July 7 – NI WRNS who plotted D-Day landings


After the war, Joan Mary Cattanach trained as a dress designer at the Paris Academy of Fashion in London. Today is the anniversary of her death in 2017

A Northern Ireland Wren who plotted the D-Day landings in a secret underground tunnel lived until she was 92.

Former dress designer Joan Mary Cattanach passed away peacefully at Kingfishers care home in New Milton on July 7, 2017.

The mother-of-two was born in Rosario de Santa Fe in Argentina, a daughter of George Apperson and Dorothy Boyd from Belfast.

After the family returned to Belfast, Joan attended Richmond Lodge School and then went to boarding school at Queenswood in Hertfordshire, only for her education to be cut short in 1939 when war broke out. She returned to Ireland to attend a Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU) school in Tynan House and in 1941 volunteered to work in the Forces Canteen.

As Belfast came under attack from Luftwaffe raids, Joan joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service – better known as the Wrens – as soon as she was able to in 1941 and was stationed in Belfast Castle, plotting the ship movements from the Clyde to the Atlantic by positioning model ships on a huge glass mapping table.

Afterwards, she said: “The Operations Room was a large room upstairs, which had windows along one wall.

“There was an office on the right, behind a glass screen, and another long room on the left housed the teleprinters, where we spent a lot of time receiving information from the Liver Buildings in Liverpool, Greenock and, I think, Orkney.

“We had a big glass-topped map table in the centre of the room and we placed tiny ‘boats’ according to the positions we had been given, moving them with long-handled rakes just like they show it in old films.

“We plotted convoys from the Clyde to the Atlantic as well as everything else at sea.”
Joan met her husband Alexander Cattanach (Sandy) when her father was running the wartime Officer Training Course at Queen’s University Belfast. She was set up with a blind date and he was rather shocked to find out that she was his Commanding Officer’s daughter.

In April 1944 Joan was sent with three others to HMS Forward in Newhaven to reinforce it in preparation for D-Day.

“Our job involved surveillance of everything that moved on, under or over the English Channel, from Dungeness to Selsey Bill,” she said.

“I arrived at work expecting to do my normal shift, only to be told that we were all to be locked in for 48 hours. It was D-Day and we were to plot the landings. Any communication with the outside was forbidden.

“This put me in a fix: my boyfriend, Sandy, had just returned from India. We had planned a romantic reunion at Haywards Heath station. All staff were given amphetamines to help us to stay alert and awake. I decided not to take mine, as the first girl who did leapt up and danced on the plotting table!

“I did take time to think of Sandy. He had waited for me, but after an hour he decided I’d stood him up and turned to go. As he said, ‘I realised there were a lot of planes about and that something must be happening’.”

In November 1944 Joan returned to Belfast Castle until she was demobbed in August 1945.

After the war she trained as a dress designer at the Paris Academy of Fashion in London and worked for James McCaherty in Belfast designing pattern layouts for garments. Upon marrying Sandy in 1945, she moved to Glasgow where she supported her husband through his medical studies by working for Sol and Philip Harris who made clothes for Marks & Spencer.

The family lived in Scotland, then Crewe, and Joan was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1956. She underwent a total thyroidectomy and radical new treatment with radioactive iodine at New End Hospital and went on to live to 92.

Sandy took over a one-man practice in New Milton in 1957 which he initially ran from the family home and they lived there until he retired in 1984. In 1971 he opened one of the first purpose-built health centres in the country.

Joan was an excellent sculptor, jewellery maker and china restorer and donated all her earnings from china restoration to Oakhaven Hospice, where Sandy was to spend his last days until he died of cancer in 2008.

Joan was survived by her two daughters Sue and Siriol, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her funeral took place at the Woodland Burial Ground at Hinton, Dorset.

Linda Stewart
Belfast Telegraph

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