Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Great Britain, Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS)

Women's arm of the British Royal Navy, reconstituted in 1939. The Women's Royal Naval Service was first created in 1917, during World War I. Before the organization was disbanded on 1 October 1919, 6,000 British women had undertaken naval support duties, during the course of which 23 died.

In 1938, on the approach of another war, planning began to reestablish the WRNS. The organization was reconstituted in April 1939 under the direction of Vera Laughton Mathews. Enlistment was initially voluntary, but under the April 1941 Registration of Employment Order, all single and childless British women aged between 19 and 30 and not yet engaged in work "essential to the war effort" became subject to conscription and were offered the choice of factory work, service in one of the auxiliary service units, or enrollment in the Women's Land Army.

As with the other female auxiliary services, especially the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, the WRNS (its members were called Wrens) constituted something of a prestigious and elite service. In the course of the war, 74,620 women enlisted in the WRNS, of whom 102 were killed and 22 wounded. Government regulations prevented female civilian volunteers and military personnel to serve without their consent in hazardous circumstances in which they were liable to come under physical attack—manning antiaircraft guns, for example—nor could they be compelled to operate weapons. Even in the auxiliary armed forces, women were restricted to noncombat roles, and the primary function of WRNS members was perceived as releasing male naval personnel from shore jobs. As the war progressed, however, the WRNS and other female auxiliary military units undertook an increasingly wide range of duties—more than 200 jobs by 1944. Many served in clerical positions or as wireless telegraphists, electricians, fitters, radio mechanics, photographers, technicians, cooks, stewards, gardeners, dispatch riders, or stokers; others helped to plan and organize naval operations. Thousands served overseas, often in hazardous conditions. A small minority qualified as naval pilots, although, as with those in the quasi-civilian Air Transport Service, they were normally barred from combat duties and restricted to ferrying planes.

Thousands of women also enlisted in associated naval units including the Fleet Air Arm, Coastal Forces, Combined Operations, and the Royal Marines. In all, 303 British women died during World War II while on active duty in the various naval services. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand established similar women's naval auxiliary services. British women's naval contributions were highly respected, and the WRNS became a permanent service arm in February 1949. In 1993, the WRNS disappeared as a separate unit when it became fully integrated into the British navy.

Priscilla Roberts


Further Reading
Fletcher, M. H. The WRNS: A History of the Women's Royal Naval Service. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.; Mathews, Dame Vera Laughton. Blue Tapestry: An Account of the Women's Royal Naval Service. London: Hollis and Carter, 1948.; Pushman, Muriel Gane. We All Wore Blue. London: Robson, 1989.; Thomas, Lesley, and Chris Howard Bailey. WRNS in Camera: The Women's Royal Naval Service in the Second World War. Sutton, UK: Stroud, 2002.; Wilson, Rosemary Curtis. C/o GPO London: With the Women's Royal Naval Service Overseas. London: Hutchinson, 1949.
 

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