Leading Wren Telegraphist Jeffrey – Oral History

It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mrs Jeffrey. Time and lack of resources have precluded the researching of facts to draw attention to any errors. The views expressed in this oral history are those of the interviewee only and not the NZDF, RNZN, and the Navy Museum.

This is an interview taking place with Mrs Peggy [Margaret] Jeffery at her residence 101A Kowhai Road, Mairangi Bay, North Shore City on the 9th September 2004. The interviewer is Kelly Ana Morey, Oral History Project Officer, Navy Museum.

Mrs Jeffery lovely to meet you. The first question: when and where were you born?

I was born in Purley, Surrey, which is fourteen miles south of London in 1924. I have got one sister who is younger than I am. I went to a local private school from the age of five and my sister and three nieces followed me in the same school. Myself, my sister and one niece were all Head girls and so we had quite a dynasty at that school. I can’t recall that I was particularly brilliant at school. I was swimming champion and I still swim. I was also a high jump champion, but I certainly can’t jump now. Nothing particularly interesting happened there. We used to cycle everywhere: cycle to school and cycle to the swimming pools. These days you couldn’t really do that.

What did your father do?

He had an export/import company in London.

Would he commute?

He drove because they also had a factory in south London, but not in the same place as us. He used to go there in the morning and then up to the London office every afternoon. In those days commuting wasn’t such a pain. My mother never worked.

So you were just pottering along. I assume that you probably wanted to go to university?

No I didn’t really. I was a Brownie and a Girl Guide and then I don’t think anything untoward happened until 1940 really. We were away on holiday in 1939 down in Cornwall and my father thought there was going to be a war and so he beetled back home by train and my mother drove us back home. On September 3rd we were back in our lounge listening to the Prime Minister who informed us that we were now at war. Then I think we had a bit of a phoney war. Actually, where I lived, there were three aerodromes, three fighter aerodromes: Croydon Aerodrome was walking distance, Kenley Aerodrome was not very far – ten minutes and Biggin Hill, which you may have heard of. So we got quite used to dog fights above us. I can remember most nights we used to sleep in bunks in a dugout that my father had built in the garden, we used to go down there after we had dinner and just go to sleep there.

That was quite common wasn’t it?

Yes it was.

You would have been about fifteen then?

Yes. Sixteen I was when my life changed on October 21st 1940 – I had actually got back from school and walked down to the public library and I was only vaguely watching a German plane ambling about, there hadn’t been any sirens or anything, but suddenly the ack-ack thing started to chase him away. Then I went home and that evening we were all standing in the lounge and the siren had just gone, but it was too late as far as we were concerned: we had three bombs in the garden. My father met a flying door which didn’t help the World War I injury he had had. [shows photographs – room they were in with all the windows blown out] My mother had shrapnel in her back, which was still there when she died at ninety-one, because they said: if it moves it will come out, it won’t go any further.” My sister had shrapnel in her shoulder, which had to be operated on. I went out into the garden and promptly collapsed. Our GP lived up the road and he thought something had probably happened. There was a road below us and a house and two people were killed. Anyway the doctor came along and of course the ambulance – not that I remember any of that. We were taken to an emergency hospital, which actually was a mental hospital, which was being used as an emergency facility. The Medical Superintendent there was the father of some girls that we were at school with and he got a surgeon down from London, he was brilliant, and I think I was about eight hours in the operating theatre.

What had happened to you?

What had happened was I had got a bit of shrapnel through one lung, which tore the lining of my heart. Now the thing was he never found it, but he had to sew me up and he had to pump up the lung and stitch up the heart. It was only about thirty five years ago I suppose, I had a barium meal and the x-ray person said: “It looks like someone has been taking a pot shot at you.” It had turned up on my x-ray which was quite interesting. It always starts bells at the airport. I woke up in the hospital bed and my mother and my sister and I were all in a row. I can remember my aunt and uncle coming in and I couldn’t speak and they just walked past me and talked to the other two. They moved me to another hospital and I was there about six weeks I think. My sister and mother were out quicker than that. Then of course my father had to find a house to rent.

I am actually quite stunned at how well the house coped structurally.

It was build in 1920 something.

As I say I was about six weeks in hospital and I think I was just out in time for Christmas. Then in the mean time our school had been taken over by the Canadian Army and so some of them [the pupils] went down to Devon and my sister went down in January. Eventually I got an all clear from the surgeon who later became surgeon to King George VI and he was knighted and then made a peer, a little Welshman. When I was talking to a surgeon here, he knew of him.

