By Kenny Walters
I well remember, back in the 1970s, reading through a CP magazine and coming across a story that purported to be true of an incident during the Second World War where a young member of the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was punished by caning for some serious breach of regulations. The story mentioned that a cane had to be flown out specially from UK for the punishment to take place.
More recently, I have attempted to determine whether there ever was any truth in the story and I am extremely grateful to those people who so kindly responded to my advertisement asking for further information. This has led to further stories of girls serving in the other female branches of the armed forces also having been caned.
Let’s start with the WAAF story. Based on information received during my research, the following is a summary of what seems to be the story I remember:
A nineteen year old Leading Aircraftswoman (LAC) had originally been sentenced to eight strokes of the birch by the Aden Protectorate Court. This appears then to have been altered to eight or twelve strokes of the cane and some accounts suggest this was because of a shortage of birches in Aden at the time. If the story I remember was true and a cane had to be specially flown out, you might wonder why they didn’t fly some birch rods out instead.
The girl was led into a gymnasium or out into a compound, depending on which story you read, in her uniform where her bottom was bared and she was bent over a suitable apparatus. The prescribed punishment was then inflicted with both female and male observers present. All versions are agreed that a male police officer or male NCO wielded the cane.
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.
Another story involving WRNS ratings takes us to the island of Malta, still during the Second World War, where over two hundred of these girls were serving. Here the Commandant herself authorised girls to be caned. Canings were usually administered after the girls had changed into PT kit although in at least one case, where the offences were more serious, the girls concerned had their gym knickers pulled down.
One report was of a Wren of twenty-three who addressed an important communication to the wrong admiral resulting in an incident at the war office. The Chief Petty Officer (CPO) in charge of the mail section was summoned to the CO and told ‘to sort the ninny out.’
Apparently the procedure for ‘sorting out’ was to have the miscreant Wren undress down to her stockings, suspenders and bra, having removed her knickers and then bent over the CPO’s knee to have her bare bottom spanked.
Another report from a lady and former Wren, now an octogenarian, was that corporal punishment was common for minor offences at some establishments. On the base she was posted to, there was one old officer who was notorious for handing out beatings to the younger Wrens for trivial offences. When sent to go before him, she said, the deserving girl would be confronted with her offence and made sure that she had understood the charges. She was then told to “take down your drawers.”
The woman was then expected to pull down her service underwear to her ankles and bend over. Her skirt would then be lifted over her back and clear of any other clothing to completely bare her bottom. She was then spanked with a two-feet wooden ruler.
The octogenarian former Wren said that she was spanked in this way twice and although does not rule out a sexual motive, believes that it was more likely just about the strict discipline of those times.
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.
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.
“At Dartmouth, the Royal Navy officers training college, they used a system of cadet captains who administered what they called a ‘tick’ for any breach of discipline. This was a way of delegating the arduous and routine duty of admonishing former civilian trainees who were often late on parade or ‘incorrectly dressed.’ The system was, that if you acquired three ticks in one term then you received six of the best on your bare behind regardless of whether you were male or female.”
One former cadet, Mrs P, remembered that during her time at Dartmouth during the 1940s it was a daily routine for women cadets to be beaten on their bare bottoms. She said that once, while attending an arms drill, she carelessly discharged a clip of live ammunition, an action that could have had some very serious consequences.
For that incident she was hauled up before the commanding officer who gave her thirty strokes of the cane on her bare bottom and she said that she could not sit down for five days.
Mrs B, who served around the same time, said that she was an insubordinate girl and was constantly in trouble, but by some miracle managed to avoid a CO’s thirty.
She did however have to regularly visit the staff sergeant’s office for a meeting with what she called ‘knotty,’ which was a large bamboo cane.
She admitted that she was both wilful and cheeky and usually ‘thoroughly deserved’ her regulation twelve strokes on the bare bottom and more often than not got at least an extra six for ‘offering staff some lip.’
“Sitting down was often quite a challenge and on one occasion I had my backside welted with twelve strokes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday of the same week for smoking in the lavatories.
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.
So, fact or fiction? There certainly does seem to have been some kind of provision for treating Wrens, especially junior Wrens, similarly to the boy cadets of Dartmouth Naval College.
These stories all hail back to around the time of the Second World War, a time when women, even into their twenties and older, were quite often subjected to spankings from husbands and boyfriends, as well as fathers and uncles.
There seems to be no suggestion these military canings were anything other than semi-official at best, and often totally unofficial.
As a child of the 1950s and 1960s, I remember well the cadet forces attached to many schools and also as separate institutions in their own right and corporal punishment would often be used for misdemeanours in exactly the same way as it was used in schools.
My best guess, rightly or wrongly, is that probably a small number of younger females in the armed services were subjected to spankings and perhaps the odd caning but that officialdom, if it ever knew the truth, simply turned a blind eye.
Obviously, if new evidence comes to light then I would be happy to reconsider.