It was the best message Dorrie Thomas had sent in years.
‘Splice the mainbrace’ the young Wren joyfully instructed all Royal Navy ships in the Channel on VE Day.
As a naval telegraphist based at Chatham in Kent, Dorrie was given the task of sending the traditional command, which effectively means ‘have an extra tot of rum’ or ‘give the crew a drink.’
The war was over, it was time for the services to give the men who had risked life and limb an almighty pat on the back and Dorrie was thrilled to be given the task.
‘What a lovely thing for them to receive, it was a wonderful moment,’ says the 88-year-old, now living in Fareham.
‘What a relief that day must have been for all those lads at sea.’
A few years earlier 17-year-old Dorrie, whose surname was then Coupland, answered a call for girls to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or Wrens).
It was a move that would take her to Britain’s northern coast to support the ships of the Arctic Convoys and back down to Kent to assist the Channel fleet.
She now has a postcard of the recruitment poster that sparked her interest.
‘Join the Wrens and free a man for the Fleet,’ she laughs.
‘I don’t think they’d get away with saying that now, but that is literally what happened to us.’
Dorrie had learned semaphore and Morse code in the Girl Guides so the Navy snapped her up to work at a wireless telegraphy station. She was trained in communicating with ships, aspects of electronics and coding and decoding messages.
Eventually Dorrie and five other young Wrens were sent to Aberdeen to operate a signal station and free up six men for the war at sea.
Before she left for duty, her proud dad insisted she have a photo taken in her new Wren’s uniform and this is included in a new book marking the 70th anniversary of the WRNS Benevolent Trust. 70 Years of Trust tells the story of the charity and the Wrens over several decades.
The organisation was set up in 1942 when it became clear that the thousands of women enlisting for the service would need support during the war and in the years beyond.
At about the same time new recruit Dorrie was on her way to the rocky Scottish coast to spend 18 months at a secret station sending vital messages to the Arctic Convoys.
These were the ships that slipped secretly and silently through icy northern seas to deliver supplies to Russian ports. It is the veterans of this vital wartime mission that have been campaigning for years to receive a campaign medal for their bravery in brutal and dangerous conditions.
Commander Eddie Grenfell, of Portsmouth, is the leader of the campaign which has been backed by The News.
‘I’ve obviously followed that closely,’ says Dorrie, who would send messages regarding landing locations, supplies and threats from weather and enemy vessels. ‘These men risked everything because the conditions were so bad, if they ended up in the water, they would only last a matter of minutes.’ Secrecy was essential for the men’s survival. The Germans couldn’t know where they were, so although Dorrie and her colleagues would send messages the ships couldn’t reply. And the women were faced with a silent expanse of water.
‘But I was always thinking about these boys who were out there, on their way to such extreme conditions,’ she says.
Dorrie and her five fellow Wrens manned the station 24/7, often huddled over their equipment in their Navy issue duffel coats, sweaters and bell-bottoms. The girls lived nearby in a pretty basic Nissen hut and it would have been a lonely little corner of Britain had it not been for the keeper of the neighbouring Girdle Ness lighthouse, his family and staff, the people who ran supplies from Aberdeen and the workers at a nearby small artillery battery.
‘It was quite a little community,’ recalls Dorrie. ‘Us girls were living and working very closely together so there was a great deal of camaraderie between us. They were lovely girls.’
And they worked extremely hard. ‘We realised what a responsible job it was but we took it in our stride,’ she says. ‘But when I think about it now in my mature years, six young Wrens maintaining a continuous watch, it was remarkable.’
Wrens fulfilled all kinds of duties including commanding and crewing harbour launches, loading torpedoes onto submarines, plotting battle progress, welding, carpentry, meteorology, engineering, driving, mechanics and operating radar.
Dorrie is a member of the Association of Wrens and at a reunion many years later a Dunkirk veteran told her of the relief he felt after being evacuated from the French beaches in 1940. ‘They were approaching England and he heard a girl’s voice saying ‘follow me’. It was the Wrens guiding them to the dispersal area when they arrived home. He told me he would never forget the relief he felt when he heard that voice.’
Dorrie was an anonymous communicator, hidden by the secrecy of coded messages in Morse code, but at times her job was harrowing. She remembers the first time she communicated with an air sea rescue operation.
‘A bomber had come down and they went out to search. Finally a message came back saying no survivors. I thought ‘some poor mother is going to get the sad news that her boy isn’t coming back. But somehow we got used to hearing things like that.’
But although they took their responsibilities extremely seriously the Wrens managed to enjoy lighter moments too. They had to send practice messages to Coastguard stations and one day were ordered to vary the messages. ‘I thought, what can I say so I sent ‘don’t make love in a cornfield, remember corn has ears,’ laughs Dorrie. ‘I received a reply from a very saucy chap saying ‘and potatoes have eyes, but I would risk both with you.’
Eventually Dorrie moved to Chatham where there was more communication with ships, more people manning different radio frequencies, less hush-hush and more continuous action.
After the war she married Peter Thomas who worked in RAF Bomber Command and used her electronics training in her career as a technical librarian for EMI Electronics.
She now gives talks to groups detailing life in the Wrens and the history of the organisation. She donates payments to the Benevolent Trust. Dorrie says: ‘The Wrens have done so much over the years, that I think an organisation like this is very important. We’re like a community still really.’
7o YEARS OF TRUST
Formed in 1942, the WRNS BT has been supporting former Wrens ever since.
During the war the Trust would help with cases of homes damaged by fire, billeting fees for evacuated children, medical expenses and unpaid leave to care for sick relatives and younger siblings. Immediately after the War the trust’s main work was to help secure employment for many hundreds of former Wrens.
Anniversary book 70 Years of Trust looks back at the charity’s history and features dozens of rare photographs of former Wrens at work and at play.
Over the past 70 years the WRNS BT has helped more than 12,000 former Wrens in the UK and abroad. Last year it gave support to more than 400 women, and distributed a total of £350,000 in annual and one-off grants.
The WRNS was disbanded as a separate service after 1993 but the charity is still there for anyone who served in the WRNS but transferred to the Royal Navy. Women who joined after ‘93 can seek help from Royal Naval charities.
The book costs £14 including postage and packaging. To order your copy send a cheque or postal order (made payable to the WRNS BT for £14) to Sarah Ayton, General Secretary, The Woman’s Royal Naval Service Benevolent Trust, Castaway House, 311 Twyford Avenue, Portsmouth, Hampshire PO2 8RN.
For information on the service visit www.wrnsbt.org.uk