80th Anniversary of the Women's Royal New Zealand Naval Service
This article was written in collaboration with the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy in celebration of 80 years since the establishment of the Women's Royal New Zealand Naval Service. Thank you to Collections Team at the Navy Museum for sharing your expertise and your support in putting this together.
On the 11th April 1942, the establishment of the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) was approved by the War Cabinet.1 The formation of the WRNZNS had previously been discussed in May 1941, as more men needed to be released from shore duties to serve at sea, both in New Zealand and overseas. Many women were already working in the Navy Offices in Wellington, Lyttelton, Dunedin and on the HMNZS Philomel as civilians. As men were sent to sea, women stepped in and filled many of these now vacant shore positions, particularly in supply and secretariat branches.2
In May 1942, Ruth Herrick was appointed as the Director of the newly established WRNZNS. She had experience with both military and large voluntary organisations. During the First World War, she was secretary to the Nursing Division at Walton-on-Thames Hospital. At the time of the establishment of the WRNZNS, she was the Chief Commissioner for Girl Guides New Zealand, making her the ideal candidate for this role. The Deputy Director of WRNZNS was to be Florence Helen Fenwick, who was one of the civilian women already working at the Navy Offices in Wellington.3
Recruiting began almost immediately, first through the Women’s War Service Auxiliary (WWSA) which had been formed in July 1940, and was intended to coordinate the activities of the various women’s organisations in support of New Zealand’s war effort. Though later recruitment was carried out through local manpower offices. A large part of Herrick’s and Fenwick’s role was recruitment, Fenwick, recalled later in an interview for an Oral History Project completed by the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy,
Well the big thing was interviewing, recruiting and interviewing. And she [Miss Herrick] did …, we tried to share it as much as possible and she would, or I would go to New Plymouth, Timaru, about five centres. And before going there, there would be a notice written to everybody [there] who had applied to join, to tell them that there would be some … [interviews at their centre] and where.4
The WRNZNS became known for their high standard of selection, as from the 870 women who applied to the WRNZNS by January 1943, 350 were rejected.5 During the Second World War 639 women served with the WRNZNS, across 21 different trades and branches of service. Together Fenwick and Herrick would assess the potential recruits, for which areas they thought they would be most suitable. Fenwick saying,
we had some [that had] already been working up at Karori Hill, wireless girls, girls who already had a certain amount of knowledge and the obvious thing was to put them in [where they had experience].6
Highly qualified and capable, they served as Cooks, Writers and Shorthand Typists, Telegraphists and Coders, Motor transport Drivers, Radio Communicators, Welfare Officers, Dental Assistants, Stewards, Chart Correctors, Visual Signallers, Radar Plotters, Radio Finger Printers, Quarters Officers, Messengers, Sick Berth Attendants, Cinema Operators, Boats Crew, Wireless Telegraphists and Librarians. Some women also served in Torpedo Maintenance or Supply/Store roles.
Below we have highlighted some of the women who served during the Second World War with the WRNZNS and the many varied roles they played.
BETTIE EVELYN JACKSON
Bettie Jackson was born in 1922 in Palmerston North. She enlisted for service in December 1942, just months after the WRNZNS had been formally established.7 Jackson trained as a cook and was posted to Petone, Wellington. Jackson had already been in service for two and a half years before the Navy caught up with her to give her basic training. As there was a rush to get new Wren’s working to release men for sea duty, basic training was a very simple affair, where Wrens were taught how to recognise rank, march and salute. As most Wrens were already trained in their trade before entering the service, they were put to work almost immediately. After two and half years in the service, Bettie described her training as a “week’s holiday!”8
In early 1945, by which time she had been promoted to a Leading Wren, Jackson was posted to HMNZS Philomel in Auckland to serve as a cook in the Officer's Block. Her last posting was to HMNZS Tasman in Lyttelton where she served until early 1946. In 1949, Jackson married Joseph Wilsher, a retired Chief Stoker who had served in both the Royal Navy and in the RNZN. Jackson was a prolific knitter and in the late 1970s and early 1980s she knitted over 600 'mooloo' hats for the crew of HMNZS Waikato.9 She died in March of 2020 and is buried in Hamilton Park Cemetery.
You can see Bettie’s medals here: WILSHER (nee JACKSON), Bettie Evelyn — National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy (navymuseum.co.nz)
Nancy 'Nan' Barker was born in Palmerston North, on 6 April 1921. Barker joined the WRNZNS as a probationary Wren, on 15 July 1942.10 On her enlistment she was serving at the Naval Office in Wellington, before being posted for ‘highly specialised and secret work at ‘highly specialised and secret work’ at Rapaura Naval W/T station. Rapaura, a small town northwest of Blenheim overlooking the Wairau River. In August 1942, Robert Dossor’s two-storey farmhouse was taken over by the Ministry of Defence and the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), which was to be the base for this highly secret work. 11
Eight wrens were selected for service at the Rapaura Naval station: Margaret Scott, Nell Luttrell, Marguerite Boxer, Dorothy Schroff, Bunty Pigott, Philippa Tweed, Nancy Barker and Marion Pitt.
