At a Wren's Degaussing Station by Patricia Bridgen Farley, excerpted from Birds of a Feather: A Wren's Memoirs, 1942-1945
At the beginning of World War II, the Royal Navy was considered to be the finest of its kind. It ruled the oceans, literally. But not under the seas. The Germans had been masters of that area since the previous global struggle, World War I, and were intent on disabling their enemy's power by any means they could. Pre-war, the British Isles imported a majority of its foodstuffs from overseas, namely, lamb from Australia, corned beef from Argentina, citrus fruits from Florida, Israel and the Mediterranean, and the list went on.
As soon as the war began, strict rationing went into effect, and merchant ships used more of their cargo space to bring in valuable equipment and armaments than food.
After France and the other countries capitulated to the Nazis in early 1940, the struggle became even more strenuous. Although the common folk did not realize it, the British Empire was nearly brought to its knees by one thing - the loss of shipping - both British and Allied. Convoys going across the Atlantic lost most of their ships and precious cargoes, because the Germans had a powerful fleet of unchallenged U-boat hunting packs. They also used giant magnetic mines in the oceans that would explode with great force as soon as a vessel sailed over them. No submarines needed there.
The news was so grave that Prime Minister Winston Churchill told his cabinet and team of scientists that getting rid of the magnetic mine menace was of the utmost importance and priority for national security. He said we can build more minesweepers, use more convoy ships and 'planes, to safeguard the Atlantic and North Atlantic routes, but we can't do anything about the mines except eliminate them. Not exactly his words, but you can understand what a problem faced the government.
And that's roughly how "degaussing" came about: The name derived from a brilliant German mathematician, Karl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), who had achieved the honor of having his name, Gauss, denote a unit of intensity of a magnetic field.
Steel ships have many components of different ferromagnetic characterization. The magnetic field generated by threse ships, so pondered the fabulous back-room boys of Churchill's scientific and technological team, caused deviation of the magnetic compass and would trigger magnetic mines or other explosive devices. They proposed "degaussing," the neutralization of the magnetic field of a ship, using properly located and oriented current-carrying coils. These coils would produce a second magnetic field of desired strength and in the opposite direction of the field generated by the ship. Sets of degaussing coils would be arranged around each vessel, depending on its size, to compensate separately for the three components of magnetization.
The government set up several degaussing inspection stations around the country; one was in Harwich on the southeast coast but it was too close to the enemy, as were some of the others. The safest place was north, in Scotland, and it was decided to use an old concrete fort from World War I, located on the Clyde opposite to Greenock and Gourock - very busy ports that handled many vessels, merchant and military. It was here that I received my indoctrination into degaussing operations.
The Fort, as it was always called, was a stone's throw from the Barn, and we passed a full workday there, six days a week. If we had an early call for a ship, we would be there and, in the summer months when it stayed light until almost 11:30 pm, due to British double summertime hours, we could be working after 9 or 10 pm.
There was deep water close offshore to our offices, deep enough for the biggest aircraft carriers and warships to make several runs through a selected passage, marked by buoys, while taking the degaussing tests.
Special underground cables ran from that area up into one of the buildings, where the information was processed in a temperature controlled room furnished with camera equipment. The data would emerge onto heavy photographic paper, encased in rolls located in a row of machines. Our job was to wait for the data to appear in its entirety, rip it off the machines, and take it into the darkroom. There we would develop the photographs in a hydrochloric solution. When they reached the correct intensity, we washed them thoroughly in clear water and dried them on a huge revolving drum. I can still smell the chemicals and feel the heat in that room, but it took me quite a time to realize what we were actually doing - learning how to process photographs!
The finished product was brought into the adjoining office where we traced the graphs onto special paper for the civilian engineers. All corrections and suggestions from the technical people were passed on to the ship's officers by means of semaphore, that is, with flags, or Aldis lamp, using the Morse code. There was no need for anyone to leave a ship to talk to us.
Sounds relatively simple, doesn't it? In reality, it was a long and rather boring procedure for us. A bit like a soldier's life, 10% pure hell, 90%, just sit around and wait. Appointments for testing came through the Helensburgh naval base and could be made several months in advance; sometimes, if a ship came into the Firth for other reasons, the engineering officers might decide to take a chance and schedule a few runs.
As the vessels we tested were mammoth, with plenty of tonnage, it took time to swing them around to return through the degaussing range. The weather, also, did not favor us every day. Storms could quickly develop, and it was awesome to see a mighty cruiser so close to shore, battling the currents and the gales. One November, it rained all day with such fierce, strong winds that, by nightfall, a merchant ship anchored in midstream broke its moorings. As it drifted shorewards, the keel ripped through the underwater cables on the range. Next morning, when we viewed the damage, we knew immediately it was enormous. It took two weeks to repair the range and we all received an unexpected but enjoyed two weeks leave!
