Mary Turton speaks of work at Bletchley Park and Germany in 1938

20 November 2017 08:30

When war broke out Mary Turton was in the Upper Sixth at Putney Secondary School studying for her Higher School Certificate. She had experienced what was to come as she left Nazi Germany in September 1938. By our Review Magazine Editor, Catherine Goodier

Mary Turton

School days and Germany in 1938

“In the Lower Fifth, I was given the opportunity to take up a new language. I loved French, and thought another language would be great, especially as you could drop Art and Geography if you took up German, so I cheerfully did just that. I was given a German penfriend and after two years we met when she came to stay with us and we got on like a house on fire. Then in August 1938 I went to Germany and a week after I arrived, there was the Reichsparteitag in Nuremberg and the start of the anti Czech preaching. Along the streets in the main town in Bielefeld loudspeakers broadcast Hitler’s and Goebles’s speeches and military music or Nazi songs. In school, we were marched down into the hall to listen to Hitler. As I’d only studied German for two years I could not understand a word Hitler said, but I could understand Goebles, as he was an educated man who spoke decent German. It was a bit unsettling and I didn’t like it one bit. What also struck me was the number of air raid shelters, as I don’t remember any in London. One had a strong feeling of preparing for war.
"One day while out walking along a country road through fields with my German friend, men in what looked like blue and white stripped pyjamas were hoeing the field. I asked my friend who they were and she replied, ‘They’re prisoners.’ Looking back I think they must have been from the concentration camp."
"Then one evening Frau Seickmann called us in to supper and her husband said supper could wait and we should listen to the radio as it was now a question of war or peace. Dr Seickmann was a primary school headmaster whose promotion had been blocked by Nazi Control as he refused to give up his church work, and teachers were not supposed to be active in the church. I thought Dr Seickmann’s remark about war or peace sounded alarming and later that evening my father phoned and asked them to please put me on the first train home.

“At about 3am I boarded a train and as we went down through the Rhur under cover of darkness, I remember at Essen the sky was completely red, as numerous blast furnaces worked at full tilt to produce munitions. It made you feel deeply uncomfortable. At Cologne, I changed to a train for Ostend and there were very few passengers and only about half a dozen of us crossed the border into Belgium. Again, on the ferry to Dover, there were very few passengers and it was wonderful when the white cliffs came into view. Home. I get very sentimental over the white cliffs of Dover. I took the train to Victoria where my father was waiting. At school, the next day I found them all in a turmoil as they prepared to be evacuated, but it all simmered down when Chamberlain came back with his useless bit of paper.”

France August 1939

“Life continued and in 1939 I accepted an offer for an LCC Travelling Scholarship to France for July, August and September. I stayed in Tour, then in the Alps in Anse and should have stayed in the Paris area, but one lunch time at the Pension in Anse, Monsieur came home with a newspaper. Hitler and Stalin had signed their pact. Oh, there was panic, oh la, la. Oh, mon dieu! Le mais non c'est la guerre! We heard that their crack mountain regiment, De Chasseur Alpin, had been mobilised and left their summer camp just above Anse. Monsieur said I should go home because if they called general mobilisation no civilians would be allowed to travel on the trains until it was complete and I could be stuck.

“Several of us set off from the Pension and we took the night train to Paris where I separated from them and went across to Saint Lazare and on to Dieppe. On the quay at Dieppe there were crowds of people and I produced my ticket and was told ‘We’re not bothering about tickets, just get on the first ferry you can’. I did and the sailors were so very tired, as for the past 36 hours they had gone backwards and forwards without a break as they took people home. One of them said that already there were U boats in the Channel and they didn’t have life saving equipment for even half the people on the ship. So, when we approached Newhaven and saw the white cliffs, this time the Seven Sisters, it was that feeling of home.”
"Back home I found my mother making boxes for gas masks. All this was going on and at school no lessons as everything was geared to evacuation."

