Chief Wren Driver Joan Matthews – Oral History

It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mrs Matthews. 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 with Chief WREN C.J. Matthews at her home 3/141 Mokoia Road, Birkenhead, Auckland on 13th August 1993.

Now Joan my understanding is that your maiden name is Williams and you joined the WRNZS as Joan Williams.


Perhaps you could start off by telling us a little bit about your family background, where you were educated, where you lived and the run up to you joining the WRENS. Were approached or did you apply.

I was born in Hawera in Taranaki, originally my people were farming people, but my father had a yen for transport. He had a slight heart condition which according to the doctors in those days he couldn’t work on the farm. He decided to go across to Hawkes Bay to Napier, where he started a little transport business. I am the eldest of four girls. I was educated at Miramar Central School then Wellington East Girls College. We were in Napier at the time of the Napier Earthquake which I remember quite vividly, I was 8 at the time. My mother suffered a miscarriage and was taken off down the country and the three of us were boarded out by Dad because the Transport was taken over for transporting the dead to parks for identification etc.

Just as an aside, do you remember the Navy ships there?

I don’t, but I have heard since that they were there, my father knew that of course. Soon after that my father went in for a bigger transport company that went from Napier to Wellington. He and his partner decided that one partner should be in Wellington. To Wellington we went and of course that’s where the business really grew. It was originally the Napier/Wellington Transport which then went onto Napier, Wairoa, Gisborne as well. Finally it was bought out and became New Zealand Freighters. An Australian Transport Company run by a man named Abels tried to get Dad to move to Australia but he wasn’t interested.

When the war came I was actually working in Dad’s office, I was very close to my father and one day he walked in, he was a very tall man and he said “You are going to learn to drive a truck”, I could already drive a car, but he said “You are going to get a truck licence because the men that are offering to work now the war has started are utterly hopeless and at least you know Wellington well”.

You were living in Wellington ?

I was living in Wellington.

I was quite thrilled at this. Each driver in turn as time allowed would take me in his truck and I would drive it around Wellington. That’s where I learned driving around Wellington and before long got a Heavy Trade licence. At the time that was classed as semi essential industry. They did do work like transporting Army biscuits, I remember I used to hate it if I landed the Army biscuits, they were in heavy cases. Other defence work also was done by the Transport.

My father had a secretary at the time who I would rather not go into the details but sufficient to say that she was a Jekyll and Hyde. I saw one side and obviously my father saw the other. I got that I could not stand her, my only way out was to join the Services. As the Air Force started up, and the Army of course I asked my parents if I could join, no, no way they wouldn’t allow it. Then this day there was this news item about the WRENS, so I asked again and said “Well this time I have been to see them and I have got the papers”. I said to my father “The lady says that she knows you”, and he said “Well what’s her name ?”, and I said “I don’t know she didn’t say”. How stupid you are at 18/19. It was all in the paper in a day or two, Miss Herrick was her name. Dad knew Miss Herrick, she lived in Heretaunga out of Hastings and of course the Transport had done jobs for her, so she actually had met my father. She said to me “Why are you dressed in slacks and a shirt”, which wasn’t common in 1942, to be walking around the streets like that, I said “because I am driving a truck”, and she said “where is it ?”, and I said “well there it is down there outside Navy Office”. As I drove away I still remember looking up and Miss Herrick was standing looking out the window watching. In those days it was considered an unusual occupation for a girl, but that is exactly what she happened to want in a hurry, drivers. As you would understand sailors at that time, a lot of them, had been put into the Navy as boys, there was a Depression on and the way I had it told to me was their parents put them in the Navy because they knew they would be trained for some sort of work, they would be fed and clothed but they didn’t have the opportunity to learn to drive. I am talking about the lower rates, the AB’s and so on. Consequently the Navy had few personnel who could drive. Now this also presented a problem when first I got there in that the men were a little resentful about this bit of a girl. There was another WREN who used to drive the engineer. She did nothing but drive him around, Nancy Olphert (WREN No.5), her father and her brother were well up in the Navy and it escapes me exactly what positions they had. She drove this Engineer and he had to go to the ships if something was wrong or had to be put right and that really was her full time position driving him around.

This was a Naval Engineer ?

Yes a Naval Engineer he was a Commander if I recall, Earnshaw I think was his name.

Anyway our paths rarely crossed with other girls, if we did see each other we got quite excited, but in fact it didn’t happen very much. I was at the Hinemoa Street Base where I reported for my first day. They didn’t even ask to see my drivers licence, I could have been anybody. I walked into that place and said “I have been told to come here, I am going to be a WREN”, and they said “what do you do ?”, and I said “I drive, that’s what I think I am to do driving”. They said “well go and get the Commodore, there is nobody to go and get him this morning. His driver (a great big fellow named Brunton) is sick, now we have got nobody here who can go and get him.” “Where does he live ?”, “go up to Tinakori Road and you get into Murrayfield Drive”, which I found with no trouble, it was slightly raining. I remember passing this tall man in a Navy raincoat with a white peak cap which meant nothing to me, there was no insignia, you could see nothing as to what he was, he could have been a bus driver, and I just drove past him. I remembered afterwards he did look at me, with Navy No.1 on the car I am not surprised he looked at me. I got to his house and his wife came out and gave me a dressing down for not paying attention to what I was supposed to be doing. The Commodore had already walked to Navy Office, I must have seen him she said. She never at any stage said “well how long have been there, what are you doing in civilian clothes”, she just dressed me down and told me to go back to Navy Office and report to him, which I did.

You weren’t in uniform or any thing like that ?

No I was in civilian clothes, I had not one thing on me to identify me as a new recruit and I thought well this is going to be great isn’t it. (I managed to cross swords with Lady Lake a couple of times later, however.) I reported to Navy Office and finally was taken in to Commodore Sir Atwell Lake, who was a perfect gentleman, laughing because he saw the silly side of it and said “Don’t worry its quite alright I am here safely and you go back to Hinemoa Street and I will see you again sometime”. Well I saw him several times because if a ship came in, it might be ACHILLES or LEANDER or one of the ships, he would go off in the ship for two or three days. He would take this driver Brunton with him you see as his Batman, that left me having to deal with Lady Lake, other than that I was forever going to ships to get sick people to bring them to the doctor or the Captain of the ship to Navy Office, I was a taxi service for all and sundry in the Navy.

What sort of vehicles did they have ?

You had to go across to the Public Service Garage which was just right beside the Hinemoa Street Depot, having gone over about six sets of railway line there was the Public Service Garage.

They weren’t dedicated Navy cars ?

