Dodging bombs and falling suitcases – welcome to the WRENs

Hilda Craven

Last week, 96-year-old Hilda Craven described her time growing up in Lower Beeding. This week we pick up her story in March 1942, after she was called up to the Royal Naval College Greenwich.

Being a very naive country bumpkin who had only been away to camp with Girl Guides and to a training school in London for six weeks, I arrived at the imposing building with some trepidation. Eight of us spent two weeks there learning the intricacies of Naval signals and the mysteries of the defence teleprinter network, as it was known then.

Hilda Craven

The weather was very cold and the palace like an ice-box. We were in Queen Anne block. Our bathroom was six baths screened off on a wide stone corridor, the water was only ever lukewarm and I never did pluck up the courage to have a bath there! There was hot water in the ablution room so we managed. No wonder Henry VIII always wore so many clothes when he lived in the old palace right next to the river.

Having qualified, we went on to New College Hampstead for general training, feeling we were most privileged to have been admitted to such a ‘top-drawer’ establishment. In fact we were the last T/P class to be trained there. As we went to our next home, all the equipment was dismantled and set up somewhere in north London.

At New College, we were kitted out, learned Naval terms and discipline, learned our left from our right on the drill square and, at the end of the week, were drafted.

One of our eight went to Chatham, one to Hull and one to Fleet Air Arm at St Merryn, Cornwall. I was told I had a temporary draft to Dover and would be given a permanent one some weeks later. Together with a motor transport WREN, I went by Navy lorry to Victoria for the train to Dover. It was April 1 and it seemed to have a jinx on us. On the way down, a suitcase from the mesh rack fell on my head - one of those cotton gaberdine pudding basin hats was not much protection. I did have a bit of a headache.

We found our way to Dover College, the old Priory built at the same time as the castle, which was to be our quarters. Hardly had we checked in when there was a fire alarm drill and we were instructed to drop all our luggage and follow other WRENs up fire escapes and over the roof and back.

Having recovered from this, I was told there was no bed for me for the night, so would I just lie on the bed in the cabin of a watchkeeper on leave. I was not to undress or unpack anything but to take blankets to use and next day I would be moved.

Next question – could I work the quarters switchboard? I could, so got the job from 8-11.30pm. At 11.30pm I was free to retire, with instructions not to worry if the air raid siren went - the noise might be MTBs or E boats or planes. However, if the klaxon sounds you must get up and go downstairs to the great hall and sit as near to the big inglenook fireplace as you can.

I didn’t sleep at all. I heard lots of noises and eventually the klaxon made my hair stand on end. I grabbed my tin hat, my dressing gown and my new pair of stiff leather shoes - shoe trees and all - and followed others into the dark, along a corridor, downstairs to the big hall, where we all huddled on the floor as near to the open fireplace as possible.

We listened to the ‘whumps’ far off, which steadily got closer. We knew number three of a stick of bombs was going to be too near – we even heard the screech of it as it came down right outside our front door.

There was dust everywhere, the sounds of falling masonry and all the soot came down the chimney over everyone. Someone gave instructions that we should try to reach the outside shelter at the back of the building. We crept over fallen masonry and eventually reached the shelter. Once inside and the light was put on everyone had a laugh. One girl had gone to bed with her face covered in cold cream and the soot had stuck to it.

At daylight and all-clear, we emerged to see how the thick Norman stone walls had saved us from injury. The cooks were able to make a cup of tea and those of use who were due to go to work set off.

I caught the lorry to the castle and arrived at Hellfire Corner and looked out over the sea to the French coast before entering the long labyrinth of dark, chalky tunnels which led to the signal section of Vice Admiral Dover’s HQ.

To me that was quite an eventful 48 hours and I hadn’t even started work yet. A bunk was found for me in a house in Effingham Crescent and there I stayed for five weeks before being drafted to C In C Plymouth. One night, we were involved in an exercise in what to do in the event of an invasion from the sea. We slept the night in the castle keep, built in 1180, and were told no one had slept there since the soldiers in the early 1800s.

At Dover, sometimes when we came off duty at midnight and came out to the cliffs, we could see gunflashes on the French coast.

I set off for Plymouth with a draft of 13 sailors going to join their ship at Devonport. It was a long day, including the six-hour steam train journey from Paddington. The sailors were very kind and even jumped out of the train at Exeter station to get everyone a cup of tea, which was much appreciated.

I hadn’t a clue where I was supposed to be, so the Navy lorry put me down at the barracks gate.

