More Navy Larks


! ! ! E Navy

A few weeks back a comment to The Last of the Old Style WRNS Discipline, this time about a woman serving during World War I prompted me to revisit this strange subject. I found a completely new account and new some snippets.

This is an edited excerpt of an anecdote written by David S Holly:

The Petty Officers – male NCO’s – gave us instruction in everything from how to polish a badge to how to stand to attention in a regulation manner.   They generally kept their hands to themselves:  but not always, when well away from prying eyes…   And they had a very important edge.   Should they deem it necessary, they could at any time order one or more of us to bend over to receive up to six swats on our bottoms from their swagger sticks.   We were not covered by Royal Navy rules and regulations, and the WRNS high command had ordained that we would be considered to be “boys” until we were 21.   Flogging had long gone from the Royal Navy – but boys (usually cadets undergoing lengthy training) could be caned:  therefore, so could we until we old enough to avoid such treatment.

Later in the account:

And now on the final Wednesday, we got our hands on the Sten-gun – or tommy gun, as we usually called it although it was nothing like an original Tommy Gun. Two clips for each of us to discharge into the butts, one rating at a time, who was expected to cleanly and methodically turn a single target sheet into shredded paper.

Being the lanyard wearer I was the last to go.   And, in the time-honoured tradition of HMS Ardent, when I discharged my second clip, I did so in the manner of some American gangster, and splattered bullets backwards and forwards across all five targets.

The flight burst out into cheers of mutual congratulation:  for being on that range for that session, our passing of the course was thereby assured.

The sudden appearance of CPO Wagnett from out of nowhere caused the smiles to freeze and an expectant hush to settle over all of use.

She looked directly at me.   “Seawoman Canberra:  please explain yourself.”

I stood to attention, the barrel of the Sten gun pointing to the ground by my left foot.   One always stood to attention when addressing a Chief Petty Officer.   “I am completing firearms training, Ma’am.”

“You discharged your weapon in a reckless and dangerous manner.”  Cold, hard, relentless.

I pursed my lips and slightly bowed my head.  Female CPO’s did not discipline ratings themselves.   From her words, I knew that I was in deep trouble.   If I was sent to the guardhouse, I would probably get six of the best from a rattan cane.   I became acutely away of my bottom, and waited – almost in fear – for her next words.

“I am putting you on charges.   You are to report to the Commander’s Office at fourteen hundred hours.   West, Southwark – you will act as escorts.”  My two friends came to attention to acknowledge their instructions.

Later still:

He was probably late forties, with the weather beaten face of a seafarer.   He looked back at me with the intent stare of a professional going about his duty.   I was the sole item of interest in his life until I was removed from his office – and I felt as though he could feel every tremor in my body that I was trying to hide from him.

“Sir, 387 Seawoman Canberra!” announced 3/O Rice.

“Charges?”   I might be the entire centre of his attention, but it would be as short a time as he could reasonably get away with.

“Reckless discharge of a firearm, Sir.”


CPO Wagnett took over.   “Sir, having had reports that ratings were discharging Sten guns in a reckless and dangerous manner at the end of Range Practice Six, I positioned myself outside Number One Firing Range at eleven thirty hours today.   There I saw Seawoman Canberra firing a Sten gun, backwards and forwards over a range of five targets, swinging the weapon, at her hip, from side to side.   This was not in accord with standard procedure for firing a Sten gun.   I then asked her to explain her conduct and she said that she was completing firearms training. Sir!”

“Any questions?” he asked of me.   Good Lord no.

“No sir.”

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“No sir.”

“You do realize that aircraft landing to the right of the Firing Range might have come into range of your fire?”

“No sir.”

“The foolhardy rarely think of the consequences of their actions.”   He turned to 3/O Rice.  “Anything known?”

“No Sir.   A clean sheet while enlisted, and no existing record when she was recruited.”

“Canberra, I could send you to the Brig for this.   I could even summon you for a District Court Martial.   But you have good promise, and good easily pass a commissioning board in due course.   Will you accept my punishment?”

I knew exactly what that meant.   Informal corporal punishment never went on your permanent record – everything else did.   He was asking if I would take a beating in exchange for keeping my record sheet clean.

“Yes sir.”   And on that whispered phrase, my fate was sealed.

“You are to be caned.”  That was not unexpected.