Each of the women were specially selected for the roles, Bunty Pigott recalling the selection process ‘I was made a signaller and we had a special course to get our Morse speed up, but we never knew why. They’d done a lot of inquiring into my background from people from church and from my boss, wanting to know all about my character. Then from about twenty of us they chose four after a sort of psychology test.’12 Many of the girls came from some of New Zealand’s tops schools, some were previously prefects or head girls. Barker had attended Taumaranui High School, for three years before she became a Wren.
The need for such a selection process was for the ‘highly specialised and secret work’ of operating an R.E.B, a misleading title of Radio Finger Printing. The group of eight was split into two teams, one training as operators and the other as classifiers, they would read and photograph wireless telegraphy produced by the Japanese and identify the operators’ by hand.13 They would then photograph the continuous dots and dashes, coming through a cathode ray tube from Japanese operators in the army and navy, these films were then given to the team of classifiers who would try to establish the source of the signal.
The telegraphists would listen in on various frequencies listening for Morse code which was then written down in five letter groups, the Wrens would then pass along these intercepted messages. The work gave the Allied navies an accurate picture of the enemy’s naval activity in Pacific, Bunty Pigott remembered , ‘You never knew if what you were passing on was really useful but later we heard that a submarine had been found and sunk though the messages they intercepted.’14
The Raparua Station was wound up in May 1944, Barker had served there for the majority of her time with the WRNZNS, however there was still work to be done and following her service at Blenheim, she served at the naval radio station at Waiouru, serving with the WRNZNS for a total of four years and two months.15 Barker and Bunty Pigott were two of the girls selected to represent the WRNZNS at the Victory Parade in 1946. She went on to marry Edward Bilston Quirk, a Corporal with 27 Machine Gun Battalion, their engagement was announced in June 1945.
DOROTHY CARA EVERARD
Dorothy 'Judy' Everard was born in Napier in 1922. From the age of seventeen, Everard began training and gathering nursing experience at Mercy Hospital in Auckland. Shortly before her 21st birthday she enlisted in the Women's Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) for service during the Second World War.16 She joined as a Probationary Wren on the 1st April 1943 to serve as a Sick Berth Attendant/Dental Assistant. She was promoted to Qualified Wren in July that year. Everard was posted to HMNZS Philomel for the duration of her service where she worked in the Dental/Sick Quarters.
In 1944, there was a lack of dental staff and nurses. Everard was asked to work in the dental theatre and very quickly learnt on the spot how to assist the surgeons in their very complex and challenging work. Her son Timothy Gordon recalls that his Mum used to talk about “the terrible damage done to the soldier’s faces and jaws and how the surgeons worked so skillfully to piece them miraculously back together.” In January 1945 Everard registered as a volunteer for relief services abroad, but was never called up. She left the WRNZNS at the end of 1945. In 1947, Judy became a stewardess with Tasman Empire Air Ltd working on the Flying Boat Service.17 Judy lived in Australia for fifty seven years. She died in 2010 in Auckland.
You can see Judy’s medals here: EVERARD, Dorothy Cara — National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy (navymuseum.co.nz)
WOMEN'S ROYAL NEW ZEALAND NAVAL SERVICE
In the immediate post-war period, the WRNZNS assisted in the demobilisation of the Royal New Zealand Navy. Demobilisation in post-war time was difficult as those who served overseas were often eager to be released and return to civilian life. The WRNZNS helped to make this process as smooth as possible, in March 1946, there were about 300 WRNZNs and they were disbanded later that year by the Government.
On their disbandment, Minister of Defence Mr Jones commented on their invaluable role,
Their work was of great value to New Zealand’s naval war effort, as it permitted the release of many men for sea-going service. Some of the work undertaken was not of a type usually carried out by women, but in all branches the spirit and keenness displayed in the exercise of their duties and the efficiency and smartness they attained were of a standard which enhanced the prestige of the Royal New Zealand Navy.18
The two women at the helm of the WRNZNS, returned to their pre-war lives, Ruth Herrick returned to the Girl Guides association and received an OBE for her role during the War. Helen Fenwick undertook secretarial duties with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in China.
