September 2015 | Fiona Karn-Smith

From 1939 – 1976 the Royal Naval College (now the ORNC) started to train officers from the Women’s Royal Naval Service before the training was transferred to Dartmouth. Julie Ratcliffe was one of many Wrens who trained here. We welcomed her, and the rest of her squad back a few weeks ago, for a day of reminiscing and to celebrate 40 years since they joined the WRNS.

"As WRNS OTC 3/75, we were the penultimate group to go through WRNS officer training at RNC Greenwich, starting in September 1975. From summer 1976 the training was transferred to Dartmouth where the men's courses were held. It was such a privilege to live and work in these amazing surroundings, although I'm not sure we really appreciated the grandeur fully at the time.

The Painted Hall was our dining room - breakfast, lunch and dinner were served there every day. Mess dinners and Ladies' Nights were also held there – They were fabulous occasions. Trafalgar Night was a major celebration and even though not officially officers yet, we were invited to attend. To help us learn the ropes, we were each accompanied by a member of the Lieutenants' Greenwich Course (LGC), who knew the customs and traditions. One member of the LGC that term was HRH Prince Charles and we saw quite a lot of him around the college. Mainly, we had our own lectures and lessons, but we always joined the LGC for the current affairs lectures.

We undertook parade training in the courtyard of Queen Mary Court every morning, and the LGC would hold up numbered cards at the windows to mark us out of ten.

Our quarters were in the top three floors of the south-west corner of Queen Anne Court, which are now offices for the University of Greenwich. In 1975, the attitude to personal freedom was quite different; even though we were all in our twenties, we had to sign in every night and were not allowed to stay out overnight without special permission. Rounds were carried out in pairs.

During our reunion a few weeks ago, the university staff kindly allowed us into their offices, and although we initially struggled a little to work out what had been where, due to new walls and doors dividing the rooms up, we eventually recognised our own cabins and public spaces. We also visited the Crypt, underneath the Queen Anne Building. It was hard for us to believe that it's now considered an ancient monument, as the parties that were held there were legendary in the 70s! Each of course would take it in turn to put on an event, with bar, and the atmosphere could be pretty raucous, although great fun. Dancing on a cobbled floor is an acquired skill. I think the majority of young officers that went through Greenwich would be very surprised to discover the Crypt's status now. I suspect in those days, it was simply seen as somewhere 'away from it all' where we could make plenty of noise without disturbing anyone...

We all agreed that although we were at Greenwich for only three months, it was a life-changing experience for us. To spend time in buildings that held such a wealth of Naval history and memories was quite awe-inspiring.  Forty years on, the surroundings inspired the same feelings in us, alongside the memories we'd created ourselves. And interestingly, we all looked just the same, but older!!

Many thanks to all who made us feel so welcome for our reunion, including Ampersand and our tour guide Andy. We had lunch in the Admiral’s House, I particularly wanted to eat there as it was the location of our introduction to Naval cocktail parties courtesy of the Admiral and his wife…

Personally I found the whole day both nostalgic and rather emotional - the Old Royal Naval College, as it is now, was still able to weave its magic on us. We felt as if the world was at our feet at our passing out parade in December 1975. Returning could have been a mistake or disappointing, but in fact it was a fantastic experience."

                                                                    Then and now, Wrens of 1975

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