I went back to school down in Devon for another eighteen months I think it was.

Was that an organised evacuation of the kids [in the area] to Devon?

No by the school, our headmistress joined up with a headmistress down there – not very many of us went. I was there for about eighteen months, it was a great start for my School Certificate year that was. We were just behind Plymouth and so we could still see bombs dropping, because we were at the back of Plymouth, they weren’t near us. We had quite a nice life there because one of the parents of the school we had gone to had horses and so we were riding on Dartmoor which was lovely. I got my School Certificate, but not very brilliantly, but never mind.

I was then introduced to the rural side [of life], because we used to help with the hay harvest and raw cider was produced, which was a bit potent, for refreshment. Then the term finished in July and we were back home. In October I joined the Wrens, having got a clearance from the surgeon.

Why did you join the Wrens in particular?

I really didn’t fancy khaki stockings or anything else.

We went to North London for a fortnight to get indoctrinated. The Wrens were quite funny really because they weren’t under naval discipline at that stage and you had the option of leaving after two weeks and they had the option to kick you out if they didn’t think you were suitable. I think I had the choice of a Cook, Steward or Wireless Operator and Wireless Operator was what I chose. Then we discovered that we weren’t ordinary Wireless Operators’ at all: we were really spies, because we were listening in to enemy messages and so we never actually sent messages.

We started off in London for three months.

Do you remember the name of the establishment where you trained?

Yes it was New College in Finchley Road. I was there for 3 months.

You lived in barracks?

No it was just houses where we lived and worked as well.

I can remember many times running up Finchley Road to be in by 10pm. It was quite nice being in London.

Then after three months they sent us down to Hampshire to a country village to do the next three months of our practical, probably because they thought that we had less diversions [there].

What did your training involve?

Morse Code. It was quite difficult too. When you started taking down German and Italian of course there was an awful lot of interference. It was quite a struggle to really pick up the Morse Code signals sometimes.

Did you have those languages already?

No you didn’t need it, it was Morse. Some did have and they were mostly Wren Officers I think or they were commissioned more or less straight away, and they could speak German and Italian. They had places all around the coast where they picked up RT from E Boats and things going up and down the Channel. We didn’t need German and Italian.

Yes, you would have had coders.

Yes.

We just took down the code and the messages went to Bletchley Park. I was a bit peeved, because if it wasn’t for us they wouldn’t have had anything to de-code, but they had all the publicity. Then after we had done our six months we had to go up to the Admiralty and we had to sign the Official Secrets Act and in fact I think we might have signed it before.

I was posted to HMS Flowerdown in Winchester, which was very nice to be there. Half of us went to Winchester and half went up north to Scarborough. The ones who went to Scarborough listened in to German messages and we were mostly Italian. The Italians were a bit volatile with their sending, the Germans were really methodical, they were much easier to take.

So already you can pick it like a finger print on their style – interesting.

Yes.

I was there for about nine months I think. Then they asked for volunteers to go overseas.

Thinking about it now, my father and mother had to give permission, because I was still only nineteen. I think that was pretty nice of them to do that, they must have hated it actually when you think back.

Most of the people went on embarkation leave.

Before that we had to do a month’s Japanese Morse.

How was that different again?

The only difference was in addition to the twenty-six letters in the normal alphabet, they had Japanese symbols, which we had to learn, the symbols of the extra Morse – 46 in total (20 extra). We did a month and I think we went back to Hampshire to do that and then we went on embarkation leave.

I was sent up to Scarborough because we were Y Branch, which you have probably heard of and I was moved to Z Branch, which was something quite different, more or less the same. What we did: we had a machine, rather like you have a heart machine and they take the beats of your heart, they did the beats of the transmitters, so you could pick up the same transmitter if one was going and then you got another one. You knew, you could tell whether it was the same transmitter or not.

Slightly different heart beat?

Yes. So I went up to Scarborough again to do that month course, camera thing and then I got embarkation leave. We had to assemble in London again and there were only a few of us who actually did that course. I remember we were issued with tropical kit: pith helmets, awful things, rather like the Royal Marines wear, which we never wore, we carted all the way overseas and then handed them in. When we were issued with them, there was a square over looking the embankment and we were told on no account must you let anyone see you taking tropical kit across the square.

We were sent on a troop ship.

Can you remember the name of the troop ship?

