The WRNS and caning in wartime


Typical service women of the period, although not connected with this story

Much has been written about the caning of women in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. These episodes seem to fall into two types of incident, the semi-official and the unofficial.

Although, except for perhaps at Dartmouth, no serving man seems to have been subject to the same discipline. This was probably for a combination of reasons. However, officially the discipline of women was not always subject to the articles of war since serving females were often mobilised before the regulations could be redrafted and in 1938 a temporary provision was made to treat women as boy cadets.

Issues surrounding the unofficial punishments are less clear.

One report was of a wren of 23 who addressed an important communication to the wrong admiral resulting in an incident at the war office. The CPO in charge of the mail section was summoned to the CO and told ‘to sort the ninny out.’

Apparently the procedure for ‘sorting out’ was to have the miscreant wren undress down to her stockings, suspenders and bra, having removed her knickers and then bent over the CPO’s knee to have her bare bottom spanked.

Another report from a now octogenarian was that corporal punishment was common for minor offences at some establishments. On the base she was posted to, there was one old officer who was notorious for handing out beatings to the younger wrens for trivial offences. When sent to go before him, she said, the deserving girl would be confronted with her offence and made sure that she had understood the charges. She was then told “take down your drawers.”

The woman was then expected to pull down her service underwear to her ankles and bend over. Her skirt would then be lifted over her back and clear of any other clothing to completely bare her bottom. She was then spanked with a two-feet wooden ruler.

The 80-something former-wren said that she was spanked in this way twice and although does not rule out a sexual motive, believes that it was more likely just about the strict discipline of those times.

Where informal spankings seem to have been carried out by serving men, other reports suggest that on all women establishments caning was a more routine and formal affair.

At a base near Valetta on Malta during WW2 anything from 12 to 30 strokes seems to have been metered out by the senior female warrant officer with a cane. These bare-bottomed punishments were administered both routinely in private and on occasions before the assembled ‘ships company.’

One young wren said that during the worst privations of the attacks on the island, healthy young women often did not know if they would live or die and they like their boyfriends were serving irregular hours. Consequently young women were frequently late on duty, discovered in compromising situations and on many occasions caught pilfering or hoarding rations.

“Under the circumstances taking a quick shellacking was the least of our worries,” says one former service woman, “after one particular party I remember seeing quite a parade of red and mauve-lined bottoms in the shower block at the change of the duty.”

At Dartmouth, the Royal Navy officers training college, they used a system of cadet captains who administered what they called a ‘tick’ for any breach of discipline. This was a way of delegating the arduous and routine of marshalling former civilian trainees who were often late on parade or ‘incorrectly dressed.’ The system was, that if you acquire three ticks in one term then you received six of the best on a bare behind regardless if you were male or female.

One former cadet, Mrs P, remembers that during her time at Dartmouth during the 1940s, it was a daily routine for women cadets be beaten on their bare bottoms. She says that once while attending an arms drill she carelessly discharged a clip of live ammunition, an action that could have had some very serious consequences.

For that incident she was hauled up before the commanding officer who gave her 30 strokes of the cane on her bare bottom and she says that she could not sit down for five days.

Mrs B, who served around the same time says that she was an insubordinate girl and was constantly in trouble, but by some miracle managed to avoid a CO’s 30.

She did however have to regularly visit the staff sergeant’s office for a meeting with what she called ‘knotty,’ which was a large bamboo cane.

She admits that she was both wilful and cheeky and usually ‘thoroughly deserved’ her regulation 12 strokes on the bare bottom and more often than not got at least an extra six for ‘offering staff some lip.’

“Sitting down was often quite a challenge and on one occasion I had my backside welted with  12 strokes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday of the same week for smoking in the lavatories.”

For more on this Gina’s story about her grandmother was posted here.

