Ruth St. Clair (née Jarvis) in Dover, England, circa 1943.Ruth St. Clair
Ruth St. Clair (née Jarvis), aged 18, in Dover, England.Ruth St. Clair
"I was sent because of secretarial skills to signals headquarters, which were buried in the tunnels underneath Dover Castle, and that was an adventure."
With war on, that was 1942[-19]43 by that time, I had to get some kind of training of some sort before being enlisted. So I took a secretarial course and learned how to shorthand and type. And with that, and no other professional touches whatsoever, I was called up. I volunteered for the WRENS [from WRNS - Women's Royal Naval Service] because I didn’t want to go into the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] nor the WAAF [Women's Auxiliary Air Force], so I volunteered for the WRENS.
I was made a signals WREN, which meant I wore a flash or two flags on my left arm. And I was sent because of secretarial skills to signals headquarters, which were buried in the tunnels underneath Dover Castle [Kent, England], and that was an adventure. We worked 72 hours a week, so that was okay. But then that was increased when we went and did double watches. And for, I worked it out, I’d found my pay things, I got 18 and six pence a week which was $5. And then after two years, I got $5 and about 90 cents. But we got our food free, we got our clothing free, we got our travel passes free. So all we had to spend on was, money for nail polish or shampoo or the odd NAAFI [Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute - a British government organization which sold goods to service personnel] bun.
I did that until August, 1943, and an Ordinary WREN to I think January, 1944, when suddenly I was told to report to the senior signals officer and become his secretary. I just heard about D-Day [the Allied Normandy landings of June 6, 1944], I think it was about April, maybe March or April, 1944, when a large envelope appeared, a messenger brought an envelope to me. And it had great red letters on it, "Top Secret, Commander’s Eyes Only." And I had no business even knowing about such a thing. And then underneath, it just had "Overlord." And I put it on my boss’s desk and covered it over because it was top secret. And people were sort of dropping in and out.
And when he came back, he said: “Where the hell did you get this?” So I said: “Well, a messenger dropped it.” And he said: “Well, just forget it,” and he was really quite angry: “just forget you’ve ever ever laid eyes on it, put it on the safe and forget it.” So I said: “Yes, sir,” and that’s how it remained until two days or three days before D-Day when I was asked to undo the safe and bring that letter to him, which I did. And he said: “Well now,” and he told me. And he said: “Just forget.” Which was very generous of him considering my rank. But he did trust and that was it.
I remember walking, trying to get some exercise and on the promenade of Dover, underneath the cliffs, walking towards the eastern mole of the harbour. Big, big harbour. And a naval truck stopping me and saying: “Are you off duty, miss?” And I said: “Yes.” “Well, hop in, we need you.” And I said: “Why?”, and they said: “Well, there’s some sailors been pulled off a flaming tanker.” And I was transported along the eastern mole where these sailors were laid out on the stone and they’d been pulled out of the flaming water and terribly terribly badly burned. And, and just, and I was just told to speak softly to them and hold their hand and say: “There, there,” that type of thing. And looking at these terribly badly burned young men, my age, probably a bit older, and the smell today, if I smell burning oil, brings that back to me.
I saw bodies being pulled out of the Salvation Army canteen, which was our life, they were mostly women, three women I saw pulled out, crushed and bloodied. I happened to be just walking there and I’d taken shelter in a cave in a cliff and the shell had come down and afterwards, when the all clear went, the diggers pulled out these, these sad remains, that wasn’t very nice. You know, this was war, right on our doorstep.
So that, that was a nasty side. The fun side was taking 24 hours leave and getting a railway pass and going up to London and dancing your silly head off. It was good, clean fun. Boyfriends took care of you, they cherished you, they didn’t, they didn’t force you to kiss them, you only kissed by mutual consent or longing. I became engaged at one point to a Canadian. And then, I met him, when did I meet him, Christmas dance? Yes, I was on Christmas leave and I was staying with a friend and we went over to the officer’s club in Aldershot [Hampshire, England]. Now, we were in civvies and we had to be nice to our overseas partners.
So I danced with a man from Toronto and fell in love with him. And he with me, and he asked me to marry him and I said yes, after I think months of correspondence. And we settled on a date in April and he said: “I’m sorry, all leave’s being cancelled, I’m being sent elsewhere." Now, you didn’t ask elsewhere. He said, “I’ll write and tell you where I am.” And that was the last thing I heard of this gentleman, for three years? Yes, at least three years. Because he was sent to Italy [for the Italian Campaign of 1943-1945].
I first heard from him from Italy. It was a parcel from Italy, a little parcel, which was unheard of. And inside were two lemons. Now, we hadn’t seen lemons for years it seemed. And I have two lemons. So that evening, I, and a friend who were off duty, I said: “Right, we’ll go to the Crypt and we’ll take my lemons with me. Well, we’ll take a lemon with me." Well, nearly set off a riot.
Now, the Crypt was a bar underneath a building of one of the streets in Dover. And it, it had been some kind of church crypt at one time in medieval times, with those stone arches there and it was safe down there from shelling, you see, or bombing. And anyway, there were lots of people and two or three people up at the bar, whom I recognized and knew quite well. And I said: “Hello, you know, look what I’ve got,” and I produced the lemon. “Well, the barman said, my God! Where did you get that?” I said: “Well, it was sent to me.” “Good Lord.” And he stuck a knife in it, and just like Excalibur, raised it at the front of the bar and said: “Look what this WREN has brought in!” And you’ve never seen such a stampede in all your life. "A lemon, let me see it! I want to touch it! I want to smell it!" I mean, such were the simple pleasures.