Princess Anne leads Wren's centenary celebrations at National Memorial Arboretum

The Princess Royal has led celebrations in Staffordshire marking the centenary of the Association of the Women’s Royal Naval Service - known as the Wrens - and praising its “huge achievements”.

The start of the service at the National Memorial Arboretum
The start of the service at the National Memorial Arboretum

Princess Anne dedicated a ceremonial stone to those women who had served, and died, in service throughout the organisation’s history, at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Alrewas, on Tuesday.

After the event, in the WRNS Garden at the site, she chatted to groups of Wrens veterans who regaled her with stories from their time in uniform.

The Wrens were first formed in 1917 for the First World War, to free up men for frontline action by serving in roles such as cooks, dispatch riders and sail-makers, disbanding in 1919.

Amanda Dearen, Lisa Snowden, Linda Mitchell, Vicki Taylor and Larraine Cox

The organisation was re-formed when hostilities broke out in the Second World War in 1939, reaching a peak of 74,000 officers and ratings.

The Wrens continued in the post-war period until they were amalgamated into the Royal Navy in 1993.

Following the First World War, the Association of Wrens was founded in 1920 by Dame Katherine Furse, to preserve the unit’s unique bonds of friendship formed between women in the Senior Service.

At the arboretum, the Wrens’ bond was remembered in the centenary celebrations - delayed for a year because of the global pandemic.

The Princess Royal arrives

About 50 former Wrens were addressed by the Princess Royal, association patron, who was also Chief Commandant of the WRNS from 1973 until 1993, and lately Chief Commandant for Women in the Royal Navy.

She made light of the commemoration’s enforced delay, drawing laughs as she emphasised it was “now 101 years old - and thriving”.

Princess Anne said: “This association was of course formed to encourage comradeship amongst all who had served in the WRNS during the First World War, establishing that framework of mutual support for those returning to civilian life - that continues today.

“While the focus may have widened to now encompass support and encouragement to serving members, the practical aspects of enabling and promoting companionship, friendship and togetherness amongst those who shared experiences continue at the forefront of all you do today.”

Former Wrens at the event

She added: “The stone does mark the achievements of 100 years.

“They may have passed, but are nonetheless huge achievements.

“But particularly it’s a signpost of the commitment to continue the good works of the association and all that the women have done in the past in the naval service of their country and what they will continue to do in the future.

“Time is not really of the essence, this is about recognising real service and it doesn’t matter when you do that and we can look forward to the next 100 years, from now, in this dedication.

The Princess Royal at the service

“But I hope many of you will return to contemplate what this stone really means.”

Among the ladies attending was Second World War veteran, 97-year-old Joan “Jonnie” Berfield, who served as a coder.

She found out about the Wrens in college and begged her father for permission to join, which she did when aged 18.

Mrs Berfield, of the Chalfonts, in Buckinghamshire, but originally from Highbury in London, volunteered at the age of 18, and five months later was called up, in Christmas 1942.

She ended up in the “very interesting” field of sending and receiving coded messages.

“We weren’t allowed to say anything - on our uniforms, we had a category of badge, and it was the signals flags with a ‘C’, for coder, in the middle,” she said.

“People would say ‘are you a cook for signallers?’ - and we all said, ‘yes’.”

Speaking of her time as a Wren, she said: “It was wonderful - it was the best thing I ever did.”

She volunteered to go overseas, and was posted to Aden for 14 months where it was “very hot”, and Sri Lanka - then called Ceylon - but did not return to the UK until 1946.

“We were very proud to be Wrens - it was very difficult settling down into civvy life,” she said.

Association trustee Barbara McGregor, 61, from Bridgend, South Wales, said the centenary commemoration was “a long time coming” after the pandemic derailed last year’s plans.

Having joined for four years in 1977, she ended up doing just short of 44 years.

She retired from the Royal Navy in January this year, landing her a place in the Guinness Book of Records for being the longest serving female in the UK Armed Forces.

Mrs McGregor, whose final role was national Warrant Officer for recruiting, said that over her time she had seen the massive changes to opportunities for women in the Royal Navy, including joining the Royal Marines.

“The world is their oyster - very different to my time, but the expectation when I was an 18-year-old was a lot different,” she said.

She described her time as “fun”, with postings in Gibraltar and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and meeting her future husband, adding it had “opened up a lot of opportunities to me and a lot of the girls, serving now”.

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