Walking on the wings of Concorde, re-fuelling Vulcan bombers and being selected as a Squadron pin-up girl – life in the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS) was far from dull for Catherine Davies.
And with many treasured memories, she is honoured to be representing the WRNS at Alnwick’s Remembrance Sunday commemorations next month, where she will march and lay a wreath.
It isn’t the first time that she has made this gesture, but this year’s tribute will be a particularly poignant one for her, as 2017 marks the centenary of the formation of the WRNS (or Wrens).
Catherine, 70, who lives in Alnwick, said: “It is a special year. It is about the women who have served, and continue to serve, their country through the WRNS and Royal Navy, and to commemorate those who died in service.”
For Catherine, it is half a century since, as a 20-year-old in a mini-skirt, she arrived at Reading Station and climbed into the back of a Royal Navy truck to make her way to the WRNS training camp.
It was the beginning of something special. Yet it all started by accident, thanks to a surprise photograph on the front page of a newspaper.
She said: “It was 1967. I was off work sick, but feeling better. I met my friend who was back home in her new Wrens uniform on leave from HMS Dauntless, the training base near Reading.
“She had to drop off some papers at the recruiting office and while we were there talking to the recruiting Wren officer, a male commander came in and exclaimed: ‘Great shot, recruiting officer, new recruit in uniform and her friend asking about joining’.
“I assured him I had no intention of joining anything requiring a uniform, but he came back with his camera and said it would be for a photo in the Navy News. So I agreed. He asked my name and we left. So imagine my horror to see the photo and a caption – ‘Miss Cathy Higgins, interested in joining the Wrens too’ – on the front page of the Bristol Evening Post a couple of days later.”
When Catherine returned to her work at a Bristol hotel, she was handed her cards, after staff had seen her in the paper, and apparently joining the Wrens, while she was on paid sick leave. She said her father was furious and had a very animated conversation with the recruitment office, which actually appealed on her behalf to the hotel.
“The hotel refused, even when threatened with the removal of the annual Naval dinner to a rival hotel,” said Catherine. Incidentally, they carried out that threat!
The officer told Catherine that if she was able to get through the initial process, she could try for the WRNS.
She said: “I halfheartedly went along and came through the applications; I was enlisted as a radio operator and went to train at Dauntless.”
Catherine would go on to become a Wren Air Mechanic (Airframes & Engines) and was posted to the Visiting Aircraft section at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, HMS Heron, in Somerset. And she thrived, qualifying and/or working on numerous aircraft such as a Buccaneer and Vulcan bomber.
In 1968, she jumped at the chance to volunteer at Filton, near Bristol, on the Concorde project, helping to do daily checks on a Buccaneer, as part of development tests.
She said: “The looks were priceless on the apprentices’ faces when I came out of the ladies in my overalls and started work, climbing into the Buccaneer’s air intakes to check the compressor blades.
“They weren’t used to seeing girls doing much technical work. They climbed into the cockpit and refused to leave, but I put a stop to this by pointing out that they were sitting in a rocket-propelled ejector seat!”
Catherine was given a thorough guided tour of Concorde. She jokes: “I like to say that I’ve walked on Concorde’s wings – in a hanger!”
And thanks to Concorde, she was given an unusual birthday present. She said: “The day before the pilots left for the first test-flight, planned for March 1, 1969, our Navy pilot told them it was my birthday on March 2.
“One of the workers said ‘We shall delay Concorde’s first flight for you; it shall be our birthday present to you.’ In the end there was bad weather on March 1, and it was tested on March 2 – so I got my present!”
Catherine, who ‘is proud to be associated with the development of such a unique and beautiful aircraft’, featured on BBC Breakfast in 2003 when Concorde was retired.
Through the Wrens, Catherine – who was voted pin-up of 767 Squadron in the summer of 1969 and appeared in carnivals aboard a model Phantom plane – met her first husband, Sgt Pilot Kees van Zoen, after a Dutch squadron arrived for a Nato exercise and she fixed his plane’s oil filter. The couple wed in December 1969 and she left the WRNS to live in Holland for 19 years. Sadly, he died in 1988 and Catherine and her two sons came back to England. She married Rob Davies in 2002.
Reflecting on her time in the WRNS, she said: “I enjoyed my years very much.”
As part of the centenary commemorations, Catherine has filmed for a BBC series, Women at War, to be screened before Remembrance Sunday.
Catherine also spearheaded an initiative to have Wren representatives lay a wreath at at least 100 war memorials on November 12 this year.
She said: “The women have not let us down and they have volunteered to lay wreaths all over Britain, and in some places abroad.”
To read her memoirs, visit www.pilgrimpath.net/?p=459