No only this one, it had Navy number 1 on the front, it was a black Vauxhall car, it went very nicely, whether they ever took Navy number 1 off it, I don’t think so. I think it was the only car probably that the Navy owned, they had nothing else at the time. You would go in there to get the car, you would sign for it for the day. Some of the cars were old, so decrepit. The one I used to get quite often to go out to the JANIE SEDDON, the Examination Vessel at Seatoun Wharf, which we will come to, the door handle wouldn’t keep the driver’s door shut. Whoever was the signalman or the pilot or the engineer all in the car with me, one of them would conveniently hold this thing shut all the way to Seatoun. Then my problems arose returning because I didn’t always have anybody to come back, we used to take one crew out and bring one crew back, but that didn’t always work. Sometimes someone would sail up to 48 hours and if you had this wretched car and you were the only one in it. It was a bind to try and keep the door done up, I would tell the man at the Public Service Garage about it, but nothing ever happened. There was always a big sigh if I ever had this car, but it went like a bomb. It was an old early Ford, you know a real box type Ford. Then a pattern emerged, every morning my first job was to go and pick up two Signalmen from Hinemoa Street, drive to Queen’s Wharf gate where I picked up a Harbour Board Pilot and an Engineer, he must have been a Harbour Board Engineer and take the four of them to the Seatoun Wharf. They said “Just drive right down the wharf”, which I did, I wasn’t very happy about that but I did it, and like all wharves it just had a big barrier on the end to stop you falling over. The crew would change and I would take the old crew back to town. This was fine until one morning I was sitting on the end of the wharf waiting for them to change over, when a gun from Fort Dorset shot a couple of rounds across the bow of a ship coming in to the harbour. Wellington Harbour with all the hills around it resounded very loudly. I had never heard a big gun go off before. Well I thought if this is the war what a fool I was I should have stayed home, stayed in the Transport. However the ship stopped very, very quickly and the Janie Seddon crew were all so excited, everybody was jumping up and down on the wharf watching all this. It turned out that it was some sort of American ship that hadn’t given the right signal to enter the port and they were just letting them know. That only ever happened once for which I was glad. I suppose for months really that is what I did, every morning, back and forth to the Janie Seddon.

When did you get a uniform ?

I must have been there a couple of months I would think before the uniforms arrived. At the wharf gates it really was quite funny. The old guys on the gates, old fellows that stand watching things come in and out checking people on and off, they had a friendly parrot that they had for many years. It reputedly had never spoken to a woman, it only swore when there were men around but it wouldn’t talk at all if a woman was present. When first I pulled up there to get these guys an old fellow wandered over to me from somewhere. He said “Don’t speak whatever you do and I will tell you why”. He said “We are going to fool this parrot, when you get a uniform we are going to put you in front of the parrot and he will speak”. This was a real thing, 50 years ago it was quite funny we thought. Well the day came when I got a uniform, I was allowed to speak and get out of the car. I stood in front of that parrot and it never said a word, it never did, it had them bluffed. The parrot understood which was a man and which was a woman by looking at you obviously.

What did the uniform consist of ?

It wasn’t the horrible blue overalls, I went straight into a proper uniform, that was the delay, they were all tailor made.

A jacket and skirt ?

A jacket, skirt and hat and the shirts and all. There was a big intake of telegraphists soon after I was in and we all went to the tailors to be measured. He was to do a rush job but before it was ready to be given out to us it must have been the best part of two months.

What sort of hats did you wear ?

Quite a big brimmed hat and we longed for the day when we would get the little Navy blue one the same shape as the men, but that was quite a while. It had to be at least a year before we got them, we thought we were made because the jolly thing stayed on better in the Wellington wind. Can you imagine meeting the Commodore on Aotea wharf having come off one of his little jaunts away on the ships, trying to salute him as he got into the car in a Wellington gale hanging onto your hat as well, it was just hopeless. That’s the first wide brimmed hats I mean.

You had to wear skirts all the time, you didn’t have a working suit ?

No they never gave us those. Drivers needed to be smartly turned out, I would think Miss Herrick wouldn’t have been in favour of slacks at that time. I believe the Telegraphists and so on did have slacks for duty at night for warmth. But they were not worn out except by the boat in Auckland, there was no boat crews in Wellington. It was full uniform at all times. Mind you the skirt was reasonably long. We got these uniforms and were very delighted at least people knew who we were at last. Then the first of the Americans arrived and the story I was told was they were going to put in this ASDIC I think they called it out across the Harbour entrance. They were without any transport because it was sunk on the way here, that was the story I understood. They had to rely on the New Zealand Navy for transport. There was one particular fellow in charge who was bright and breezy and having done the JANIE SEDDON run I would then have to often get him and take him out to Worser Bay. I remember him saying to me “What’s your name ?” and I said “Williams”, “no, no what do they call you ?”. He said “Well what do your friends call you ?”, and I said “Joan”, and he said “Well I am Hank and you are Joan”, that was it. Of course occasionally I would have him in the car as well as the JANIE SEDDON people, that must have been by arrangement because then I would get a bigger car. The New Zealanders did not like it, they didn’t like this fellow calling me Joan, it just wasn’t done. Worser Bay, where Mary Morten was, had American and New Zealand crew. The story that circulated was that the equivalent of an American AB got about the same pay as the New Zealand Lieutenant Commander in charge of Worser Bay. This caused problems. I think the Americans might have moved on then when their job was completed.

Worser Bay is still there isn’t it, I think we were chatting about this when I first met you ?

I believe so.

It’s at the bottom end of Awa Road ?

That’s right.

On the right as you go down ?

Yes that’s right a two storied building. Well that was hastily being finished when all the personnel got there.

You stayed living at home ?

I stayed living at home, there was never any question in Wellington that I would do any thing else. I never did live in Wellington at all and if I had to work late I was either escorted to the tram at Lambton Quay by the Railway Station or if it was very late then whoever was the duty driver might have to drive me all the way home, and that’s how they worked it.

Do you remember some of the other names there. Commodore Sir Atwell Lake was the CNS, who were some of the other ?

There was a Commander Stirling-Hamilton, now the double barrelled name just stuck in my mind. He was tall and looked pretty good in uniform. When the Commodore went away he seemed to stand in for him and that’s when I had to drive Lady Lake and Commander Stirling-Hamilton would be with her. The one time that I do recall taking the two of them was to an All Nations Day, some name like that. The Chiefs of the three Services were going to be present and several schools, colleges and so on in the Island Bay area were putting on this reception. Lady Lake got into the car at Murrayfield Drive and then we had to go down to Navy Office and collect the Commander. Lady Lake wanted to arrive at a minute to two and I thought how in the world am I going to manage that. She gave no explanation as to why she wanted to be there, just at a minute to two. I realized afterwards, I was in trouble because the Air Force car followed us up this long drive at about half a minute to two, Lady Lake wanted to be last to arrive. We had had no disciplinary course, we didn’t understand the first thing about the etiquette on those occasions. Whereas the normal driver would have known, nobody bothered to tell me and I presumed Lady Lake would have been as ignorant of this as I was that we just hadn’t been taught what to do. I was in the Navy over a year before I came to Auckland for a Disciplinary Course which did give you basics about the Navy and how it operated.