I admired the wonderfully ornate iron gates and light grey stone buildings and walked right in. I was soon accosted by a Navy policeman - PO WREN Regulating - who asked me where I had come from and then told me never to walk though the front gate agin. It was the Quarter Deck - officers only - the side gates were for ordinary matelots! How was I to know? I had never been near a barracks before! Anyway, I was let off with a caution and told how to get to where I was supposed to be - four miles away - by public bus.

I managed to change to a second bus in the city centre and was shocked to see such devastation. Just piles of grey rubble on both sides of the road all through the town centre.

That night, Plymouth escapred damage even though the siren went off, but Exeter was the target and much damage was done.

I was to join A watch on the after noon duty. We went to work in a secret place not far from the sea. I think it is still secret to this day, so I must not talk about it, except to say that we travelled on an open top double decker bus, painted bayyleship grey and with RN on the sides.

We passed two sets of armed guards before we went in, and RAF, Army and later US Army and Navy, worked within the same complex. I was the only ‘mobile’ WREN on watch. The others were all immobile;, which meant they were all local girls who lived at home.

It was the first time I had heard a Plymouth accent and I had a job to understand them at first. Now I have only to hear one and am reminded of those days.

Because of the operational signals we dealt with, and our knowledge of the whereabouts of ships and events, no one ever spoke of the happenings - even to the watch taking over from us.

The saying ‘walls have ears’ was so relevant in our everyday work.

Much of the secret traffic was in code or cypher and this had to be transmitted with a space between each letter, four spaces between each group, and double line-feed between the lines. At maximum teleprinter speed, this became quite taxing on the space bar thumb.

I remember the ‘panic stations’ one Boxing Day when a German battleship was sighted in the Channel. Also the winter night when HMS Charybdis was sunk off the Channel Islands.

Years later, while visiting Jersey, I saw in the St Helier churchyard near the sea several gravestones marked with just the words ‘A sailor of HMS Charybdis’.

In 1942 there were just six WRENS on each watch, but over the next two years as traffic built up, more and more operators were needed. By Spring of 1944, each watch had 20 WRENs, a teleprinter switchboard with over 300 stations on it and five teleprinter operators manning it, two leading WRENs and a Petty Officer in charge.

In 1943, I became a leading WREN and was responsible for the switchboard, and in May 1945 was promoted to Petty Officer and consequently moved to D.

This was quite a step up as there were only four Petty Officer teleprinter ops at any one time in the whole of Plymouth Command.

I missed the girls I had worked with for over three years. It also meant moving from our comfortable six-bunk cabin with the balcony and views to sea. I exchanged it for a room for three with the luxury of single beds!

Plymouth city was very badly bomb damaged, in fact devastated and many hundreds of people were killed and injured.

Some of the immobile WRENs told us that, after the April blitz in 1941, there was no piped water for three weeks and no gas for six months. There was not one departmental store left in the city centre. We went to work on the bus along roads where there wasn’t a building standing on either side, only grey rubble to be seen.

The parish church of St Andrew, near the Guildhall, not far from the Hoe, was a burnt out shell but someone had written ‘RESURGAM’ on a piece of charred wood and had fixed it over the main north door.

In the intervening years, the church has been rebuilt and ‘RESURGAM’ is carved in stone above the doorway.

In the four years I spent at Plymouth we had a number of air raids but only two were near misses. Some time in 1943, a phosphorus bomb fell on the large house on the other side of our walled garden. It was an awesome sight, viewed from the cellar grille, of a terrific white light which enveloped the whole house. Only the walls were there in the morning. Fortunately, we heard it was unoccupied.

I was in the cellar of our house on the night of November 16 1943 when a large bomb fell in the road at the front of the building It made a huge hole the width of the road and the pavements on each side, and a big lime tree had been blown up and had come down in the hole the right way up.

The road below the stone garden wall was six feet lower than the garden itself - this fact saved us from much of the blast.

All the windows were broken and masonry damaged and there was a lot of damage inside where the windows and stone frames had been blown in.

Our night watchman - a retired Coxswain RN - sustained leg injuries from shrapnel but recovered well. Luckily no one else was injured but just covered with dust and cobwebs.

We were evacuated to other quarters and it was three weeks before we could return.

I remember the evening of VJ Day on August 15 1945 - I should think most of Plymouth was there, joined by soldiers, sailors, airmen and women of the forces, the fire brigade and the Red Cross and St John people and the WCS.

The atmosphere was wonderful and I’m sure we made the longest and most congested Conga possible all over the tarmac section of the Hoe.

On the morning and early afternoon of August 15, I went to barracks for a board for a possible post to Australia, where two of our operatives had already gone.

The great news of the end of hostilities in the Far East came through while I was having an interview, and one of the officers said it didn’t look as though I was going - did I mind?

Did I mind?? Of course I didn’t! We were all over the moon at such wonderful news!

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