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Wrens separated by seven decades compare Naval experience

4 October 2016
One spent long hours in a freezing shed listening out for faint pulses from morse code transmitters, working out the position of lumbering warplanes in hostile airspace.

The other guides military jets and airliners through crowded skies from a state-of-the-art control centre.

Two Naval women, separated by more than seven decades – but with more in common than you might think.

Both put themselves at risk for their country, for example – and both are proud of their Women’s Royal Naval Service heritage.

I’ll never forget the weather closing in on us one day as we were returning to base, the Canadian pilot flying with me that day becoming increasingly concerned that we were lost and running out of fuel.

Jacqueline Wolsey

Jacqueline Wolsey’s career began in 1943 when the 17-year-old – then Jacqueline Leitch – joined the WRNS as a Wireless Telegraphist (W/T) operator, specialising in VHF/DF communications and trained to listen for British aircraft off the coast of Scotland.

Now 90, Jacqueline remembers her Service experience as “such a terrible responsibility for such a young woman.”

Through long nights on coastal watch, Jacqueline would sit in a freezing wooden shed in the dunes, listening for pilots’ radio transmissions, reporting and recording their positions.

She would also hear, with alarming clarity, German U-boat signals and transmissions.

Jacqueline and her colleagues were required to fly with the pilots under training for a few hours each morning in their Anson and Swordfish aircraft in order to better understand the pilots’ experience and the necessity for accurate reporting in less than ideal flying conditions.

Jacqueline explains:  “I’ll never forget the weather closing in on us one day as we were returning to base, the Canadian pilot flying with me that day becoming increasingly concerned that we were lost and running out of fuel as he circled looking for land for what felt like an eternity, banking round and round in the mist.”

Huddled in a huge flying jacket to ward off the cold as the aircraft circled lower and lower, Jacqueline nervously scoffed Fry’s Chocolate Cream bars that she had stashed in her pocket.

“I was soon feeling very sick indeed – with anxiety and rising nausea,” said Jacqueline.

“As it turned out the pilot managed to land safely, but we had the emergency fire trucks out to greet us.

“I haven’t been able to touch another Fry’s chocolate bar since...”

After her training at RN Air Stations Arbroath (HMS Condor) and Stretton (HMS Blackcap), Jacqueline served until the end of the war, working at RNAS Machrihanish (HMS Landrail) in a role equivalent to a modern Air Traffic Controller (ATC).

She reluctantly left the WRNS in 1946 as tasks transferred to returning Servicemen and she felt under family pressure to “get married and settle down”.

Jacqueline undertook a variety of careers after the war, including hotelier, police matron and – more recently – a TV and film extra.

But she retained her ties with the Senior Service through the Association of Wrens, and she said she is looking forward to celebrating the WRNS 100 centenary next year...

... as is Lt Helen Edwards, her 21st-Century counterpart.

Helen’s 25-year Naval career began as a Wren at HMS Raleigh, just as new roles were opening up to women in the Senior Service.

The officer has spent almost ten years supporting air operations at sea in big ships, including Ark Royal and Ocean.

Coming ashore this summer, Helen joined the Operations Room of the London Area Control Centre at RAF Unit Swanwick, the military element within the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) operation.

She works alongside RAF and civilian colleagues to ensure the safe integration of military aircraft through the complicated civilian airways structure, while also assisting with the safe passage of civilian aircraft that transit outside of these airways. 

As part of the Navy’s Warfare branch, Aircraft Controllers and ATCs are responsible for controlling airspace around ships and task groups at sea.

They coordinate not only the safe operations of the ship’s own aircraft, but also work with the ops room and bridge teams to maintain a close watch on the flight patterns and movements of other aircraft, maintaining a close eye on potential threats.

Over the course of her career, Helen has notched up a few notable firsts in a field previously dominated by men.

She initially qualified in the Radar Branch but soon found herself amongst the first batch of women going to sea in a mixed ship’s company in frigate HMS Beaver before specialising in Aircraft and subsequently ATC.

Helen said: “I joined because I was looking for an adventure, a job in which I wouldn’t have to commute to an office job, one in which I would get to meet new people, try new activities and one that would be challenging.

“I have found all of these within my time in the Royal Navy.

“I have had a thoroughly rewarding career, met some amazing people and have experienced so many incredible opportunities.”

Helen became the first female Warrant Officer in the Aircraft Control Branch, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, working alongside NATO partners at the busy and austere US Marine Corps’ Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.

Her job was to process and prioritise bids for support helicopters in the flying programme.

Helen played in the Women’s RN Rugby Union squad for years, later becoming team manager.

She commissioned as an officer in 2013 and served in the tower at Culdrose before becoming Aviation Officer in HMS Bulwark, which was involved in humanitarian and maritime security work in the Med.

 “I thoroughly enjoyed my time on board HMS Bulwark – no two days were the same, and it was both challenging and rewarding.

“What made it a pleasure, and much easier, was the rest of my team, the Air Department, who, although small in number, work hard every day.

“That roller-coaster has finally stopped and I am now conducting a period of training in order to endorse as a Military Area Controller at Swanwick.

“I have been assigned to the East and North-East sectors, covering East Anglia, the Wash and all the way up to Newcastle.

“It’s a large piece of busy airspace, where military jets of both the RAF and USAF operate daily.

“There is less controlled airspace over this side of the country , so it is also our job to safely control the civilian planes through.”

The WRNS100 Centenary celebrations will launch on International Women’s Day, March 8 2017, with an event at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

For more details see www.wrns100.co.uk/

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