You hadn’t even been taught how to salute, you just picked it up ?

Yes well old Colour Sergeant Brecken at Hinemoa Street taught us those things and he drilled us and we walked up and down, he walked us to Ngauranga Gorge and back.

Where did he operate out of ?

He was in Hinemoa Street and exactly what he did I cannot tell you. There was this one room where there were these old guys that used to sit around with their very smelly pipes. I would imagine they could have been engineers, exactly what they did escapes me, but they had come back into the Navy when war was declared. In Hinemoa Street there was a DEMS Office, I used to run them around a little bit and Lieutenant Commander Gibson, an English Officer who was in charge. There was a big Stores Department, the man there was a Lieutenant Mitchell, a young fellow. These old engineers like the Colour Sergeant, exactly what else they did I honestly cannot tell you, but there was this room full of elderly gentlemen who had been retired for some time before the war.

Just recalled I suppose because of the war ?

Yes and exactly what they did I really do not know.

Where abouts in Hinemoa Street was this ?

Well it was the old RNVR Headquarters and a big old building, a two storied place a bit rickety. You know the long stretch down to where the Aotea Wharf is at the bottom, about halfway down on your right you went across these railway lines and there was this two storied old building which at the far end of it must have been right onto a wharf. There was a saw milling place next to it, goodness knows what that was, nothing to do with the Navy, it made an awful noise. That’s where we all had to be until Shelly Bay was built.

The Colour Sergeant was the only real instructor ?

That’s right and what he did, when I think back on it he was very good old Colour Sergeant Brecken. He not only drilled us in the naval way, taught us to salute, gave us all a chance to drill the squad as well and in his own way I guess taught us quite a bit about the Navy. He had the smelliest pipe of any man I know. Years later on a bus travelling from Devonport or Bayswater to Castor Bay I was sitting in the bus and it occurs to me I was probably pregnant, I think I must have been, because the smell of this pipe was just too much. I was always not so good in the early pregnancy stages. This particular smell I thought, I have only smelt that smell once before, old Brecken’s pipe and believe it or not he got up from the back of the bus and we were most delighted to meet each other after several years.

It was the same chap ?

It was him, it was Colour Sergeant Brecken and he lived up the top of the Castor Bay Hill. I was going to my in-laws beach place which was just about right onto Castor Bay. At least he knew that we needed to learn to do some drill and he taught us a lot in those early days.

How many girls were there, you were number four, how long did it take for a few more to join you ?

Well for a couple of weeks or more there appeared to be nobody and I got to the stage of wondering what on earth I was supposed to be doing and then all of a sudden there was quite a few. There was this class of telegraphists, there must have been probably 15 or 20 of them, the doctor was at Hinemoa Street and they all came there for their medical examinations. Then almost immediately there was quite a big group that came in typists, writers that sort of thing, telephonists and so on that manned the actual Hinemoa Street offices. There was a couple in the DEMS office, several in the Stores and for the general running of Hinemoa Street Depot. I think its correct title was (N.T.D.) Naval Transit Depot.

Do you remember the doctor, was it Dr Kronfelt ?

No the first doctor we had there was another real gentleman, he was a Dr Ewart who was a Women Specialist. We understand the men had him on at great length that at last he was coming into his own, there was going to be some women to deal with. His Sick Bay Attendant was an Irishman by the name of Paddy but what his other name was I do not remember, but a delightful old guy he was.

Mary Morten was WREN number 20 something, so these telegraphists would have been between you and her or were they post Mary ?

That’s right they were, the one that I remember the most was one that I knew well and went in the Victory Contingent with she was Nan Barker. They were in alphabetical order and she was number 7, 5 was a driver previously mentioned, 6 was a writer and she was in the regulating offices in Hinemoa Street. Those two had come. Then seven to up into the twenties were listed as a class of Tels. Believe it or not we hardly ever saw them again because they were Watchkeepers and they were up I think some where at the Wellington Museum.

Where did they do their training in Wellington itself ?

They must have been trained in Navy Office I imagine, but who trained them I have no idea, because as I say we hardly ever saw them. Until one day, will I ever forget it, a little tiny submarine came from Fiji and it had to have repairs. It was way down Aotea Quay at the wharf there and someone in their wisdom decided that this would be good for the WRENS to see. We had been taken over a warship that had come at various times, but this would be educational for us to go onto this little submarine. I suppose by this time I was a Leading WREN, that also escapes me, but I had a loud booming voice and old Colour Sergeant Brecken used to say “they can hear you in a Wellington wind”. I had had a little bit of training at making them march and forming up correctly etc. This particular day I was to march this group of 39 WRENS to the wharf to go over this submarine. Well it is still in my mind, apart from the Napier Earthquake as a child, it stands out as the most frightening thing I ever did in my life, it was like a toy I realize now. The men slept on the forms that were by the table they ate from. The Captain was a Lieutenant and to get into his bunk all he could do was pull a curtain and then crawl onto his bunk, there was only walls on either side of his bunk. This submarine had the most peculiar smell. I don’t know what that was maybe it was diesel, it was shocking and I had the most awful case of claustrophobia. We went down a rickety ladder to get onto it and came up the same way.

Was this a British submarine ?

I presume so, oh yes it must have been British, but its name or why it was there I do not know. They said it was for repairs and whether they towed it there or what they did I can’t tell you. We got back onto the wharf and I said to the WRENS “Everybody form up in exactly the same positions as you were when we came”. We were one girl short and I thought well if she goes to sea in that submarine I don’t care, I don’t care what happens to me, but no way in the world am I going looking for her and yet being in charge I should have done. I said to them “alright who is it then ?”, everybody’s in the same position and a little voice from the back said “oh she had to go early she was a Tel and she had to go on duty”. She should of course have told somebody, but she didn’t, you see no one had told us such things, she just went off, and I was never more thankful in my life that I didn’t have to go back into that “thing”.

As I say I was the taxi service and the likes of Mary Morten and Flora Patton as she was then, I drove them to Worser Bay on their first day. I was their first contact with an actual WREN who had a uniform and they saw what it was like. For the Worser Bay girls I was a bit of a life line, they didn’t have much leave and if they did they used to have to walk to Seatoun I think to get trams to get to town. Their mail and little bits and pieces that they needed in town I could always get for them.

They were the catering crew ?

They were yes. They had to wash every thing in cold water to start with, the building wasn’t quite ready and hot water wasn’t turned on. I think they wondered what was happening to them. Like a lot of the girls who first joined there was nothing set down and of course some of the men didn’t make it easy for you. They would use naval terms and talk about things that we never understood. The classic one by little Midge Lee, she had been in the Navy a year before she knew what the Heads meant. They thought it was extremely funny that we didn’t know, those sort of things.