It was the Stratheden P & O boat. We went on a troop train in pitch black up to Liverpool. We all thought we had gone at least to the north of Scotland because it took so long. Then the next day the convoy assembled outside Liverpool with all the warships, cargo ships and heaven knows what and eventually we set forth and we went out into the Atlantic. There were about five thousand troops and about two hundred women on our ship. We still had to work, but we did have concert parties and things like that. The funniest thing is seeing the British Army getting into their tropical shorts, absolutely terrible, big and baggy, oh dear. We dropped quite a few off in the Middle East. We were only the third ship I think to go through the Red Sea, prior to that ships had to go around the Cape of Good Hope. Then we went on to Bombay, where we all disembarked.

Was that interesting?

Yes it was. The government was paying and we were ten days in Bombay, which was nice.

Then they put us on a troop ship to go down to Sri Lanka.

Did you know that you were going to Sri Lanka before you left? Or did you gradually find out where you were going?

I don’t think we knew – I knew I was going to the Far East.

They were very good to us in Bombay, we stayed at the Indian Women’s Army Corp quarters for ten days I think and then we got on this Navy ship Llanstefan Castle and that was awful.

In what respect?

We had weevils in the bread, nothing like P & O I can tell you. Then we got to Colombo and we were reunited with some of our friends. We up to temporary quarters at Colombo. Eventually we moved down the road to a place called Kent House, which was purpose built, but it wasn’t finished, it was pretty muddy, there were paths, but everything else was muddy. The wireless station was out of Colombo and so we had to go up there by bus everyday. No windows, but we had canvas flaps. We always had armed sentries on the bus and armed sentries on the quarters, because the locals threw stones at us when we were going through the villages. I was there for nearly two years.

Do you want to run us through a normal day in Colombo?

The wireless operators did four hours on and four hours off for twenty-four hours and then they had twenty-four hours off. I joined the local Colombo Swimming Club, which was really nice, because that was where we spent most of our time off duty. The shopping was quite good.

The food?

I think it was all right. I remember getting tripe once – which I hated.

You were living in a barracks situation?

Yes.

As I say we used to go up in buses every day.

You would sit and move the dial around for four hours looking for a ship for instance, which can get a bit tedious really, now I think about it. I suppose we coped with it.

You just had to hunt all the time on the dial?

Yes once a ship comes up. We would yell out, “ship” and the frequency and the direction finders would try and find it.

Some people had a set frequency and they would get regular messages, but if you were actually looking for a ship or something. [You twisted the dial]

Did you begin to recognise the signal?

Yes you got a lot of interference and so that is not always easy.

One of the men who trained us actually wrote a bit in that book [“They Listened in Secret”] and he said it’s always a severe test of endurance and application to maintain a searching watch over a long period, which it was really. We survived. They took most people straight from school or otherwise I think they felt we were in a learning mode.

To give you that focus?

Yes.

We had a very good social life. I think it was in the first year that I was there I got dengue fever, which apparently everybody did. I went up to Kandy on sick leave which is up in the hills which was nice and we met up there, there were two or three of us and there were some Kings African Rifles officers up there. They were Europeans, but all the men were Africans, and they went back to Colombo too. So we had quite a social life and had quite a lot of fun. I had my 20th birthday in Kandy, which was great, it was much better than my 21st because I was working all night.

In that two year period, did you get to go home on leave at all?

No.

What was mail like coming through?

It wasn’t bad at all – my parents used to write to me quite often.

A friend of mine had an introduction to some tea planters up in the hills and twice we went up there on leave, which was very nice, but otherwise had a leave station up in the hills and so you could go to that if you wanted to, but I never did.

Just to back track a little bit, did your sister join the services?

My sister was very upset because the war had finished by the time she was old enough. She was four and a half years younger.

We had a VE parade when the war in Europe finished across the Galle Force Green. Of course when the war finished in Japan, we really had nothing to do, we were just hanging around for a boat to go home. But what did happen was the prisoners of war came through – the ones that were actually fit enough to travel and they looked pretty awful I might say. They came into Colombo in Hospital Ships and any of us who weren’t doing anything, we went down and we all boarded a lorry and took them to the race course, I think, for lunch. They were a bit taken aback, because a lot were regulars and they had never seen women in uniform, because they had been out East before the war. They had had a terrible time really and so they weren’t really communicative, which is a shame. I saw one person I knew actually walking down to the dock.

I went home on the Strathnaver, which was another P & O Boat and got back and I think I had Christmas at home that year. Then we went down to Southsea to be demobbed. I got a job in a bank and I didn’t like that very much. Then I did a secretarial course and got a job with a management consultants, which was a bit more interesting. I got married in 1949 and we lived in London for a bit.

Did it take London long to recover from the war?

Yes there were pockets of bombed out areas for ages, even when we came out here in 1958.