England and evacuation

“I remember on 1 September, the day Hitler invaded Poland, we went off to school and my mother cooked an especially nice lunch as she thought it might be our last lunch at home. After lunch, I went back to school and as I waited at the train station there were placards about the German bombing of Warsaw and as I looked around I thought, I wonder if I shall see this place again or will it be flattened. I was also scared I might never see my parents again.”

Mary and her school were evacuated. They were labelled, although Mary thought that somewhat unnecessary for children her age. They went from home to school and marched to the underground at Putney that took them to Wimbledon where they boarded a train. After 30 minutes, their train stopped and they were told to disembark. They had only gone as far as Woking.
"We went to a centre and it was like a slave market as the potential hosts walked around saying, ‘I’ll have that one’."
I was left as most people didn’t want an older child, but there was one lady, Mrs Denby, who was slightly crippled and she picked me as I could look after myself. She was a lovely lady and her husband was the head gardener at one of the big houses. They lived about five miles outside Woking in beautiful countryside and it was a glorious summer. I was very happy with Mr & Mrs Denby. He was a specialist in breeding new varieties of delphiniums and his greenhouses were full of different colours, some pale blue and some almost black.”

Mary went to Woking Girls Grammar School where they shared the school, studying from 8am until 5pm with their own teachers on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Having since worked as a teacher Mary said, “When I think of the disruption it must have been for the staff at the school I think they coped remarkably well.”


It was at that time it was suggested Mary sit the Oxford entrance exam. “It had never entered my head to go to Oxford or Cambridge. I applied to St Hilda’s, took the exam and got an interview. I’m sure it was partly because it was the time of the phoney war. Nobody knew what was happening, and I’m sure lots of people who would normally have worked hard and taken the entrance exam didn’t. So totally par raison, as the French would say, I ended up in Oxford studying French and German. I had three lovely years there, although it wasn’t normal Oxford because of course there were very few men.”

At Oxford Mary made lifelong friends with sisters Vlasta and Olga who were in exile from their native Czechoslovakia as their father was in Beneš’ Government. Mary also met Basil, her future husband, and although studying physics she initially dismissed him as a sporty type.

Bletchley Park

“When I took my finals, we were told we had to go into war work. Like everyone I wanted to join the WRNs because it was such a nice uniform, but there was a long waiting list. After I’d been home for about three months the Ministry of Labour wrote stating that if I was not in war work by the end of September or October I would be drafted into a Munitions Factory. I didn’t like the idea of that so gave up on the WRNs and joined the ATS. In primary training, we took aptitude tests and because of those I was sent on a course and then posted to Bletchley Park.

"As I was fluent in German my job was to read decoded messages. I couldn’t get over the volume of material that came through every day."

"Anything of importance had already been dealt with before the messages came to us as they first went to an office known as The Watch. It was there they took information that was of military interest, strategic or tactical. So, if we found something that looked interesting we knew it had already been dealt with. Our job was to find any information about the German signals units. If they were going to change call signs, change frequencies, change location. That was translated and recorded and the information passed to the Listening Stations, as they had to be kept abreast of what the German transmitters were up to. We knew it was vital war work, but it wasn’t very exciting.

“We slept in huts, 28 beds to a hut, and for the 50th Anniversary of VE Day I went back with a friend who throughout our time there had slept in the next bed. It was only when we returned that I discovered what work she had done and she discovered what I had done. I knew she had worked in Block F, but that was all I knew. I thought they did Japanese work, which was totally incorrect, as she had used the Enigma machines to decode the messages. I had no idea during the war as the discipline and secrecy was incredible. I don’t know if it is true, but a lovely thing I heard is that Churchill once said of the people of Bletchley Park, ‘They were my geese who laid the golden egg and never cackled’. He was a remarkable man. I know you can’t say that one man won the war, but in effect he did because if we’d stayed with Chamberlain we’d have caved in 1940.

"We regarded Bletchley as a dump and would say that the only good thing was there were lots of trains to get away."