Mary Morten mentions in her interview a Naval Unit out at Petone ?

That’s right, I used to go out there with stores. One girl who must have been a cook out there, who I simply don’t ever recall seeing, greeted me at a reunion like a long lost cousin, she had to tell me who she was and where she had been. You can imagine like a taxi driver you don’t remember your previous fare and it was the same for me. I used to go out there with stores and things. It was only a small place, quite honestly I don’t know what they did.

It might have been where they trained telegraphists. There was some talk that it was secret stuff.

Well I think it must have been.

It may well have been where some of the girls did their telegraphist training.

It may have been.

They were intercepting Japanese radio traffic at the Headquarters in Wellington. There is some talk that that is what it was.

Well it could have been. There was a Warrant Officer Gardiner who had come back into the Navy, he was an engineer I think, but he was out there at the time. For me it was just a question of taking stores or dropping people off that were joining the Navy or changing from ship to shore and this sort of thing.

How long did this time in Wellington last for, you were driving all the time in Wellington ?

I was driving until I had eye trouble which would have been about 18 months. Because I had to get glasses they wouldn’t have you as a Driver. From there I went into the Regulating Office and there was always people going on leave coming off leave etc, quite a busy office, absentee’s etc to be dealt with and offenders of all kinds.

This was in Hinemoa ?

Yes this was still in Hinemoa Street.

Then I was sent to Lyttelton for about 3 months where I worked in the Regulating Office. When I came back Shelly Bay had started.

Where were you stationed in Lyttelton?

Across from where the Ferry pulled up, TASMAN they called it.

It was actually TASMAN at the time.

It was just a small base out there and quite a small place altogether, but I quite enjoyed it. They were very good to me. Thinking back on it, it was fairly new, I don’t think it had been there very long. They had no one who understood exactly what to do in the Regulating Office, the paper work. I knew a little bit about it and that is what I did. When I came back I was in Shelly Bay. I was only in Shelly Bay for a short time and I was drafted to the Philomel Drafting Office where I stayed for the rest of the war.

What date are we at the moment, roughly which year and which month ?

Getting near the end of 1944.

To go back to Hinemoa Street just for a moment. The silliest thing there to me was that they had a Transport Officer who took messages for the taxi service that I operated. He couldn’t drive and he didn’t have the slightest idea about the workings of a car or anything else and was hopeless. He had no idea how long it was going to take you from A to B, I found him a bit of a clot actually. What he did all day quite honestly to this day I do not know, except to tell me where to go next in the car, which was often just to Navy Office for papers. There were troop transports like the AQUITANIA, ships like that, and it took me a little while but I would be given the papers in Navy Office and told that I would hand them to the Captain of the ship only. I realized then and worked it out that within 12 hours the ship had gone and what I had given them was their sailing orders. They were sealed with the red seal and I would go to these various ships and hand them these papers and over night the ship would disappear, that sort of work.

They would have had special Naval instructions as well as their Merchant Navy orders.

It came from within Naval Operations in Navy Office, that was where I used to get them and was always told the same thing, “You hand these to the Captain and the Captain only”. It all went well until one day the Captain wasn’t onboard, and I gave it to the Second in Charge, I worried about that, but anyway nothing ever happened, it was perfectly safe.

I came to Auckland and was introduced to my new boss who was one Commander George Tidswell, tall, very good looking, who everybody liked. In hindsight what he did escapes me, except stand by the windows looking at the warships from the Drafting Office. I suppose it is still the same place in PHILOMEL up in the corner of the top floor, it looked out onto the ships that were in port. The story was that he hated being in an office job and that he would have much preferred to be at sea. Every morning we would have Drafting Commanders requestmen. They would line up outside his door and he would say to me something like “I wonder how many pregnant sailors we have got this morning”, who on compassionate grounds wouldn’t want to go to sea. As I recall he was pretty good about it when he could be. The first thing that I do remember was right across these draft cards was “key rugby player, do not draft”, “key soccer player do not draft”. I thought, come on a minute, they are able bodied men. Just because they play rugby was that a good enough reason to keep them ashore. But it was, with a war going on, that rocked me slightly, I couldn’t believe that such things happened, I was a very naive young girl. The WREN who was leaving had actually worked in the Naval Dockyard as a civilian and she had gone into the WRENS and had been in the job all the time she had been serving, she was married and she was to have a family and so she left. Her story to me was you couldn’t write down what you did it had to be told to you because that was the way Nelson did it. That it was a secret job as to how you sent a crew to sea, what a load of rubbish. For the New Zealand Navy it was silly because they didn’t have many people in the engineering section alone and gunnery was a headache. Some of them had all sorts of gunnery qualifications and they had little tiny metal discs that stood on the top of their draft card. When the Drafting Commander would say I want somebody to go to a certain ship, quite often we wouldn’t have anyone suitable because he didn’t have the right gunnery rank or some such thing, he had been trained I presume on a different gun. It was modelled on obviously what was done in England, but we just didn’t have the specialist manpower. Able Seamen sure we had them and we had stokers but when it came to a little bit further up the scale we seemed to be short of them. However some how we must have got by. We were busy if a ship came in and a lot of men were coming off and a lot were joining, but to this day I fail to see why it was supposed to be fairly secretive. For instance the actual big drawers that the cards were kept in was in the Commander’s Office. When you were actually looking up the cards he was sitting there talking to you, well quite often he had to, to tell you what he wanted anyway. That door was always shut, nobody went in there unless you happened to be the one that was working on the roster.

Was it just Commander Tidswell and yourself ?

Just in there, but there was a room outside, well there were two rooms. There was a Chief Petty Officer there who had a lot to do with victualling I think. There were 2 or 3 boys who were Writers, it was all to do with how many people on the ships and the supplies and every thing to do with it, but they seemed to be part of the actual Drafting Office.

Commander Tidswell regular Navy or Volunteer Reserve ?

I think he could have been regular Navy.

Did he have straight lines ?

Yes he had straight lines, exactly his background I don’t know. Apparently he had been at sea most of his time and that was where he wanted to be.

Another fellow followed him a bloke named Lieutenant Goldie whom I did not like. Commander Tidswell must have gone back to sea.

Was he a Commander ?