He looked down at a sheet on his desk.   “The absolute maximum I can sentence you to is thirty six strokes.”   He looked up at me and transfixed me with his cold stare.   “So that is what you will get.   Report back here in fifteen minutes, in gym wear.”

I momentarily felt quite sick, and a sense of absolute terror gripped me.

“Escorts and Accused – Right ‘Hun!”    But then the automatic response to military training took over, and I found myself, almost like a robot, first facing my friend’s back, and then marching to the small dormitory where I slept, in one of those wooden huts.

When we marched back to the main admin area a few minutes later, I was in black PT shorts and white shirt.   With a uniformed rating in front of me, and one behind me, we announced to the world my imminent fate as clearly as if we were carrying banners bearing the words “About to get thrashed”.

My face constantly burned in embarrassment, and I did everything to avoid eye contact with any other trainee.

This was going to be bad.   I would be ordered to touch my toes.   I was expected to simply stand and take it.   If my resolve failed, then my escorts were to assist the CPO and 3/O in holding me over the Commander’s desk while he completed his task.   He would complete it – I had already stated that I would accept his punishment.   The only question left to answer was whether I had the moral fortitude to take my medicine without kicking up an unseemly fuss.  I certainly hoped so.

It was not that long ago, back in sixth form, that we occasionally got caned by Miss Deane.   Even I had suffered at her hands for several sharp reminders.   She was not particularly strong armed, but could raise a welt and cause a tear or two.   And even dear old Dad whacked quite painfully with his slipper whenever mother thought such treatment was needed to correct some errant behavior or another.   I had taken all of those, in my stride, without issue.

But a naval caning?   36 cuts?   I had serious doubts that I would not last out the entire set.

And as I and my two escorts, followed by CPO Wagnett and Third Officer Rice, marched into the Commander’s office, I realized that I would soon find out just how tough I really was.

He was standing by the side of his desk, holding a cane made out of ash wood.   Three and half feet to four feet long, a wicked half inch in diameter, just looking at its white sheen made me feel as though I was about to gag.

He was wearing his jacket, three gold rings denoting his rank.   He continued to wear it – not needing to take it off in order to give himself a freer and firmer swing.  Such finesse was quite unnecessary.

Without being told, Jenny and Pat moved over to stand by one wall, alongside the CPO and the 3/O, leaving me alone in the centre of the room.  They would stand there as silent witnesses – unless their services were required to secure me fast while any remaining strokes were delivered.

The commander pointed to an area in front of his desk.   “Stand there, Canberra,” he instructed.

I moved into position.

“Place your feet shoulder width apart.”   This I did, slowly and deliberately.

“Touch your toes”.   I bent right over.   I could always easily touch my toes, the only sensation being a slight tightness at the back of my knees.   I did not notice the tightness on this occasion, only the vulnerability of my buttocks and the pain they were soon to endure.  I could see his polished shoes as I looked at the carpet behind me.  My leg muscles were taught, and they were sheened in light perspiration.

“Pull your shorts down.”   That was difficult.  No man, other than my father and our doctor, had ever seen my bare bottom.   Pulling them down was with excruciating embarrassment.  I was not wearing underwear;  we never wore underwear under gym kit.    I blushed furiously, but my face was hidden from his view, and from all the others in the room.   That was something.

“Thirty six strokes,“ he announced to us all, as if we needed reminding.

I felt the cold hard wood tap against the centre of my bare backside.   I took a deep breath, scrunched up my tummy and braced myself.  And that last few seconds of waiting was, I think, the very worst moments of my ordeal.

The cane made a hell of a crack as it bit into me for the first time.   The small room compressed the sound and seemed to magnify it. It drowned out that initial mewl of pain I made.   If so much pain came from a single cut, I surely would not last out to the end.   All I could do was hang on as long as possible.

For he had hit me with all the force he could muster.   And I understood why that should be.   There was nothing personal in it, this was naval discipline in action.   His duty was to inflict has much pain as 36 strokes of the cane could inflict, and he was simply carrying out his duty.

It did not matter that a young girl was bent, semi-naked, before him.   If this had been a cadet ship for males, and he was beating a boy, the strokes would have been identical in both cases.

Within the next couple of strokes I started crying freely, but silently – for a while.

