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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Wrens

The Wrens

THE FORMATION of what became the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service was discussed as early as May 1941, but it was not until approximately a year later that the Director (Miss R. Herrick) and her deputy (Miss F. H. Fenwick) were appointed and the work of organising the new Service began in earnest. In the meantime some men in the Navy had already been replaced by women. In the offices of the Naval Officers in Charge at Wellington, Lyttelton, and Dunedin, and in H.M.N.Z.S. Philomel, the Auckland naval establishment, civilian women employees had taken over a number of positions, particularly in the supply and secretariat branch, previously filled by naval ratings who had thus been released for active service. Many of these civilian employees afterwards joined as Wrens, on a voluntary basis, and those who did, although first entered in the rank of Wren, were given an antedated seniority which made them eligible for earlier promotion. Those civilians who did not become Wrens were moved to other branches, after Wrens had been trained to replace them, in accordance with the principle that uniformed and civilian employees should not be mingled in any branch of the naval service and administration. The general principle in operation was that the female employees in Navy Office and in such establishments as the Naval Dockyard, Auckland, remained civilians, while those women who worked in specifically naval establishments were Wrens. It should be mentioned here that some highly responsible duties were carried out in Navy Office by civilians, many of them women.

There was considerable discussion on the conditions and status of Wrens in the Royal New Zealand Navy during late 1941 and early 1942. In practice a close imitation of the British model was adopted, with the exception that in New Zealand only a few commissions were granted on entry: most officers in the W.R.N.Z.N.S. were promoted Wrens. The main question of principle involved in the preliminaries was whether women could be asked to work at night. It soon became obvious that a fighting service could not accept a limitation on the times of duty of its women page 5 members if they were to be of any real value. At first the members of the W.R.N.Z.N.S. were mostly employed near their own homes, but early in 1943 it was established that Wrens must be ‘mobile’, that is, prepared to serve anywhere in New Zealand.

At first recruitment was carried out through the W.W.S.A. and later through local manpower officers. The W.R.N.Z.N.S. was never wholly satisfied with an arrangement which prevented direct contact between applicants and the Service itself and which was for many reasons cumbersome, even though the other Services were in the same position. It was unfortunate that when in April 1945 Great Britain asked for 200 Wrens to serve at the British Pacific Fleet’s Australian bases, the request could not be complied with; the strength of the W.R.N.Z.N.S. was at that time approximately 500, that is 200 below the establishment of 700, and male ratings had already replaced Wrens in some jobs simply because not enough Wrens were available.

A factor which had always made it difficult to supply the Service with all the women it required was the high standard of selection. Of the first 870 applications received up to January 1943, 350 were declined because the applicants were unsuitable, insufficiently qualified, or below the medical standard. Throughout the whole period of its wartime existence the W.R.N.Z.N.S. was below complement and eager for more recruits than were available, although the difficulty of providing living accomodation had on some occasions hampered expansion. The ‘peak’ strength of the Wrens was 519 and approximately 700 women altogether served in this branch of the Royal New Zealand Navy.