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NI Wrens who kept our Navy afloat record war memories

By Eddie McIlwaine

It will be just like the launch of one of the Royal Navy ships they used to sail on when 16 former Wrens feature in a documentary to be screened at the Public Record Office in Belfast on Tuesday.

The film, exploring their roles as sailors from the 1940s to the 1990s, was financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and produced by HMS Caroline's curatorial and community engagement teams.

It is one of the first recorded oral histories to be collected for an archive being established by National Museum of the Royal Navy, which owns HMS Caroline.

The documentary coincides with the centenary of the Women's Royal Naval Service - the Wrens - while the private screening is in advance of International Women's Day.

Public screenings will be held later this year to commemorate 100 years of the Association of Wrens - the veterans' organisation

Ann Blachford, secretary of the Belfast branch of the association, says it was set up 70 years ago, in 1947, and today has only 14 members out of the few thousand who enlisted from the province down the years.

A centenary dinner is planned in Belfast and ex-Wrens should get in touch by emailing Belfast@wrens.org.uk.

Victoria Millar, curator of HMS Caroline, who conducted the interviews, says the film reveals the extent to which women from all sides of the community played a central role in the Second World War, as part of the Women's Royal Naval Service and, later, the Women's Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

"Women played an important role on HMS Caroline for years," says Victoria. "During the Second World War, many of those who served in and around Pollock Dock, where HMS Caroline was based, were women.

"In 1952, a Women's Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (WRNVR) was established. This, in turn, merged with the Royal Naval Reserve into a single RNR in 1958. Women continued to play a role on HMS Caroline right up to 2009, when the Ulster Division of the RNR moved ashore to HMS Hibernia."

The women in the film reveal what their families thought about them joining up, their views about the changing role of women in the Navy, as well as the impact their participation in the Navy had on their lives.

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