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Wren remembered at BRNC

26 September 2017
Staff and Cadets at Britannia Royal Naval College have taken time-out to remember a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) on the 75th anniversary of her death.

Petty Officer Telegraphist Ellen Whittall was the only fatality of an attack by German bombers on the College on Tuesday 18 September 1942.  A one minute silence was observed at BRNC and a wreath was laid at the memorial plaque close to where PO Whittall fell. The plaque was unveiled by His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent in 2005.

Few records from that time remain, but it is believed that PO Whittall was married and in her 40s.  She was the only casualty at BRNC throughout the war and is buried in an official war grave in Plymouth.

Six Focke-Wulf aeroplanes attacked the College on that day, approaching from the east, down Noss Creek, so as to avoid the anti-aircraft fire from the town’s defences.

There was extensive damage to the College main thoroughfare and the historic quarter-deck.

It has been suggested that the raid had been carefully planned to take place the day after the Cadets arrived for the start of term.

College Archivist, Dr Jane Harrold

College Archivist, Dr Jane Harrold, said:  “It has been suggested that the raid had been carefully planned to take place the day after the Cadets arrived for the start of term.

"This might have been the case except that every six years one extra week was added to summer leave to even out the terms.  Luckily 1942 was one of those years. Had it not been the case, the casualty list would have been far greater.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the WRNS. With the Royal Navy facing a deteriorating manpower situation in 1917, the only option was for women to fulfil some of the shore jobs.

By the end of World War One, the WRNS numbered approximately 5,000 ratings and 450 officers.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, competition to join the WRNS was very strong.  PO Whittall was among a number of women selected for service and was assigned to BRNC as part of the war effort, while the training of cadets continued.

At the end of World War Two, 75,000 Wrens had proved their worth in a strong supporting role.  In 1949, in recognition of the outstanding service provided by the women, it was announced that the WRNS would be permanently established.

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