Wren trained to intercept German naval signals

Name: Elizabeth Marshall (Agar)
Date: 1940-1944
Unit: WRNS
Location: England

Elizabeth Agar - now Marshall - was visiting England when World War II broke out. She decided her duty lay in war service and joined the Women's Royal Naval Service (Wren) in July 1940 where she was trained to intercept German naval signals.

Her home was in Melbourne but she kept in constant touch with her parents through her detailed letters although she was unable to give much information on the work she was doing.

After an intensive two-week training course at Greenwich Naval College, her first posting was to Portland Bill, a remote wireless receiving station on the Dorset coast. There she was involved in intercepting messages sent by German motor torpedo and gun boats which were attacking Allied convoys.

At Greenwich, she discovered that being a Wren involved learning to drill, to salute, to address officers as Ma'am, to call bedrooms cabins and not to scrub the floor but rather to swab the deck.

"More importantly we were trained to be 'Special Duties (linguist)' operators," Elizabeth wrote in an article prepared in 1994 for the Portland Naval Base 50th anniversary of the D-Day embarkation.

"We all had a good knowledge of colloquial German and our instruction included learning naval expressions (few of us knew them in English, let alone German), learning to receive and record messages in spoken German (including in German phonetic code) and learning both to think and write fast."

"We also learnt how to work our operational wireless sets so we could intercept and identify messages from our particular targets - German motor torpedo or motor gun boats.

"These operated in groups round the east and south coasts of England and their crews talked quickly and briefly to each other as they either carried out direct attacks on ships or laid mines."

At the end of this intense course Elizabeth was posted to Portland Bill in Dorset, one of the first four Wrens to be sent there. They were accommodated in Lloyd's Cottage situated on rugged cliffs.

Watches were long and tiring and could be tedious for hours at a stretch. They carried out their watch duties in the back of the camouflaged wireless van parked outside the cottage. It was cramped and leaked in the rain.

Their relief was to take long walks along the cliffs but they were always mindful of the dangers from above with enemy aircraft always a threat.

Threat of invasion was also uppermost in their minds and an evacuation vehicle was on constant standby. The women even discussed quite seriously whether they would submit quietly to what was euphemistically referred to as a 'fate worse than death' from invading soldiers.

"As far as I remember we favoured dishonour to death!"

When enemy signals were detected there was a burst of hectic activity.

"The speech was sometimes clear but often frustratingly faint and fragmented," Elizabeth recalled. "And those atmospherics! How our ears ached."

Elizabeth said that the really tiring aspect of the watches was the never-ending need for conscientiousness.

"We had, after all, to find the German signals; they did not just come out of a receiver, set on a particular frequency.

"We had to 'twiddle' as we called it - that is search the wave band up and down endlessly."

Elizabeth wrote to her parents that the building leaked "and we have to work in raincoats". She also recalled wearing tin hats "as much for the dripping rain as for the frequent shrapnel".

The Wrens were promoted by virtue of their special duties category to Petty Officers but after seven months at Portland Bill, Elizabeth was sent to Kingsgate near Broadstairs in Kent, then to Torquay to open a new station and lastly to Sheringham in Norfolk where she was promoted to Second Officer.

In December 1942 she "married the boss" and at the beginning of 1944 left the service just four months before the birth of twin sons.

A poem was written for Elizabeth Marshall by one of her colleagues - Mabel Mellers - in 1941 and awaited her return after leave.

Poem by Mabel

Here's a real royal welcome to a real dinkum Aussie,
That we've missed her very much it's plain to tell
Not alone the empty chair, but the leap from stair to stair
When we hear the warning jangle on the bell.
Oh, we've missed her in the office, and we've missed her in the watch-room,
And we've missed her when we sit around at four.
Twiddles footstools with her feet, drinks China tea and looks elite,
Yet can tell us funny stories by the score.
She's a splendid combination of both dignity and gaiety,
As an officer she certainly is Tops.
We like her solemn stare, and she's neat and debonair.
We're so proud of her at all the local hops.
We were sorry when she missed this most exciting but if traffic,
For we know how she'd have loved to join the fun.
Jerries talking on the air, beacons buzzing everywhere,
How we cheered to hear we'd got them on the run.
Now we trust you'll take these verses in the spirit they are written (brandy?? B.M.C)
They're not clever, and I know don't even scan.
But they're promoted 'cos we wanted to express a real unstinted
Cheery welcome to our own beloved Ma'am.

The material for this article was supplied by Elizabeth Marshall of Victoria


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Wren trained to intercept German naval signals, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/wren-trained-intercept-german-naval-signals
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