Of course rationing carried on for quite a while afterwards didn’t it?

Yes we had got so used to it.

Yes I noticed people just carried on…

Yes my father had a factory and he was in the Home Guard and so he was going over there at night. My mother, would you believe, was called up, because my sister was fourteen I suppose, which didn’t give her any leeway and she was an ambulance driver. She didn’t know much about engines and cars, but she had to learn a few things. I think they moved several times to various rented houses. Then what happened at the end of the war when the houses were repaired – ours you can see two houses together – the other house the other side of us was demolished. It wasn’t repairable, but ours was repaired. Before we got back there, there was a requisition notice on it for homeless families. So my father very angrily said: “We were homeless, thank you very much.” And so we had to move back very smartly, because otherwise we would have been minus our house. It was years before some people got their houses back. I don’t know if they [my parents] wanted to go back, but it was a matter of having to really.

My mother in-law was bombed the same night, she was a few miles down the road, and I didn’t know her then of course and I think hers was requisitioned, I don’t think she ever did get hers back. So it was a bit tough for some people.

I think people have an idea the war finished and everything just goes back to the way it was and it obviously doesn’t.

Why did you immigrate to New Zealand?

My husband had a job in London with my father’s firm and we were living in London. It was quite good for a bit. It was a family business, my uncle, my father and another man. I think they decided to sell up or close it down. We tried a bit of farming, we went and worked on a farm in Buckinghamshire, pigs and poultry and I went out plucking turkeys would you believe. In the summer we used to pluck a few which I imagine went into dog food or something, but they were absolutely riddled with fleas and I would go home itching. Peter was farrowing pigs and things and he used to come home stinking of pig. Eventually we moved to a town on the border of Sussex and Kent and we stayed there for about three years I think, but we really didn’t have enough capital and so we thought, oh let’s immigrate. Canada was a bit iffy, because it has very seasonal jobs. I had a Wren friend whose father was Director of several pastoral companies in Australia and we went and saw him, and he said: “If you want to make money go to Australia. If you want a more pleasant life, go to New Zealand.” So I don’t know whether we did the right thing or not, but here we still are. We came in 1958.

It was relatively easy to immigrate wasn’t it?

Yes we paid our own fare. We came on a cargo ship the Condesa, which had a flat bottom, because it usually went up the River Plate. We got into Wellington the beginning of December, it was an absolutely stinking hot day and we were getting the Limited the next day. So we asked the skipper if we could stay on board that night and he said, “Yes”. All the others were going to get the ferry down to Christchurch. So the Customs Officer came on board and he said to us, “What about you two, where is your luggage?” We said, “It is still in the hold, we aren’t going until tomorrow.” He said, “Well if you think I am coming back tomorrow to check your luggage you have got another thing coming.” He looked at us and we looked at him and he said, “Just tell them Len Phillips says it’s all right.” I always remember his name. So the next day, which was stinking hot, not a thing open on a Sunday in those days, dying for a drink. The taxi driver took us to Wellington Station to get the Limited, he spent the whole time telling us we were mad to go to Auckland, Wellington was so much nicer and he could find us a nice place to stay. We caught the Limited which was an education, we rushed out for our cup of tea at Paraparaumu. We had some friends who had got here three months before us.

When you caught the Limited was that during the night or during the day?

It was at night.

We had some friends who were already here that Peter used to work with and they found us a bedsitter in Remuera, which was helpful. It wasn’t easy to get a job at that time right over Christmas. Peter got a job in the Pink Pages and absolutely hated it, he wasn’t a salesman. I got a job with Downer and Company and I used to check all their invoices, which was quite a good thing to do actually because I learnt the geography of New Zealand pretty smartly because they had jobs every where in New Zealand. I used to go on the switchboard relieving at lunch time.

Did the place names blow your mind initially?

Yes.

I remember one day I went to the purchasing officer and he said to me, “Would you like to come with me to pay the men?” They were building the Rosedale sewage place and I said, “I would love to”. He said, “Just a minute, I must ring them, because it is a hot summer day and they are likely not to have any clothes on.” Out we went and I think I was with Downers about fifteen months and I saw an ad in the paper, the British High Commission wanted a librarian, but not necessarily qualified. So I went after that job and got it. It was a new office, a British information office and they were just the First Secretary from London and there was a Secretary and a librarian – me – and a film librarian, because we had a big film library. So we opened the office at the end of 1959.

Where was the office?

