By Deborah Anderson

WITH a combined age of 776, eight former WRNS have shown just how adaptable they have become in lockdown.

Like many groups and clubs who have been forced to close their doors this year and shift their services online, SSAFA, one of the oldest armed forces charities looked at how they could do things differently and keep veterans connected.

To mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Japan in August and Armistice Day in November, the charity brought together a group of WRNS, Women's Royal Naval Service, who served in the Second World War for a virtual meeting. The ladies got together, including Ailsa Stewart, who turns 106 on Monday.

And a special Zoom call was being planned today for the veterans as a get together for Mrs Stewart’s milestone birthday.

The work of SSAFA during the pandemic is just one of the projects we have been highlighting through The Herald’s Tackling Loneliness: Keeping Scotland Connected series.

To allow the seven former WRNS to take part in the virtual meetings, SSAFA secured two of the participants an iPad via the Royal Navy Project Semaphore which is to help combat social isolation.

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A spokeswoman for SSAFA said: “This group of WRNS were meeting on a monthly basis prior to lockdown and haven’t been able to see each other. We were able to facilitate a meeting for them, letting them see each other and conduct their monthly meeting and some reminiscing over the annual Armistice Service.”

It was hoped Mrs Stewart would be able to join in the birthday Zoom call with her fellow former WRNS as she marks her birthday at home in Campbeltown.

Having survived the Spanish Flu pandemic which killed 50million from 1918 to 1920, she has steered her way through the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown with strength and determination.

She was born and brought up in India, where her father served in the British Army. At the age of 16 she came to the UK and having seen her brothers enlist for service in the Second World War, she wanted to do the same and became an officer in the WRNS. Latterly she was stationed at Machrihanish where she led expert training and analysis for torpedo drops, but was also seconded to HMS Gannet in Prestwick for her expertise.

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Her son Patrick Stewart, 75, a former Lord Lieutenant of Argyll and Bute, said: “We set up the Zoom call for mum so she could chat to her friends. However, you can imagine with that many ladies all talking virtually, it was very interesting.

“My mother is a very strong and determined woman. Having survived the Spanish Flu pandemic and her war efforts, she said she wouldn’t be put off by coronavirus.”

Mrs Stewart, who enjoyed many adventures during her life including sailing across the Atlantic on a sail training ship in her 80s, was planning to have a brandy and ginger ale to mark her birthday.

And while her friends won’t be there to toast her person, they might be able to have a virtual tipple.

One of the younger members of the group 94-year-old Sheila Smith says the Zoom calls have been a great way of catching up during lockdown.

Mrs Smith, from Glasgow, would normally meet up with the former WRNS once a month for lunch in the city centre, but they are having to make do with virtual connections.

“The SSAFA charity have done a great deal for us in lockdown including arranging the Zoom meeting,” she said. “We always have something to talk about and it was lovely that a birthday meeting was arranged for the oldest member of our group Mrs Stewart.”

At the age of just 17, Mrs Smith was called up and following her initial training at Headingley near Leeds, she was posted to London where she was forced to move around due to flying bombs, Doodlebugs, hitting the quarters she had been staying in.

“I was sent to work on naval casualty records,” the former WRNS added. “I remember we had masses of cabinets to go through and had to know where everyone’s details were and find them quickly if we needed to. This was in the Spring of 1944 and the reason we had to be so prepared was because what we didn’t know at the time preparations were being made for the D Day landings in June.”

Fellow former WRNS Margaret Miller, 96, known as Mardy, who worked on the Alan Turing designed Bombe code-breaker machine at Bletchley Park from 1942 to 1944 before being posted to Columbo, in Sri Lanka to break Japanese codes, has enjoyed meeting up on Zoom.

“We are a very close group who met regularly and this time last year we had our Christmas party,” said Mrs Miller. “We have had a go at the Zoom meetings and today we will have a glass of port to toast Ailsa. We enjoy the camaraderie and a chat and hopefully we will be ale to meet up again one day soon.”

Like many charities SSAFA has been hit hard this year with many of its usual fundraising initiatives unable to go ahead. However, they marked the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May with special hampers to veterans.

SSAFA dates back to1885 and started out as a fund to help military families at home while the Second Expeditionary Force set sail for Egypt. Major James Gildea wrote a letter appealing for money and a fund was set up to provide allowances.

Her Royal Highness, The Princess of Wales (the future Queen Alexandra) became the first president of what was then called the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association.

Now 135 years later, the SSAFA – the Armed Forces charity is still providing to support to veterans, serving personnel and their families.

You can donate to SSAFA at