No, Goldie wasn’t, he was a Lieutenant as far as I recall. He was probably quite a clever man but where as the other one had been a very easy approachable man this man was a totally different kettle of fish. He said to me this day “I want you to explain to me what you do with this Longest at Sea, Longest at Home Roster”. I started to explain, which was going to take quite a little while because different Branches did different things. I can’t recall a lot of it, but I remember only getting halfway through and he said “yes that’s fine I understand thank you very much”. I thought I haven’t got to the end yet, but he was a bit pompous. The boys christened him `Gadsby’ I remember that and `Gadsby’ he was known as and you had to be very careful that you didn’t actually say Gadsby instead of Lieutenant Goldie. But I think he could have been Hostilities Only, he could have been in the RNVR. He didn’t last very long, I don’t know why, but the next fellow to come was one Commander Francis Nigel Featherston Johnston, and he was a character. He wasn’t the slightest bit interested in the war, a frightfully nice guy, supposedly very wealthy. I remember him saying that his naval pay took care of his mess bills, I think that was his comment. In other words it was chicken feed you see for him, but a very endearing man who had a beautiful, for those times, Lagonda car. His story was that in New Zealand there wasn’t a road around Auckland that he could get his car into top gear, how true it was I don’t know. I longed to have a go at the wheel of that car but of course I never got the chance. He must have been there right up until the end of the war had come and I was going off in the Victory Contingent, what happened to him I never knew. One time which was totally out of order he asked me to go with him, he was going to get a house to bring his family to Auckland, they were down the country somewhere it might have been the South Island I am not sure. He had heard of this flat which was a big one, would I go with him to look at it from a women’s point of view what would I think about it. Into this flash car we got and away we went all in naval time of course. The flat was in Northcote, Clarence Road, Northcote, I now have a friend who lives almost next door to where he took me this day. It was a horrible bumpy clay road all the way from Takapuna I do remember that and we looked at this great big empty flat. His family did join him there later. As I say what he actually did as Drafting Commander I would say was not a lot. A nice guy and a good talker, but for the war effort I doubt he did an awful lot while in a shore job.

(end of Tape 1)

(beginning Tape 2)

Where abouts did you live in PHILOMEL ?

At the WRENS Barracks at the top of Victoria Street there where the two theatres were and then you go up the little path, I think they are still there aren’t they ?

That’s now Devonport Community House.

Well that’s where we lived. Sometimes we walked along the top road Calliope Road and sometimes down through the shops. We walked backwards and forwards, as we had to go back to the barracks for lunch. We thought it a bit silly in the wet weather, we weren’t able to get lunch at the Base. That was a very happy time there with Mary Morten in charge and by that time I had become a Petty Officer. To start with I was still a Leading WREN when I went there and then I became a Petty Officer WREN and really enjoyed that time. I was still in the Drafting Office, so I must have been there all of `45 I suppose.

Were you there when they had the fire in the WREN Barracks in Victoria Road ?

No I don’t remember.

Mary Morten talks of a fire in the recreation block when the pot belly stove caught fire.

I just don’t recall it I could have been on leave but I don’t remember it. There were some funny incidents there, for instance at that particular barracks they had an enormous clothesline where all the girls panties used to be pinched off the line. They sent a very young policeman up to interview those who had lost things off this line. Well of course as you could imagine one or two of the girls looked at this young policeman and thought “we are going to have him on”. In those days it was a locknit material we wore. We never had any money of course and the panties got ladders in them like stockings did. When the ladder would run down, one particular girl used to catch the ladder with whatever happened to be in her sewing needle, whatever colour at the time. She said she could identify her panties quite easily because all these ladders were caught with different coloured cotton. Well this was too much for this poor young policeman and so back he went and a hard bitten old sergeant of police came to see us and sorted us out very quickly and we had to use drying rooms for them. They still allowed people to go up the hill to the top, people actually lived up there. I suppose rationing was on and here were these lines full of things, they used to probably pinch them for their girlfriends. I suppose too you could have lost some to other WRENS for all I know.

How did you sleep, did you have a big dormitory or did you have rooms of your own ?

No it was all set out in rooms, each girl had a little room, sorry there were two to a room in a lot of cases and it was all quite nicely done. There was a curtain wardrobe and a chest of drawers, two very hard bunks, but we were always so tired that we slept anyway. We were quite well catered for really. The only thing that stands out in my mind about food there was scrambled eggs. I didn’t eat scrambled eggs for years after I came out of the Navy because when it came out of whatever the cooked it in, it looked like an enormous slab of butter. It was egg powder, it had a peculiar taste, but other than that the meals were good.

You had your own cooks there ?

Oh yes. We all had certain duties, we must have had to help with dishes at night or something like that. Like any Naval Establishment it had a lot of cockroaches and I didn’t go much on them, you got used to them because you had to.

That’s where you stayed the whole time ?

Yes I stayed there all the time until we were off in the Victory Contingent in April of `46. It came over the radio that there was to be a New Zealand Contingent and any serving personnel could apply, but that if you had length of service etc well you know that would help you, a clean record and so on. By now I was a Petty Officer, it must have been sometime in `45 that I was promoted. Other girls even in the Petty Officer’s Mess said to me “this isn’t fair, you have a distinct advantage because you have been in Wellington and the Director and the Assistant Director are known to you”. Well I told them as a driver of course I was known to them, but to many WRENS it seemed to be an advantage. I am sure Miss Duthie who was the Head of the WRENS at that stage in Auckland thought the same that I shouldn’t have been picked because I had been in Wellington and therefore I knew Miss Herrick and Miss Fenwick, but picked I was. I was up having lunch at the barracks and I was wanted on the phone which was most unusual. I remember having to go into this other room and a Petty Officer Tel who I knew but not well, was on the phone and he said “Cheerio dear I will see you in London”, and I took it that I had been chosen to go. I had to go back in, sit down and carry on with my lunch with a poker face and as I left to go back to the base, one girl said to me “you are going aren’t you ?”. I said “How do you know ?”, and she said “Because you had a phone call, you’ve come back and it would have bubbled out what it was about, and I knew instantly that it had to be something that was secretive”. I said “I guess I will found out eventually.” We were back at work a couple of hours that afternoon before finally we were called into Miss Duthie’s Office.

Did you go into a training camp, did you have to do preliminary training before you went off to this Victory Parade ?

We were assembled in PHILOMEL but only for a matter of no time at all and were kitted out. Now at that stage they had uniforms that had been handed in and we were made to go through them until we got one that fitted us that was perhaps better than the one we had.

So you all got equipped ?

Well as good as they could, but not new, nothing was new and they looked us over to see that we were in pretty good nick. We had a bit of drill but it was all fun. Inoculations to follow which incidentally played up merry hell. Some of us were quite ill as a result of the injections. We couldn’t have been in Auckland more than a week or two and then onto the train for Wellington where we got the ship. We probably did have a bit of drill but not a lot.

Did you join up with the other two Services ?

No this is just Navy on our own at that stage and it wasn’t until we got on the MAUNGANUI in Wellington that there were the others and we all integrated with them then. We didn’t have any idea even who else was going. There were very few Navy men and again Lieutenant Commander Dennerly has the list of everybody. The GAMBIA was to be in England at the time and it was pretty sensible really that they used the men from there, which they did. We were trained altogether then in places like Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park we would drill and out where the women all were at Bushey Park.

Do you remember any of the Army people ?

