The Women's Royal Naval Service

Since November is barely over, and I did not get to write this earlier in the month when I had originally planned on it (life and work got in the way), this is my look at the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS). Growing up as a teenager I read mostly the same book as my mom, which were heavy on female British authors, and I remember reading about the WRNS in Rosamunde Pilcher’s novel Coming Home. WRNS were featured in a number of other books but this group of women working in the military in World War II (and I) fascinated me and stuck with me all these years.

Dame Katharine Furse

Dame Katharine Furse

The Wrens

The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS; popularly and officially known as the Wrens) was the women's branch of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy. First formed in 1917 for the First World War to do mainly shore-based jobs, it was led by Dame Katharine Furse, recruiting women using the great tag line of “Never at Sea.” The WRNS and its women were such a success that the British Military created the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) for service. By the end of World War I there were 5,500 Wrens in service, but due to post-war cuts all three women’s divisions where disbanded.

Janes of all Trades

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Wrens were back in business and with expanded roles. They were, to name a few positions, cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphists, radar plotters, weapons analysts, range assessors, electricians, mechanics, piloting transport planes, and in intelligence as code and cipher breakers. At the war’s peak, it has 75,000 active service women, with 100 casualties. One of the tag lines used in recruiting posters during this time was “Join the Wrens and free a man for the fleet”. The expanded roles of the Second World War also brought more overseas postings which helped to ensure its survival after the end of the war.

One of the things that struck me when I started to research this blog post is that, until 1993 when it was integrated in to the Royal Navy, the service has been led by women. As I said, Dame Katharine Furse was the first Director in 1917, and there were 17 Directors in total all women (each have an interesting history and deserves their own blog post) with Commandant Anne Spencer being the last in 1991-1993.


The canucks take part

If you are wondering if there was a Canadian equivalent, yes there was. The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) came into being during the Second World War, specifically on 31 July 1942, as the naval counterpart to the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division. WRCNS, also known as Wrens, were patterned heavily on the British example, and at the start, filled senior leadership roles with WRNS on loan. By August 31st, 1945, 6,783 women had enlisted in the WRCNS, and at its peak, it had 5,893 members - more than 1,000 of whom served outside Canada. More than 500 Wrens were stationed at the Canadian naval base HMCS Avalon in St. John’s, Newfoundland (then a separate Dominion), and another 500 were stationed to the shore establishment HMCS Niobe in Great Britain. No WRCNS were killed in action, but 11 died on duty due to illness or accident. 

Here’s another group of amazing women who contributed to the war efforts!

Have a great week everyone!



Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wikipedia)

Katharine Furse (Wikipedia)

Obituary: Commandant Annie Spencer

Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service

Getting women on board: the history of the WRNS