A period of unrest followed the demobilisation of war-time service in the Royal New Zealand Navy, due to pay imbalances. In 1946, a new pay code was introduced, however delays in producing these new codes led to increasing dissatisfaction within the Navy. When the codes were finally announced 1947, there was no mention whether these would be backdated, which resulted in several mutiny’s ashore, with around 200 junior ratings and crew walking off and subsequently being discharged from the Royal New Zealand Navy.19
Lorelle Corbin, who had joined the WRNZNS in 1942, was selected as the new director of the WRNZNS. These women were again able to fill many of the shore-based roles enabling men to be released for sea-based duty.20 Many of the wartime roles were no longer required, so were limited to ‘working as cooks, stewards, writers, signallers, stores assistants, medical or dental assistants, chart correctors and drivers, etc.’21 From the previous 21 trades open to Wrens, only 12 were open post-war. Initially it was thought that the WRNZNS would only be needed on a temporary basis, those who chose to join up were given 12 month contracts which could be rolled over, it was only in 1950 that the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service became a permanent part of the Royal New Zealand Navy. An update on the State of the Navy from 1951 explains,
The initial engagement is for two years, with the option of serving for further periods. They are trained to replace men in the Communications and Supply and Secretariat Branches. Entry is made in the rating of Probationary Wren, and all Wrens are eligible for advancement to the rating of Chief Wren.22
Women continued to serve with the WRNZNS between 1947-1977, however, as they could not serve at sea, they were not considered for Operational Service. In 1977, the passing of the Human Rights Commission Act saw the disestablishment of the WRNZNS once more, as women were fully integrated into the Royal New Zealand Navy. The final parade for the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval service was held on 29 July 1977, and was attended by Lorelle Corbin, the longest serving director of the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service.
There were over 600 women who served as part of the WRNZNS during World War Two, they entered a male dominated service, created to enable more men to be released for service at sea in both New Zealand and overseas. Their presence was bound to have created some feelings of animosity, but these women proved their ability and willingness fulfilling numerous duties, from serving as cooks and dental hygienists to telegraphists. They played an enormously important role in supporting the war effort during the Second World War, and in the post-WWII era over 1000 more served between 1947-1977. Again these women took on a range of roles and served throughout New Zealand, paving the way for women in the Navy today, and for women who will continue to serve in the future. Vera Laughton Matthews, Director of the UK WRNS said it best,
Our lives are going to be wider and deeper because of all we have learnt in the Service. And when peace comes you will take your place in civilian life to such good purpose that people will say, “Well you see, she was a Wren."23
Wrens — National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy (navymuseum.co.nz)
Red Bicycle used by Naval personnel in Second World War. (navymuseum.co.nz)
Celebrating International Women's Day #ChooseToChallenge (navymuseum.co.nz)
Elizabeth House and Wren accomodation — National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy (navymuseum.co.nz)
Breaking Down the Barriers — National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy (navymuseum.co.nz)
Women's Royal New Zealand Naval Service Medals held by the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy
RANKEN (nee FLINT), Virginia Ranui — National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy (navymuseum.co.nz)
LORD (nee CORBIN), Lorelle Henderson — National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy (navymuseum.co.nz)
1] National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Women in the RNZN Timeline.
2] Hall, D.O.W. Women in the Services in Women at War, Episodes and Studies Volume 1, Part of the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-1945.
3] RNZN Communicators Association. WREN Florence Helen Phibbs - Oral History.
4] RNZN Communicators Association. WREN Florence Helen Phibbs - Oral History.
5] Hall, D.O.W. Women in the Services in Women at War.
6] RNZN Communicators Association. WREN Florence Helen Phibbs - Oral History.
7] Service Card for Bettie Jackson, Collection of the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.
8] Cambridge Musuem, World War Two Stories.
9] Nicholson, Heather. The Loving Stitch: A History of Knitting and Spinning in New Zealand.
10] Service Card for Nancy Barker, Collection of the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.
11] Barlow, Frank. Maritime Radio, NZ Navy Wrens in secret ops during WW2.
12] Sullivan, Jim. Doing our bit: New Zealand Women tell their stories of World War Two.
13] Radio Fingerprinting Station at Rapaura, Blenheim 1942-1944. National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.
14] Sullivan, Jim. Doing our bit: New Zealand Women tell their stories of World War Two.
15] Service Card for Nancy Barker, Collection of the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.
16] Service Card for Dorothy Cara Everard, Collection of the National Museum f the Royal New Zealand Navy.
17] National Library, Dorothy Cara Everard, 1922-2010.
18] WRENS' Valuable Part in War Effort Has Now Ended. Otago Daily Times, 1 November 1946.
19] National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Mutiny at HMNZS Philomel.
20] National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Wrens.
21] National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Wrens.
22] Statistics New Zealand, The New Zealand Official Year Book 1951-52.
23] National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.
The National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy has also put together a selection of objects and images to commemorate the invaluable contribution of the Women's Royal New Zealand Navy from 1942-1977. You can view this on their website here.
Cite this article
Hannah Pym (National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy) and Madison Pine (Auckland War Memorial Museum) .
Well you see, she was a Wren. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 4 April 2022. Updated: 29 April 2022.