I ask the question because my uncle was the Sergeant Major he was known as the `screaming scull’ George McCullock, does that name ring a bell to you ?

Yes it does and I can’t put a face to him.

Very thin, very wiry sort of a guy ?

Well there were two Sergeant Majors I remember. The WRENS were put for dining purposes on the ship in with Sergeants and Warrant Officers not the Nursing Sisters or Women Officers they were with the male officers. Women from the three Services were in this the Sergeant’s Mess. We had Air Force and Army Sergeants with us. There was another Mess which must have been all men, sergeants and the like, but in our particular Mess there were about 8 or 10 and two of those were Army Sergeant Majors. One was Walter Batty who used to be an All Black many years ago, a great big Tongan guy, another was Bill Kennedy. My recollection of it was they must have drilled our particular section. I remember them particularly, but then I sat with them. What happened was I had just become engaged to Gordon and it was two or three weeks before we even knew about the Victory Parade. I guess we had been living it up and visiting people and by the time I got onto that ship what with the effects of all the inoculations, I still think of it as a collapse rather than actual sea sickness, I just felt I would prefer to die thank you and that went on for about four days. They used to laugh at me afterwards as when Captain’s rounds came around I used to lie there with my eyes shut as though I was dead. Well the girls forgot to keep a place for me at the table and I had to sit with these Sergeant Majors and Air Force Sergeants. There weren’t any Navy ones as I recall and these two Sergeant Majors said “Look we have done a lot of sea travelling we know what’s good for you”. I had to sit with them because the Head Steward was a nasty piece of work and he wasn’t going to have any mucking around with people changing their places. I had to sit with the men because I hadn’t been there on the first day. Well it was the best thing that ever happened to me because these two fellows took me under their wings. There was another one Ron Stitt who had been permanent Army. He sat opposite me and these two others sat either side of me and there was no way they were going to let me give up. They said “Right you tell her stories Ron to make her laugh and that way she might eat a bit to get over sea sickness”. That’s what he did and the first story he ever told me was “Why does the sea roar ?”, and I said “I haven’t got any idea”, and he said “Well if you had that many crabs crawling over your bottom you would roar too”, just funny little things that have stayed with me all my life and I laughed and according to the other two took a couple of mouthfuls. The other WRENS kept apologizing to me for days, they were bringing me food back to the dormitory but nobody thought where was I was going to sit when I finally got there, but these two Sergeant Majors were very good. That night after dinner they walked me for two solid hours around the deck and I never looked back I was right from then on. One little aside, this great big fellow Walter Batty, years and years later I was going, in our own business, from the office to the bank which was in Wellesley Street, I had just my basket over my arm with the banking in it, when suddenly a pair of huge arms came around me and said “I have got you now”. I thought, you hear about these things and here I am with the banking and I turned around here was Walter, who said to me “You have no right to be carrying the banking”. I never did again I always put it in the proper bag and I heard sometime after that Walter had died so I never saw him again. On the ship we had to drill, (Lieutenant Commander Dennerly actually has a photo of us drilling on the ship.) That was to keep our feet in good condition and the nursing sisters once a week would actually have a foot parade and they would check our feet. I presume they did it for all the men as well, they certainly did it for the girls, so that we arrived with feet in really good condition because of this long march that we were going to go on.

It took about a month I suppose to get to UK ?

Well just over the month really because the Hospital Ship MAUNGANUI wasn’t the fastest thing in the world and yet very comfortable because we were in wards like it had been as a Hospital Ship. We had about 15 or 20 to a ward. The other officers who went, Lorelle Corban of course was one, she was in charge, and the other one was Myna Percival, now Myna Dodds from Wellington, a lovely person and someone of course I had known in Wellington. She used to come down and lie on one of the bunks and we could hide her, just to yarn to us because she was sick to death of officers only. `Percy’ as we always called her was in a proper cabin with two bunks in it. She used to long to be down where we were with open spaces, it was lovely. We had a jolly good time on the way. They had all sorts of entertainment and we made our own entertainment. Peter Awatere the Maori Colonel actually taught us to do a haka and believe me we could do it well. I can’t do it right now, but we learnt that and he was a delightful character. There was an intensity in him when he was trying to get a bunch of WRENS to do the haka. There were some great characters amongst the people who went, people like him, and we didn’t realize at the time I don’t think just some of the campaigns that some of those men had been in. We stopped in Tahiti where there was a New Zealander I don’t know what they called him but he was like in charge of any thing to with New Zealand there. They took us on a route march to help our feet and it was hot but we managed it and then we didn’t stop again until Panama. They didn’t make us march there but still around the decks for so long every day, it was very chilly I remember when we were in the Atlantic, some bad weather and then finally we arrived in Tillbury. We were lucky enough to go into WRENS Barracks at Sloane Gardens in London with English WRENS, who some of us wrote to for years and they had tremendous stories to tell. One particular girl had been an ambulance driver all through the Blitz. We didn’t know there was a war on compared to those girls, lovely people and lovely surroundings to be in and they were so good to us. The New Zealand Army and the Air Force girls were very envious of our time there, but then we were all put into Bushey Park towards the actual march which was about the 7th of June 1946, so we were there quite a little while. We must have been there 3 weeks to a month training. We would be taken in on big Army trucks to Kensington Gardens or Hyde Park and there we would march.

Now Admiral Ted Thorne was one of the New Zealand ex GAMBIA officers there ……

Well of course we didn’t know him because he joined us there.

He talks of being in camp at Hyde Park.

He could well have been with the men. In fact that’s right because obviously there was a lot of them there. The women were brought in these trucks from Teddington in Bushey Park every day and we were all mixed up together the Army, Navy and Air Force women, but not the men.

That must have been a great day marching in the Victory Parade ?

It was absolutely tremendous. I can remember we all lined up in Hyde Park and there were these frightful looking things that turned out to be latrines that had scrim covering only so far. It was fall out the Navy, so all the Navy men went in and there was a row of white spat things at the bottom and the white hats along the top and then the Army and the Air Force and so on. They did have different ones for women but they didn’t hide much, I remember it was terrible, but we all had to go before we started on the march. We were lined up there for some considerable time, I remember the British Navy Contingent coming in. They had us all lined up thousands of us and finally it was time to move off. We actually marched a little distance before we got to where people were and heard the enormous cheers. I remember just thinking I’ve got to keep my feet and my arms going in time to that band and try not to take any notice of what else was going on and believe me that was hard.

It was a very emotional moment ?