22 Responses to “The WRNS and caning in wartime”

  1. 1 fatherjim

    I wonder also, what canings transpired in the camps that the Japanese set up all over the occupied islands they took early in the war. Movies have depicted canings to spur the women onward to work, or to disperse the women. History, we know, is clouded by the historian’s inability to show the real truth as it may offend people’s sensibilities. It’s better to ommit these stories as they may titilate or embarass the reader. I’ve yet to read of the horrific rapes that followed the fall of Berlin, but Historians know they happened. Children in High School and college, however, aren’t given these truths as they seem unimportant???

    Jim Jones, the misguided minister that lead some 900 people to their deaths had a sign prominently hanging above his head in the gathering spot when he spoke, as if to mock those in attendance. It read “Those that forget History are doomed to repeat it!” Sadly, noone got the message.

    Yes, I am certain that many canings, spankings, paddlings and strappings have occured and figure prominently in our Worldwide History. Revisionist Historians, however, will never let such truths be known, and liberal publishers will never ever publish books that tell those truths.

    Thanks for sharing some real History that many would hide for eternity.


    • 2 DJ

      I think some of this stuff is footnotes in a footnote.

      But with public archives and diaries becoming available it is there to be found.

      My sources are Daily Telegraph archives, Women’s history library, women in war, history of WRNS and two personal accounts that I happen to have obtained.

      • 3 Poppy

        Father Jim, we certainly studied the atrocities carried out in Berlin whilst at school.

  2. I am very pleased that some commanding officers where WRENS served during World War 11, were spanked for errors of important duties. Yes, I am sure that some misbehaving WRENS, were given ‘six of the best’, six of the very best with a cane on their naked rear end. Although offically if was ‘off the record’.

  3. 5 George

    War or peace time, it should always be a raedy answer to a lot of behaviours.
    At home and in any due place.

  4. 6 Karl Friedrich Gauss

    A fascinating glimpse into military and social culture of the times. No doubt these military punishments merely reflected what were the cultural norms of the times, though in perhaps a more codified form.

    Thanks for researching and publishing this, Damien.

  5. 7 Karl Friedrich Gauss

    An older woman I knew served in the Canadian armed forces during WWII and her impression was that women tended to let power go to their heads much more so than men did. However, we never discussed to what degree this involved corporal punishment.

    Perhaps this was partly a factor of being suddenly in a position of great power over others after a civilian life experience of disempowerment, or perhaps it was partly an example of women taking the opportunity to express their general distaste for other women, as described in the following article (foul language warning):

    • 8 scarlet

      Hi Karl, I followed the link and read the article, and I guess what I would say is it’s tempting to hear something from the opposite sex and think, “aah, so that’s what they’re all about,” because sometimes you guys seem like an enigma, and of course, girls would seem to be an enigma to guys sometimes.

      But even though the article may have a kernel of truth in it for some girls, some of the time, (and really, at a very specific time in their lives–a brief period in high school comes to mind) it really speaks volumes about the writer herself. We all can only write and speak for ourselves, and I can promise you, that writer does not speak for me, and that is not remotely the way I feel about other women.

      They are my angels, my boats in the storm tossed sea, my best friends and confidants, and yes, sometimes we have misunderstandings, but that’s being human, not being female. And yes, my relationships with men friends are different, but my relationships with my uncles are different, and with my dogs, and with my mother’s best friend’s gay hairdresser. (I’ve been the boss, and I’ve been the not-boss, and I’ve had men and women work for me, so I think I can speak to those relationships, too).

      People are different. It might feel good to pigeon-hole them for a minute, because then we’ve got everything figured out, but as you get older you realize you can’t figure it all out anyway.

      And really, who wants to?

      Still, it makes for an interesting discourse, doesn’t it?

      • 9 Karl Friedrich Gauss

        Scarlett, not being a woman I can’t speak from much personal experience on the subject, but my feeling is that the article describes a dynamic that lives in the lower nature of at least some women, though I don’t doubt that many have transcended that level and are living more in their frontal lobes.