I was not keeping count.   But CPO Wagnett was.   “Six!” she suddenly announced.   I was panting deeply, sweat glistening on all four limbs, and sobs racking my frame.

I lost all track of the number again– it was simply a case of standing still, keeping one’s head down and waiting for the next stroke to do its damage.   I was getting a little vocal – but my yelps and howls were not that loud:  almost as if I was addressing them to just myself.

“Twelve!”   Oh God – only a third of the way through?   The pain was pretty bad by now, and I really thought he would break my spirit with that god-damned piece of wood.

But I lasted to “Eighteen”, and although in more pain than I had ever previously experienced, I knew I was going to make it.   Passing the half-way point was psychologically very significant.

My tears flowed harder, my muted shouts of pain became more acute – but the number left to come was getting constantly smaller.

By “Thirty!” the pain had merged into a single mass of fire across both cheeks – the crack adding to the zest, but some sort of saturation level had been reached so that the agony simply carried on unabated.

And then, finally! – the most welcome sound of CPO Wagnett announcing “Thirty six!”

There was a silence for five or more seconds.   I remained in place, still touching my toes, trying to contain the pain, tears still dripping onto the carpet between my feet.

“Take over, Third officer,” the Commander said and left the room so that the five of us had a few moments alone.

I dropped to my knees, put my forehead on the carpet and stretched my hands far out to either side, clenching and unclenching my fists.   I could not bear to touch my bottom – the pain was still too much to bear, and even my own fingers might inflame it beyond endurance.

“You took that well, Canberra.”   That was Third Officer Rice’s only direct comment to me from then until I left the unit and out of her sphere of influence.

“Wagnett, she is excused duties for 24 hours – we need her on parade rehearsal Friday”

“Yes ma’am.”

“You two – escort back to her dormitory.   She may take her meals there all day tomorrow.   Make sure she eats.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Pulling my shorts back up took a long time.   And limping back to barracks seemed to last forever.

But then it was face down on my bed for 24 hours, with more than one ship mate who wanted to see the unholy mess that 36 strokes had made of my bottom.   The serious pain lasted two days, and a memento of it ached for the best part of a week.   It took many months for the marks to completely fade.

And for why?   The Navy had wanted to stop the practice of wild firings to mark the end of each course.   They needed to make an example of someone to ensure the message was learned by all – a scape goat if you will.   From the Navy’s point of view, their assured victory in the matter was far more important than the welts my buttocks had to bear.

However, I did march off the parade ground on the following Saturday to collect my travel warrant.   Those who really, really knew me well might have spotted a slight limp in my step.   But the rest of the world would never have guessed.


Kenny Walters gathered some caning memories, some possibly drawn from this blog and many others have already bene published (such as the now infamous Daily Telegraph letters). Here are the edited highlights I hadn’t seen before.

…Another story brought to my attention concerns a young Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS) officer who began her first posting at a Naval base in the West Country and on her first day was surprised to enter her immediate superior’s (also a WRNS) office door and find a young female trainee bent across the desk being caned on the bare bottom.

Further investigation by the young officer revealed that offenders were given the option of being caned or being put on report to the Commanding Officer. This young officer was herself caned on a couple of occasions for serious breaches in her duty.

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.

In another account.

At a base near Valetta on Malta during World War Two it has been suggested that anything from twelve to thirty strokes with a cane were meted out by the senior female warrant officer. 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,” said 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.

As if to reinforce these stories, I was then told of similar things from an entirely different source. One concerned a woman who was barely eighteen when she joined the Wrens, again during the Second World War. After a few months training she was posted to Malta where she worked as a clerk/typist at a large base near Valetta.

This lady said that overseas the discipline was a lot stricter than in England and that Wren ratings were subject to corporal punishment in the form of caning. The commandant of the base, a woman described as being in her forties and well-spoken, was responsible for hearing all cases and imposing appropriate sentences, including the cane. She was said to be fair but quite intolerant towards any Wrens that misbehaved.

Soon after arriving at the base, the young clerk/typist and three of her new pals were not back at base in time after a night out. They were caught trying to sneak back through the perimeter fence.

All four found themselves appearing before the commandant the following morning who sentenced them each to six strokes of the cane across the seats of their knickers. They were taken immediately to the gymnasium where they had to change into PT kit. Each in turn then had to bend over a vaulting horse for their canings to be applied across the seats of their gym-knickers by the Chief Wren (equivalent to Chief Petty Officer), a stout masculine looking woman with a very sour face. The cane used was slim and whippy with a crook handle and similar to those used on boy cadets.