Very emotional. The spectators had these little things like a mini periscope, you could see all the people at the back had them to see over the heads of the people in front. Twice during the march we were stopped. Now this was because at some stage Army vehicles and so on were getting into the parade and also to give us a slight break. Actually the New Zealanders got mobbed by the people. A break was right, all we did was sign autographs by the yard, people were saying oh it’s so wonderful for us New Zealanders to be there. I remember at the end of the march we were extremely tired and it had started to rain and somehow we got back to Sloane Gardens to the WRENS Barracks again. We must have brought every thing that morning from out at Bushey Park and from there we went on leave. It was a very emotional day and as we walked past the saluting dais, (we had been taken past it before in practice), there was everybody, all the Prime Ministers, the Royal Family, everybody who was anybody was on that stand and there is a very good shot of the actual WRENS, the New Zealand WRENS with that all in it, a terribly proud moment. You wanted to actually almost cry, it was a strange feeling, extremely emotional because by this time having met up with the English people etc, and all they had done in the war, ours seemed a pretty small contribution to what the English people had made.

We were in these long Army huts at Bushey Park and realized that the fellows outside who did the gardening were German POW’s from a neighbouring Air Force place. There was always guards with them, but this particular day one was walking by and little Bunty Piggott, (the one that was on television recently, and had been in the Blenheim secret place during the war), here she was taking off Hitler and this guy looked through the window. We weren’t altogether happy about that, we were just a little bit isolated, 12 of us in this hut. But to return o the actual march again. It was a long hard day and it was starting to rain and we were pretty wet. We were glad it was over and yet I find it hard to describe all the emotions that went through you during that time. The hardest thing was that the band in front of us and the band behind us weren’t quite in unison. One was a Scottish one, which we would have much preferred, but there was a fairly noisy Brass band ahead of us and weren’t too sure which one to follow. So that you had to concentrate quite a bit on what you were doing.

I think that is always one of the problems of a long march.

You had a period of leave over there ?

Yes then we had a period of leave and we went off with our particular friends. A lot of people had various relatives of course that they wanted to see. I had a distant relative that my Grandmother wanted me to go and see and I did do so, that was at Southport, so we all went our separate ways. In my case I went to spend a little time with this very elderly lady in Southport and was taken by her niece from the other side of the family to Chester and places like that. I did go to Birmingham first of all, visited relatives of a Petty Officer Ray Shaw who I worked with at Shelly Bay, who was married to an English girl. When I was drafted to PHILOMEL he asked me to visit his wife, as she was lonely and she didn’t make friends easily, I think I had met her when she had been to Wellington once, a lovely person. She got me to go and visit her family in Birmingham which I did and they showed me around a little bit, but we didn’t go far, I suppose I was only there a day or two. They had got a turkey on the black market, and if there was one thing I couldn’t stand it was turkey, but I ate it manfully. When I came to move on to Southport, they handed me this lunch because you wouldn’t be able to get any thing to eat at the stations at the time, and I was handed these turkey sandwiches. I thought that is one meal you are going to miss Joan. When we got to Southport I said to this old Aunt, “I’ve got these turkey sandwiches”. She had a companion that looked after her, they devoured these turkey sandwiches and you realized then just how hungry people were, they couldn’t get over their good fortune that I didn’t like the sandwiches and they did, and ate them there and then in the middle of the afternoon.

From there I went onto Scotland where we met up again with a lot of our own girls. They had a hotel that had been taken over in Edinburgh for servicemen, but it was given to the women who were there on leave, in Herriott Row. I always remember that we could walk to the city from there, but we could also go to this big hotel where all these service women were. We used to have great evenings for instance there were Indian women there in Naval uniform, beautiful saris and gorgeous jackets, three quarter length they were and the diamonds in their heads and all the rest of it, Naval Officer uniform. This particular day we decided that we would change uniforms. I guess some of them might have photographs of it but I guess we couldn’t take photographs very well inside in those days. We met women from all over the world who had converged on Edinburgh on this leave we were all granted. Then we would get back to the Herriott Row place at 11 o’clock at night. We had to be in by eleven I remember and our mail would be there and we would sit and read it in the daylight, we didn’t turn the lights on, we couldn’t believe it.

We went one day to the Trossicks which is like a Lake District a way out of Edinburgh. We went to Callander and that must have been where the bus took us from Edinburgh I suppose. Anyway we went for this long walk along beside this lake and there were a couple of Army girls, a couple of Air Force girls and about three Navy girls all friends. This little girl of about 8 years old appeared beside us, “What were we doing here, and we said “Well we’ve come to England for the Victory Parade”, I must have said it, because she stood with her hands on her hips and she looked up at me and she said “Woman, I will have you know you are in Scotland”. She said “the Scots hate the English”, and she left me and talked to the others. When they questioned her about “did she go to school” this sort of thing, she hadn’t been to Callander which was 14 miles approximately away from where we were. We had got a bus to get there and then a train back to Edinburgh, but this little thing she knew the Scots hated the English. That was just a day trip, we weren’t in Edinburgh all that long and of course we had to go to London and back to Tillbury and home.

What ship did you come back home on ?

The MAUNGANUI the same ship brought us home again. Coming home we had heard that we were going into Gibraltar. First of all we went to a reception at the Goldsmiths Hall in London and the present Queen was there, we were to meet her, which we did and had afternoon tea, all very nice. She said to us “You girls have come further than anyone who attended the Victory March”. I don’t think this had occurred to us that we had come further than anyone else. She said “You’ve come through the Panama Canal ?”, “yes”, “and you are going home through Suez”. We said “oh are we”, we didn’t know, nobody told you anything, we were quite excited because we were going to actually go around the world. Princess Elizabeth was very charming and she said “I haven’t been out of England”. She talked just like a girl to other girls, very charming indeed we thought she was, we were very tickled with that day in London.

Then back through Suez, the story was that we were to put in at Gibraltar, we thought this was going to be wonderful, we were going to see the Rock of Gibraltar. As we got there we were told, very sorry we weren’t going, the Australians were ahead of us and they had caused all sorts of problems in Gibraltar, the New Zealanders were not welcome and we went to Malta instead and we had a day in Malta. On the way over and as we were coming back, if you left the ship, the men protected the women so well, which ever man was with you or usually two, went and got you from your Commanding Officer which in our case was Johnny Holms, (Holm’s Shipping Company Wellington), Denny Evans was the second in command. I don’t think they actually signed for you but they made themselves responsible for you ashore. I went with this Sergeant Major Walter Batty and we had 4 or 5 hours around Malta. When we got back to the ship there was Peter Awatere quite drunk in a canoe. He was paddling himself around the MAUNGANUI making a terrible noise and some how Walter Batty realized that he had to do something about this. I went up the gangway, I didn’t want to know them, I mean a drunk man was just something quite beyond me, I had been brought up so strictly and I was frightened of them, and they were great big fellows. Anyway Walter ended up in the canoe too and around the ship they were paddling. They had all sorts of fun to get those two back on board. Where the canoe went to I don’t know, but here we were all looking over the side and these two were singing and carrying on, it was quite disgraceful. I think some of the other women thought gosh you were ashore with poor old Walter, but he was a perfect gentleman. Funny little things like that stick out in your mind.

