90th anniversary of the Association of Wrens celebrated

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

A service of commemoration and rededication for the Association of Wrens was held in this, their 90th anniversary year, at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London, at the weekend.

The service was attended by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, patron of the association, and Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff.

The service was attended by over 450 members of the association and followed by a reception in the church’s crypt.

Small groups of Association members were presented to Her Royal Highness at the ceremony on Saturday 13 November 2010, including the Royal Navy uniformed ushers and those modelling uniforms from through the decades.

Admiral Stanhope said:

It should come as no surprise that women from the Association of Wrens have long made a valued and important contribution to the UK’s Armed Forces, and continue to do so today.

It is an honour to join the Association’s patron, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, and so many members of the Association of Wrens for the 90th anniversary service of commemoration at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

I am enormously grateful for the wide-ranging support the Association gives both current and ex-serving Wrens and their efforts to keep the spirit of the Service alive across the generations.

The Princess Royal speaks with First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope and members of the Association of Wrens
The Princess Royal speaks with First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope and members of the Association of Wrens [Picture: Petty Officer Airman (Photographer) Amanda Reynolds, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010]

The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or ‘Wrens’) 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 at the time were based on shore but even though they were needed for service onboard ships their land-based jobs somehow needed to be filled too; and so it was felt that by employing women to do these jobs, the men would then be able to go to sea. The promotional slogan of the WRNS was ‘Free a man for sea service’.

Over 6,000 women undertook a variety of duties in the WRNS in World War One, including some that had been deemed too difficult for women. There were even units based overseas, the first one being in Gibraltar.

The WRNS existed for nineteen months before the Admiralty finally disbanded the service on 1 October 1919, but it had made a tremendous impression during its short lifetime. During that period, the Service lost 23 women.

With the advent of the Second World War, there was no hesitation in reforming the WRNS, and planning began as early as 1938.

By 1944, the Service numbered 74,000 women undertaking 200 different jobs. Many Wrens were involved in planning and organising naval operations, as well as performing maintenance roles. Thousands of women served overseas and large numbers served in other branches of the Navy, such as the Fleet Air Arm, Coastal Forces, Combined Operations and the Royal Marines.

During the Second World War, the Service lost 303 women.

In 1977, the Service was brought into line with the Navy itself and was subject to the Naval Discipline Act. This allowed a greater number of trades to be undertaken by women in the Service. It also meant they had parity with their counterparts in the Air Force and Army.

This was the first step towards full integration into the Navy, which finally led to the disbandment of the WRNS as a separate Service in 1993.

1990 saw the first women to serve on board ship in a trial period, and after the disbandment of the WRNS, women were fully integrated into the Navy. All jobs in the surface fleet are now open to men and women alike.

The Association of Wrens has become an organisation with a network of branches and small groups throughout the UK. It supports the WRNS Benevolent Trust, issues three magazines a year and organises regular national reunions and celebrations.

There are currently over 6,300 members of all ages, including several centenarians, and the Association is very happy to have a good number of women currently serving in the Royal Navy. They will be the ones to keep the ‘spirit of the Service alive’ as their predecessors did.