The staff at the Fort consisted, firstly, of two civilian engineers. Considered indispensable by the government, they remained working there until the range closed. They certainly did not inspire any of the Wrens to get to know them better. Jack, a small, sandy-haired young man with a thin, bony nose, always reminded me of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. You know, sort of fawning but contentious, as well. Bob was the friendlier of the two, rather like a big cuddly St. Bernard's puppy, a James Stewart type, shy and bumbling. He once referred to me, quoting Shaw, as "a rag, a bone and a hank of hair." I admit I was very skinny then but didn't appreciate the epithet. One of our Wrens, of a rather plumpish figure, dated him for a while. She was one of those who didn't stay with us for long, and their romantic history is lost in time.
These two technical specialists shared the best office at the Fort, with a large window facing the water. There was also a small room with a tiny fireplace where we would boil pans of water for hot cocoa or tea. Later, when we used the electric kettle that my father sent us, it made tea-making much easier.
For night time security, the Fort employed two male retirees. They took turns staying overnight until we opened up the offices in the morning. Two different personalities, indeed.
John Turner was a lanky, taciturn man in his mid 60's, gray in face and gray by nature. He was not friendly to the Wrens, "those females" as he called us. I do feel sorry for him now, as I learned later on that he had committed suicide soon after we left Portkil. He must have suffered terrible worries or problems. But, at that time, we all thought he was just a disagreeable old man.
MacNeill, however, was a different matter. He was a perfect dear. Stocky, with a sunburned, wind-burned, reddish face, sparse of hair but not of smiles and chuckles, and a decidedly wicked grin, MacNeill loved to tease us, "his girls." He would come plodding into the station after the long walk from Kilcreggan accompanied, as always, by his faithful terrier, Boots. It would be four o'clock, and he would expect the kettle to be on the boil. His wife would have prepared his supper and, sometimes, she slipped in a few cookies for us.
MacNeill was a joy to talk to. He presented a kindly, grandfatherly appearance so you wanted to confide in him. As most of us were away from home, it was nice to have someone like that around when your own grandparents were not available. Once you got over the gruff voice, he was, as they say, a pussycat. But he could scare you with tales of life on the Glasgow docks. He had been a policeman there for many years. It was a rough and crime-ridden area, and stories of slashed throats, drowned Lascars and cocaine running made all of us look around the path when we trudged on home to the Barn.
I remember so well how the old policeman made fun of the way I made tea. "You've got to let it come to a roiling boil," he would say, time after time in his inimitable Scottish accent.
Years later, when I returned to Scotland for the first time after marriage and two children, I walked on that familiar beach looking for MacNeill and Boots. That had been their custom, an evening walk before settling down for the night. There he was, a little bent over and not moving as quickly as before, but still the same old MacNeill with the HMS sailor hat pushed back off his brow. "Do you remember me?" I called out. He looked at me for a few seconds, then laughed and said, "Why, you're the little lassie who couldna' boil water!"
We had a jack of all trades young man, Alexander, who did part-time jobs around the Fort. I think he was still going to school but any memory of him does not seem to corroborate that. He took out the garbage, made the fires in our small room and the engineers' office, and went into the village to pick up and send our mail. I can see him now, the typical growing-too-fast teenager, wearing a sweater too small for him, corduroy pants that also showed too much leg to be a fashion plate, and a general disheveled appearance. He also rowed the boat we kept tied to the jetty and, once a week, would bring in the rations and any visitors from the launch. I often wonder what became of him. Did he mature into a handsome Scots, or continue in his lackadaisical mode. I did hear the rumor that when he reached 18, about the time we left the area, he joined the army. He was physically strong and probably made out alright. The war was winding down and, hopefully, the Fates would not put him in any dangerous situation.
I lost a favorite cousin in Germany in March '45, not long before the war ended. Turning 18 after high school graduation, he had joined a Scottish regiment and had been at the front for only a short time before he was killed. His mother, my aunt, never recovered from his death and died soon after from a stroke.
When I first started at the Fort, our two signallers were sailors. As the war escalated, they were transferred to other naval bases, and ended up going to sea. So, the Wrens took over, and they did as good a job, if not better, than the males. Caroline and another girl, whose name I cannot recall, were our first female signallers. Although I didn't know the first thing about the craft, (they were trained superbly at a Wren station down south), I really enjoyed going on the beach and trying to master the flags. I remembered some of the alphabet from my Girl Guide days. The Morse code was harder, but Diana and I would also practice outside with the Aldis lamp on our breaks.
I can remember some amusing incidents with our female signallers. Whenever signallers on board the ships that we were testing for degaussing errors noticed that the slender shapes in heavy blue serge sweaters and warm navy slacks were women, then their messages took on a decidedly non-naval tone. Especially, if the ships were American! Sailors would lean over the ship's rail with field glasses, waving frantically. I don't think our engineers, Jim and Bob, appreciated the attention, and I am sure the officers on board were not too happy, as well. The girls became accustomed to the yelling and staring after a while, and they just laughed it off.