Then we got to Port Said, we didn’t get ashore any where there, I think there were some problems there. We went to Colombo, had a lovely day in Colombo, but again back on board our own ship at night, you’ve got to in places like that. In Fremantle Gordon had cousins who took me out for the day. We went into Perth, we decided that it was time to shop for gifts for home. We had odds and bits from Colombo. I remember a Squadron Leader in the Air Force, and he had ever so many nieces and nephews he had to buy presents for. He got into a shop and he bought about 21 various sizes of singlets, the only thing he could think of to take home to all these. One girl Enid Patchett a Chief WREN with us, she bought a lovely white handbag, real good value we thought and when she opened it up and was showing us once we had left Fremantle here was a little label that said “Made in NZ”, we were surprised. So back home we came and then were discharged.

From the Navy ?

Yes we were discharged then.

Straight away ?

Well yes because by that time the war was over.

In fact the WRENS were disbanded weren’t they ?

They might have all gone by that stage by the time we got home, I think they had because we just simply went through handing in every last detail that we had, we weren’t allowed to keep one thing.

I gather that you couldn’t keep your uniform or any thing ?

Nothing at all, absolutely nothing, what we had was all checked off, everything was handed in. Then they discovered it could have presented a health hazard and the whole lot was destroyed later I believe. Not a thing, not a cap badge, not a rank badge nothing we had. I had one thing from the Victory Contingent which was the New Zealand shoulder flash, which Lieutenant Commander Dennerly told me was an Army one anyway. I remember it had come a bit loose and I remember thinking I will have to fix it and by that time we were home. It was on the summer uniform which of course was Army gear and we hadn’t used much, I just pulled this thing off and I thought well that was the only thing I had. I remember the Stores Petty Officer wasn’t very pleased about that either, just nothing were we allowed to keep, whether any of the others got away with any thing I don’t remember. Then we all disbanded and didn’t meet up for years.

I got married about 6 to 8 months later, the beginning of `47, and the Naval Strike was about a month or two after I was married and we were living out at Castor Bay. There was a chap named McDonald who lived out there too, I must have known him previously but don’t remember much about him until that particular stage. He saw me one day at the little tiny store there at Castor Bay and he said to me “did you realize the Navy is looking for WRENS who did certain jobs and might be prepared to go back, at least write down what they did”, and he said “would you do that ?”, I said “I have just got married”. Then the next thing Master at Arms Harris turned up one day and he said “they really are looking for people who know about certain jobs and they think you know about the drafting one could you help them ?”. I agreed to go back, I was allowed to live at home and the first thing they got me to do was to write down every thing I could remember that the Drafting Office actually did, mainly the Long at Sea, Longest at home roster. I could remember the jokes about Nelson would not like this it was supposed to be a secret job, but how could anybody be trained for it if some where along the line they didn’t write it down. I worked there for a few months and it all seemed so pointless.

Just with Harris ?

No. I was in the Drafting Office, not Regulating Office.

No I don’t know where he had gone, but think he had gone off to sea again. Harris knew me from Shelly Bay days, so maybe he was asked to find out if I would go back, because I was known to him.

How long was it just a few months to that time ?

Yes I don’t think it was even a year.

How many WRENS were there at the time, you were one of a few ?

Well Lorelle was in charge, I would have been the next in line, I was made a Chief WREN, presumably because I was next in seniority and I suppose there could have been 20 or 30 of us initially, in fact no more came for a while.

Did you have a WREN’s Mess then ?

From the main entrance in PHILOMEL as you started down the long corridor off to the left there was a Mess there which was for WRENS, and on the other side there could have been Petty Officers I am not sure. There were no WRENS doing catering, we were all in office jobs at that stage.

You lived separately you didn’t live with the male Chiefs ?

No we all went home at night, the whole lot of us. One or two of them joined because I think they lived around Devonport way.

Did you have problems in the Drafting Office because of the strike.

This is where it got so stupid there was nothing to do.

There was nobody ?

There were hundreds of them that went out the gate, I have forgotten how many. One of the first jobs I had was writing on the draft cards “services no longer required in the Navy”, “discharged in such and such a date”, that sort of thing. They must have given me a certain amount of work to do, it was just in the Drafting Office but there were very few to draft. I felt it was all very pointless and I decided that the time had come when I would be far better employed at home. We had been living in what was my In-laws beach place at Castor Bay and we were thinking in terms of buying a house, you know an old place and do it up, which we did of course in town, but until I got out of the Navy I couldn’t do that. I put it to Lorelle Corban one day that I thought it was time to move on, Gordon’s mother was totally incapacitated with terrible arthritis and his parents were fairly old, he was by far the youngest in the family and they needed help and they needed someone to live with them for a time. This we did until we finally talked his father into having a housekeeper, so that we could have a home of our own, but they needed help and I just felt what I was doing by this time in the Navy was fairly pointless work. I just simply told Lorelle that we had this bit of a problem with Gordon’s parents and that I was looking at the possibility of a discharge and what did she think about it. We hadn’t signed on for any length of time as I recall, we had just gone in to help them to get themselves into gear again. Your heart wasn’t in it the same. How long some of them stayed I don’t know, because I did lose touch with most of them. I remember at that stage an intake of women who had been marching girls and they were going to show the Navy how it was done. Very self assured little ladies they were and I had the job of marching them up to the doctor, the dentist and all the things, the round trip you had to do for your medical etc if you were thinking of joining. There was a group of them that obviously knew each other and they were going to teach the Navy all sorts of things and they asked me as we went around how long had I been in the Navy, what I had done, had I been one who went overseas. They discovered I knew a little bit about it. I remember saying to them “don’t think you are going to teach the Navy any thing, the Navy will teach you but you are not going to teach the Navy”. I think they thought gee this doesn’t sound so good, because there was only one way to do a thing wasn’t there and that was the Navy’s way. Whether they came in and were recruited I don’t know, but I remember having two or three different lots, up to about 20 of them I suppose at a time and they probably did join the Navy. That’s when the Navy realized they were going to need WRENS again for all sorts of things. How long it took them to get into gear I don’t know. If there had been another war the New Zealand Navy would have been out of it wouldn’t they at that stage.

There we are you have finished your naval term. I suppose the final question really is would you do it all again if you had the chance ?

Oh yes, very much so. Yes I look back on it as a great time. I got a free trip around the world out of it too which was a bonus. It cost my father 40 pounds, I remember we were allowed to take 40 pounds spending money and he said “If a daughter of mine can go around the world for 40 pounds she is welcome to the money”. Yes I would do it all again, and I still have good friends who have remained friends all my life.

Well that has been very, very interesting and I thank you for your time.

(end of interview)

1 Response to Chief Wren Driver Joan Matthews – Oral History

  1. Graeme Thomas says:

    A wonderful yarn and much enjoyed.

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