It was in Shell House then. I really enjoyed that and I was there for twenty-four years and then I became the assistant information officer, because the information officer was in Wellington. We used to send a lot of material of ours from England, to schools, libraries, but that has changed quite a bit. I got sent on an Information Officers’ Course after I was promoted, to London, to England at their expense. So I had a three week course which was about a week in London and then up to Scotland and Newcastle. It was very nice, I enjoyed it. There were twelve of us I think. My husband followed over when I nearly finished the course. I think I was over there nearly six weeks because I took leave.

Then over the years the whole thing altered a bit because instead of sending things about England to schools and libraries, it got very trade orientated promoting British exports to New Zealand. So in 1986 I got an MBE for my trouble, because I used to deal with all the trade magazines and when there were trade missions coming out I used to do their publicity and so I got to know quite a few businessmen coming out from England. Quite a lot of receptions we had.

Where were you living at this stage in Auckland?

We lived first in Awatea Road after we got out of the bedsitter, just off St Stephens Avenue in Parnell. That was interesting because our landladies were above us and we had the downstairs flat and they were great gin drinkers, awful rows they had sometimes. I can remember once my husband had to go down and fish one of them out of the flower bed she was so tight. Then we moved to Gowing Drive, we built a house there, which was a mistake, because it was all young families and we hadn’t got any kids and were working and so it really didn’t matter. Then we were there for a few years and then we built an apartment block in Speight Road which is one back from Tamaki Drive that was okay, we were upstairs. The trouble was we started off with three other families and that was fine and then we ended up with three widows. Every time we got home from work they pounced on my husband and wanted something done and we thought, we don’t want this in our retirement. We had a little business with handy magnetic cupboard catches and we couldn’t find a place over there [city side] to do it and so we came over here [North Shore] and we had premises off Diana Drive. I retired at the same time. My husband went on until he was sixty-five and I used to go and help him. I had retired at sixty. I had had enough. We had a Consul General, and a Consul and an Immigration Officer and they all came from London and they changed every four years and they were getting younger and younger.

We had moved here then [present home] and we went off to England when I retired for a couple of months. My mother was still alive, she lived until ninety-one and so it was good to go and see her.

Thank you very much that was really interesting.

(End of interview)

10 Responses to Leading Wren Telegraphist Jeffrey – Oral History

  1. Sheila Cunningham says:

    Hello Peggy, that is an amazing history, very interesting, thank you. As I was born in Surrey too and came here in 1956 I could relate to parts of it. My sister is the same age as you too. You are an inspiration. Sheila

  2. Tim Burt says:

    mY mum, at the time Beatrice Gwendoline Martin, known as Gwen, was in Colombo at the same time as Peggy.Her training sounds also very similar, London, the Soberton Towers in Hampshire then Scarborough and eventually a posting to Colombo. I have laods of photos of my mum and some of her Wren friends and the places they were posted to at home and abroad. My mum died in 2012 and would only provide us with sketchy details of here war service, she had signed the Officilal Secrets Act and took that Oath very seriously and would never give any detail of what she did for fear that there would be a knock on the door from the MoD!!

  3. Lesley says:

    My mother Margaret Macdonald Scott was a wren in Colombo and also boarded a P&O troop ship to Bombay to get there. She too enjoyed some days in Bombay before catching another ship to Colombo. I would have liked to meet or hear from anyone who shared those years there with her staying at the Wrens Residence which was a grand house near the race course which was requisition during the war and belonged to the Obeysekera family. It was interesting to read here about her work as a Wireless Operator using Morse code. Sadly she died quite young at the age of 55. After the war she had returned and married an Italian Naval Officer whom she had met on the same British Troop ship out of Bombay and who had been posted to an Italian submarine in Trincomalee to join Allied forces against any Japanese invasion during the last years of the war. My parents had both returned after the war and remained in Ceylon until her death in 1973.

    • Tim Burt says:

      I have photos of the residence called Kent House at Colombo with my mum and various other Wrens, I could scan some of these and post them on email

      Regards

      Tim

  4. Lesley Graham says:

    Dear Tim
    That is so very kind of you. It would be wonderful if our mothers were friends! I also have some photos and notes in diaries. I could send these if you let me have your mother’s maiden name? Can you send these to me via the site or do you need my email? Kind regards, Lesley Graham

  5. Tim Burt says:

    My mum’s maiden name was Beatrice Gwendoline Martin. She was born in July 1922. She was always known as Gwen or some papers we have she’s referred to as Gwennie. We think she had a ‘beau’ out there called Joe who was we think in the Chindits and may have died in Burma.

    I’ll post some photos on here if I can.

    Tim

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