We believed, and still do, that the ongoing attention may have caused one of the American ships to go aground one day. They drifted closer to shore and got caught at low tide. Very embarrassing, as they had to wait until the next tide, four hours away, before they could move the vessel. We waved to them as we walked back along the path to the Barn. Those oversexed Americans would have to look at the water for a while, we weren't coming out again!
I loved to walk on the beach in my spare time, and gaze at the many ships anchored in the Clyde. I've always loved the salty smell of the ocean, and I would fantasize about the sailors from many lands who were anchored now in midstream. In the summer, we Barnites often went swimming off the jetty, but it wasn't recommended too highly because the water was greasy from so much ship oil. We would go looking for flotsam and jetsam, and sometimes struck it rich with a grapefruit, escaped from a merchant ship's cargo. We never saw citrus fruit during the war, so you can imagine how carefully we washed the oil from the skin and shared it with each other.
My first look at death occurred on that sandy strand. I noticed a strange white shape one morning lying huddled up amongst the seaweed. MacNeill was with me. We had been walking together with the dog. "Don't go any further," he warned me. "Go back to the Fort and tell one of the men." It was probably a sailor who fell overboard while drunk or ill, who knows. I was never told, and didn't look out at the beach until the object had been removed by the local police.
On another occasion, I was ironing in the living room at the Barn, when I looked out of the window towards the jetty. I saw one of the doctors in naval uniform come down the path from the hospital. He started disrobing and, at first, I assumed he must be going to take a swim in his underwear. But it was not exactly the middle of summer. I soon stopped ironing and took a closer look. I recognized one of the psychiatric doctors I had met in the officers quarters, and realized that this man intended to swim, whatever the climate. He plunged into the water and seemed as if he were trying to reach one of the merchant ships out in the Clyde. He'll never make it, I thought, and immediately went into the hallway to the phone. I dialed the doctors, emergency number, they had given it to us for use if we took sick and needed care right away. I finally convinced someone that I wasn't playing a joke, that there really was someone from their outfit either trying to commit suicide or trying to reach the United States. "Okay, ma'am," said a voice, "We'll send someone down."
And not before I was getting more and more anxious. Help did arrive in the person of three strong hospital corpsmen who jumped into our little dinghy, and rowed out to where the poor man was floundering. Once back at the hospital, he was examined and deemed mentally disturbed, and sent back to the States for evaluation and treatment. We found out that he was married with one child, and desperately missing both his wife and baby, so much so that he was trying to swim to a ship to take him home.
Everyone was upset about the incident, and I was praised for being on the spot and alerting the medics, but no medal! I always hoped that the poor man recovered after treatment and was able to go back to the family he so devotedly cherished.
Mentioning survival reminds me that I, and the rest of our small group, fervently wished that testing the magnificent warships saved them from a horrible fate, and that their crews survived to continue living normal lives after the war. But there were several cases we learned about where ships we had seen on the degaussing range had been sunk in battle, but certainly not through magnetic mine explosions.
On clear days, we could see the two stalwart merchant ships, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, taking their turn in carrying thousands and thousands of American GI's to participate in the forthcoming European theatre of operations. My own future husband sailed on the Queen Mary. He used to tell me about queuing up for breakfast on the ship, then lining up for lunch, and ad infinitum. It took so long to feed the hordes of military personnel that you didn't dare lose your place in the line. He said the ship seemed to zig-zag along the way across the Atlantic, and he thought it was to confuse the submarines. Neither the Queen Mary or her sister ship were ever hit. That would have been a big plum for some U-boat commander.
It gives me a strange feeling to know that the dear old Queen Mary is berthed at Long Beach in California. I visited it once when I was attending a seminar in Los Angeles. I walked the decks, imagining the many feet that had trodden them since its maiden voyage in 1938. Two of my dearest relatives were among those ghostly footsteps. My father sailed to New York for the World's Fair of 1939, as well as my husband's wartime voyage in 1941.
We were never allowed to tell anyone what our job was in the Wrens. When I signed on, it had been made implicit that the work was "secret," and the less said the better. We wore a blue "W" on the left arm of our jackets, signifying "Writer," for administrative work, typing, stenography, and other office positions.
Whether we deceived the enemy is anyone's guess. But, at the very least, Churchill had discovered one way to smash their hopes of winning the war.
So, now you've met the little band of Navy girls, and found out what we did all day to earn our meager pay, only two-thirds of a sailor's salary and, of course, pigeon feed compared to the Americans. But there's another place I'd like to introduce to you.
The 64-page manuscript, Birds of a Feather: A Wren's Memoirs, 1942-1945, is available for $12.95. Please make a check payable to Pat Farley and send to: Pat Farley, PO Box 16, Lake Hapatcong, NJ, 07849.