With the 70th anniversary of VE Day being marked tomorrow, an artist’s wife recalls her vivid memories of serving as Wren in north London and being part of an elated crowd on The Mall which jostled to catch a glimpse of King George VI.
Doris Wagon, 90, signed up to the The Women’s Royal Navy Service – nicknamed the Wrens – in 1944 and was posted to a science laboratory in Mill Hill, where she served as a petty officer.
She was selected to do secretarial work as she had a desirable qualification in Pitman shorthand, thanks to her job with the Ministry of Agriculture before war broke out.
Other Wren duties included driving, cooking, clerical work, operating radar and communications equipment, providing weather forecasts – and raising the Union Jack.
Mrs Wagon, who settled in Hemel Hempstead with late husband Peter in the 1950s, said: “Woe betide anyone who raised it upside down. That happened frequently!
“War was a sad time, but being in the Wrens was exciting – I worked on some very big ships, like the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean (R68), HMS Phoenix and HMS Magpie.”
They were navy blue bloomers and came down to our knees – we nicknamed them ‘blackouts’Doris Wagon, former WREN
The mother-of-three, whose voice still holds traces of a proud Northumberland lilt, describes how she was ‘adopted’ by the resident Wren drivers, who she says were considered ‘posh’ as they all had their own car.
The young Northerner shared lodgings with the other girls and said they took her under their wing because she was “A skinny thing with a voice like this!”
She said: “They would ask me to repeat things because they loved the sound of my accent.”
When the girls got ready to go to parties on board, Mrs Wagon recalls how lipstick was very hard to get hold of at the time, so she and her friends improvised by smearing the red ink from the stamp pads on their lips to get colour.
She said: “People said to us ‘That won’t do you any good’ and I said: ‘I don’t care, I’ll probably only live ‘til I’m 30!’.”
At the time of enrolment, each Wren was issued with a Navy uniform and Mrs Wagon said there were chuckles when they were handed the undergarments.
“They were navy blue bloomers and came down to our knees – we nicknamed them ‘blackouts’.”
As part of her service Mrs Wagon was stationed abroad in Malta for 18 months.
She and the other girls were discouraged from talking to the local boys and were trained in the local customs so as not to offend.
She said: “We were aboard the SS Georgic, which I remember was full of Italian prisoners of war on their way home.
“It was very choppy though across the Bay of Biscay and I was terribly seasick.”
Mrs Wagon’s late husband Peter – a talented artist who painted more than 40 stately homes, including Windsor Castle – was stationed in Portsmouth with the Royal Navy Film Unit due to his creative tendencies.
But it wasn’t until Mrs Wagon was running a cafe in Hampstead Road, London, after the war that she met her future husband when he came in as a customer.
The pair courted and married in 1951 before moving to Hemel Hempstead shortly after.
The couple lived in Boxted Road, Warner’s End before moving around to George Street, St Mary’s Street and then Westerdale in Highfield, where Mrs Wagon still lives today.
They had three children and ran Wagons Art Supplies in the old town and the Marlowes for 30 years, scooping the Gazette’s Shop of the Year award in 1998. The Wagons were happily married until Peter’s death in 2012.
Former teacher Mrs Wagon, who worked at Broadfield Primary School in Hemel for more than 10 years, tells of how they nearly tied the knot without a wedding ring.
The pair had to dash out to Woolworths to find some wedding bands so the ceremony at Hampstead Register Office could go ahead.
Mrs Wagon says she finally got another ring years down the line, when she and Peter went to choose one in a jewellers in Hemel Hempstead town centre.
Reflecting on her nine colourful decades, Mrs Wagon said: “If I had one piece of advice for a young person, it would be ‘keep a journal’. Not a diary, just write down what things happen and when, so you can remember it all.”