Dame Marion Kettlewell was a trailblazer and a legend in her own lifetime in an era dominated by men in the services. With her resilience undiminished by several rejections, “the Supersonic Superintendent” – as she became known after breaking the sound barrier – went on to head the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), having survived the Luftwaffe’s London bombings and later becoming the sole female of that time to attend top-brass Admiralty meetings.
Without any experience and with only three weeks’ preparation at Greenwich, her first significant posting was as quarters officer in charge of the catering and accommodation for 200 Wrens at RNAS Twatt (also known as HMS Tern), at the remote, yet strategically important naval air station at Hatston in Orkney.
Following a 24-hour train journey from Euston to Thurso on the Jellicoe Express, she travelled on two boats in rough seas to her posting. Upon arrival, she was confronted by first officer Mrs Rumbelow Pierce, a formidable widow sporting a bow-tie, monocle and her dead son’s waistcoat. Determining within two minutes Kettlewell’s inexperience as a caterer, she was sacked on the spot. Pierce telephoned headquarters brusquely remarking: “I asked for an experienced quarters officer. Will you send a relief for Kettlewell?”
Undeterred, Kettlewell embraced her position with gusto and in the six months it took for her replacement to arrive, she had risen to the challenge of making life as comfortable as possible for the naval personnel. She braved Orkney gales to distribute soup to the flu-stricken, dried out the Wrens’ laundry and sailed to Scapa Flow to dances with men stationed on battleships. The return journey, under the northern lights, lingered long in her memory.
Born in 1914 in the affluent area of Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, west London, Marion Mildred Kettlewell was the daughter of a civil engineer and a housewife; she also had three brothers. After the Second World War, her father had a breakdown and the family moved briefly to Devon for his recuperation before returning to the Surrey countryside.
Kettlewell found herself constantly in trouble at school, but then moved to the more relaxed environment of Godolphin School, Salisbury. Aged 16, while studying a map of the Canadian Rockies in a geography lesson, her interest was sparked and she vowed to go there to do youth work. Five years later, after completing her studies at St Christopher’s, Blackheath, a Church of England training college, she applied to the Fellowship of the Maple Leaf to undertake youth work on the prairies – but failed because she was under their minimum age of 24. Undeterred, she appealed and was eventually taken on as a volunteer in the remote communities of Alberta, helping out with Cub, Scout and Brownie groups.
After three years, in 1938 Kettlewell returned to England on leave to find that her father had gone bankrupt and that her mother, already profoundly deaf, was severely crippled with arthritis. She helped sell the family home just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Between 1939 and 1940, Kettlewell worked for a charity for displaced Jewish families who had escaped the Nazis. In 1941, she applied to join the WRNS as an MT driver but there were no vacancies and a six-month wait. However, within 24hours she received a call to be a driver with immediate effect. With no test of her skills, she became the driver for the Flag Officer Submarines, then Vice-Admiral Max Horton, at his Swiss Cottage HQ in London, and given an armband as her uniform. Her first orders were bewildering: “Bring the Admiral’s barge alongside, the Admiral is going ashore.” She later realised that this was a nautical reference to the car.
She found herself driving him across London to the Admiralty, railway stations or Bomber Command during bombing raids. Several months later she was kitted out with uniforms and billeted at Eton College, Windsor, still as a driver and still without any formal training; she felt under-utilised and found the driving tedious.
After her stint in Orkney, Kettlewell served for two years as quarters officer at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, while it was serving as a barracks and school. Despite Luftwaffe raids on London, she staged several formal dinners for visiting dignitaries.
Promotion followed and she went to Harwich as a Second Officer to take charge of the Wrens assembling landing craft for Operation Neptune, the initial phase of the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. A few Wrens trained as pilots for D-Day, taking smaller vessels across the Channel. With shore leave cancelled the month before departure, Kettlewell helped to organise cricket matches and bingo to keep morale high. In her spare hours, she started bird watching along the Suffolk coast.
Now First Officer, in June 1944, she was appointed to HMS Godwit, a naval air station in Shropshire, where as senior WRNS officer, she helped to demobilise hundreds of Wrens after VE Day.
Post-war, she applied for a permanent WRNS commission but was rejected and in 1947 began preparing for civilian life after a final summer as a relief officer. To her surprise, she was encouraged to re-apply for a commission. Promotion and several key appointments followed, including three years on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth, and as a Chief Officer in the Admiralty.
By 1961, she was Superintendent, WRNS, to the Air Command and relished flying the Hawker Hunter jet to meetings; on one such occasion she broke the sound barrier. At the naval air station at Culdrose, she forbade the commanding officer from erecting a fence around the Wrens’ quarters on the grounds that it was “a slur on her girls’ morals”.
In 1964 she was appointed CBE and three years later WRNS director, during which time she broadened the technical skill set of her “girls” and flew the world to establish new Wren postings in Canada, Hong Kong and Holland, while keeping a watchful eye on existing outposts. She also developed exchanges with other navies in order to bring in new skills to meet advances in naval technology, and to fill specialist roles and manpower shortages within the Navy.
Always modest, Kettlewell credited her ascent through the ranks to the departure of able fellow officers after they had married. Promoted to Commandant, the highest rank in the WRNS, the organisation was at its zenith with more than 3,000 female volunteers from all works of life, who were often brighter and better motivated than their male counterparts.
On retirement in 1970, she was advanced to DBE and became general secretary of the Girls’ Friendly Society. In 1981, she was appointed president of the WRNS Association and in 1990 was elated to see the integration of 4,535 Wrens into the Royal Navy – three years later she was desperately saddened when the service was disbanded.
Kettlewell retired to a flat in Pimlico, London, where she entertained many visitors, as well as maintaining a plethora of Wrens’ memorabilia.