Some time later, three young Wrens were found guilty of stealing from the stores and selling the goods on the black market. They received a period of detention in the cells followed by canings in front of the ‘ship’s company, as the base was referred to.

The two younger girls, aged eighteen or nineteen, were to receive ten strokes each and the slightly older girl, adjudged to have been the ringleader, was sentenced to twelve strokes. They again had to change into PT kit and take their turns bending over the vaulting horse but this time their gym-knickers were pulled down before the same Chief Wren thrashed their backsides. Afterwards, they were lined up facing the gymnasium’s wall bars and handcuffed with their arms stretched up so the rest of the Wrens could inspect the damage to their backsides.

The return to this subject was prompted by a comment to this blog by Janice J

She wrote:

My grandmother served in the WRNS during WW1 and she was caned a few times she told me.

I know she was classed as fit for ‘mobile service’ which meant she could be posted away from home and that she was a driver. I don’t think CP was official but there were heavy fines and I think ‘taking a bit of stick’ as she called it was preferable.

She had a few stories – she said she had an easy going officer to drive for but one night thinking he would be a few hours she took the car off to go and get some supper and generally skive off. When she got back the officer had been stranded and had had to cover for her.

The next day he gave her a bollocking and when she answered him back he took her over his knee and gave her a ‘jolly good spanking.’

She said she deserved it and usually he was a good laugh. But later she got another officer and pulled the same stunt. She was sent back to the training pool and had to contend with ‘a right old battleaxe’ she made her drop her draws and bend over for a dozen with the cane. Gran said it hurt like the devil but still better than a fine.

She only got ‘short duties’ for a while which meant she was under this woman who caned her more than once. She told me she was rarely without ‘a bruised bum’ for a few months.

Later she was posted to lorry driving.


11 Responses to “More Navy Larks”

  1. Great stuff ! More on this please. Lia xx

    • 2 DJ

      As when it becomes available – there are already several posts on this – did you see them?

  2. This is not a criticism of the story in any way but find it terrible that people in the forces were legally punished in this way, although I understand they were given alternatives. Very enlightening and shocking. Wow they were tough, think I would have died

    • 4 DJ

      Different times I think – mostly we are talking about 18-19 year olds coming from an environment where CP was sued at school and home. Young men had the same in the navy at this time (although officially anyway – not in other services)

  3. 5 Susannah

    Was the account by WS Holly written by her, because it seems very coherent, more like a D W Black story! Where did it come from, and is it possible to read the whole account?

    • 6 DJ

      Hi Susannah

      David S Holly (I got his name wrong) writes (often) fictionalised (alleged) true accounts – so it does indeed read like a coherent story (and I cannot say for sure that is true) that reads like a true account and I can vouch for the historical details vis military structure and ranks etc.

      You can read the full account here:

      I meant to put that link in above – sorry.


  4. 8 Susannah

    I meant D J Black, of course..sorry.

  5. 10 Jane

    When we still lived in South Africa (this was the 1980s) my twin sister joined a certain airline to become an air steward

    A lot of girls wanted to be air stewardesses back then and competition was steep so there were strict rules for trainees. There rules about punctuality, dress, make up and decorum.

    To mark the end of her stage one training Carol had an unauthorised party on airline property with a few of her trainees and some male air crew. Of course they were caught and the instructor (a woman) called her in with three others and gave them a choice of 12 strokes on the bare bottom or quit the course.

    They all chose the cane.

    They had to come back the next day and wait outside her office and go in one at a time. Carol said she could hear another girl girl getting it, the crack of the stick and the yell. Afterwards her friend came out crying.

    On her turn she had to remove her tight uniform skirt and lower her underwear before bending over a chair. Her bare bottom sticking out, six hard and fast and then asked if she wanted to continue. Then six more.

    Carol had stand out purple welts and couldn’t sit down, but she said it was worth it to stay on the course. It also got things out of the way and not on her record. She didn’t think it was a big deal. Not the last caning Carol got – she thought of it as deserved and just discipline.

    • 11 DJ

      Interesting little anecdote Jane – thanks – one rather thinks it wouldn’t be allowed today. 😉

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