        One guy I know employs a number of young women in his business and although they seem friendly to one another on the surface he detects underlying jealousies, of the sort that are not there among the guys.

        Now it could well be that this man’s staff are not as evolved as you and your friends, but I wonder if, for instance, the military environment doesn’t cultivate and bring out, even in women, these lower-nature dynamics.

        Not that my friend is in the military environment, but that’s the subject of Damien’s article — women in the military, and how they were disciplined.

        In fact, boot camp training, at least for guys is intended to stress the personality rather severely, so it’s not surprising that this stress gets passed down to whoever the stressee feels they can boss around. And of course the rest of military life can be stressful as well.

        Now maybe Scarlett, you and your female friends spank one another and get your underlying aggressions resolved that way. But I don’t know that. I’m merely speculating.

  6. 10 scarlet

    DJ, sorry this is so long. 🙂

    • 11 DJ

      I know you have exceeded my attention span

      or did you mean so long?

      • 12 scarlet

        My bad. I should have just said I disagree with the idea that women have a distaste for other women, and left it at that. Sorry.

  7. 13 DJ

    I think maybe Karl’s article is oversimplified to the point of obscurity.

    I understand your frustration Scarlet, and I suspect some other women share you view.

    I think that some PEOPLE hate some people regardless of gender, although Karl’s observation of power corrupting may have some validity. It has to be said that many of the women in this article were in fact spanked by men and not women. Does that make them mysogenists? In that case mea culpa perhaps.


  8. Karl, I think the idea that women are too petty and selfish to be in authority is a bit silly and simplistic- I know it is not your idea but rather the idea of the writer of that piece,
    I think lots of women (like lots of men) rather thrive on responsibility. For me, there is something delicious about being in charge of lots of people at work and comparing that to the rather different position I hold at other times. It is the contrast that is attractive, not the notion that because I am female I may be Ill qualified to do anything but take orders. I think there would be no skill in Topping such a woman and, as such, properly Toppy men rather enjoy the prospect of a capable woman who is used to people doing as she says.

  9. 15 Karl Friedrich Gauss

    The article I quoted was clearly designed to raise controversy, and as Scarlet point out, may not apply to the entire female gender.

    Of course we’re talking about people and people ARE complicated and they are not all the same.

    But that’s no reason to give up hope of trying to increase our understanding of some of their possible psychological tendencies.

    While Damien’s article was a lot about how men treated women during the war, my friend’s commentary was about how women treated other women, and she did note that women seemed more into dominating other women than men did. And as I maybe noted above, I wonder whether this is in part because they so seldom got the chance to play those roles in civilian life, although as mother and teacher, a woman would boss children around.

  10. 16 Karl Friedrich Gauss

    @Poppy: Times have certainly changed for women since the 1940s and women do play an increasing role in management these days, in spite of talk of a few remaining “glass ceilings”.

    It’s quite possible that my friend’s observation was at least in part a reflection of experiences of the repressed role to which women were limited in society generally at the time.

    As for the article, although it no doubt says many objectionable things about how women treat each other, I don’t remember anything there about how women would be unsuitable for being in charge of others, though perhaps you could say that was implied.

    And, as you say, the pattern of a woman who is capable and in charge in the world of work, choosing to submit to be dominated by a man in a private (usually sexual) relationship at home, is one that is well known and often seen, within spanking culture.

  11. 17 scarlet

    Karl, you certainly led us down an interesting path! I would agree with you that perhaps some women are more in touch with their lower natures, as perhaps some men are, and possibly the authoritarian nature of the military does bring that out. I haven’t been in the military, so I can’t speak to that.

    I have had some dominating women as bosses; my take on it was it was related to a lack of self-confidence. Men or women who are comfortable with themselves don’t need to be unduly harsh on anyone.

    DJ, I’m sure you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into with this post! But it’s been a good discussion, all around.

  12. my sister served in the wrens in the1980 and was often caned by her co the choice was bend over for the cane or be charged she alwayes bent over

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