, mechanics, torpedo mechanics and mine net workers.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was disbanded on 1 October 1919, but had made a tremendous impression during its short existence.  Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939 the WRNS was re-established and in 1942 the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service was established.