London theatre

“When we came off duty we went to the station and in no more than half an hour a train for London, or Oxford or Cambridge arrived. We worked shifts, so when we were on a day shift we started work at 9 and worked through to 4. When we were on evenings we went to work at 4pm. On those days, we amused ourselves in Bletchley as best we could, but there wasn’t very much to do apart from the cinema, which was a bit of a flee pit. I went to the theatre in London a lot as there were wonderful productions. There was a company who put on three plays, Richard III, Peer Gynt and Arms and the Man. Laurence Olivier played Richard III and Ralph Richardson played Peer Gynt and because there are two male leads in Arms and the Man they shared those. I think that rep company went on to become the National Theatre. Sadler’s Wells ballet was starting and I often went with my mother as my parents remained in London throughout the war. We saw Margot Fontaine and there were lots of ways to enjoy yourself.

“You got used to the blackout and navigating your way to the underground when you came out of the theatre. You just went to the nearest underground station and hoped there wasn’t an alert on, as we couldn’t take the underground from Leicester Square to Victoria, as the flood gates would be closed. Saying that, if they were we simply found another route. Everybody just got on with their lives as we had one common purpose, to defeat Hitler at all costs.

VE Day

“Work continued and as we moved towards the end of the war less and less work came through. Then, the day before VE Day, a note came around that stated as the Germans would sign the Armistice the following day there was no work and we were free to go to London and join in the celebrations. So, we did. I hitch hiked with a group of friends and we were in the crowd outside Buckingham Palace shouting ‘We want the King’ and ‘We want Churchill.’ As far as I remember there wasn’t any dancing in the streets, which my parents said they had done at the end of the First World War, but I suppose that was because the war in the Far East was still going on so it wasn’t unalloyed euphoria. But it was so wonderful when the street lights came on and we all cheered, as for the first time in five years we had street light.”

After Bletchley Park Mary was transferred from Intelligence to the Army Education Corps to teach ATS personnel about the British constitution before they were demobbed. It was after that things once again became interesting.
"I was sent on embarkation leave and went across the channel, which was lovely to cross the channel as we hadn’t been able to leave England for over five years."

Berlin from January 1946

"We went across to Calais, had a night there and then moved across to Brussels. We were stuck in Brussels for nearly a week because the Rhine was in flood and as the temporary bridges were considered unsafe no trains went over into Germany. The thing that absolutely amazed me in Brussels was the amount of luxury goods on display in the shops. We had none in London. I expect it was because in England we could get the basics through rationing, whereas they were dominated by the black market. We were eventually allowed to cross the Rhine at Nijmegan and we crawled across on a temporary bridge with the waters swirling around as the Rhine was still in flood.

“We ended up very near where I’d stayed in 1938, as the BAOR Headquarters were just a few miles from my friend’s home. We were there only one night before I was given a posting to a Study Centre in Berlin, which for a German speaker, was wonderful. It was January 1946 and it was bitterly cold. Most of the Germans were living in the basements of war damaged buildings without heating and they were often without power.

“We were allowed one short break between home leaves, 72 hours when you could go to Paris or Copenhagen. I didn’t want to go to either, but to visit my university friend in Prague, but as it meant driving through the Russian Zone of Germany I couldn’t go on my own. Not thinking I would be able to, my CO agreed that if I could organise everything he would give me permission to go. I put everything in place and he kept to his word, which was very fair of him, and that is another story.” That part of Mary’s account is included in the Talking Review in the full audio interview. Mary was then demobbed and the beginning of the next chapter of her exciting life began as a teacher and translator living in the UK and overseas with her husband and children.

Becoming a blind veteran

Mary joined Blind Veterans UK in 2016 after speaking with the Oxfordshire Association for the Blind. “I’d been losing my eyesight for quite some time and my daughter Helen found out about their open day and said we should go as they could advise on assistive aids. Somebody asked if I had been in the Forces, I said I had been at Bletchley Park and they recommended I contact Blind Veterans UK.

"I knew of St Dunstan’s, but had never heard of Blind Veterans UK, but I applied and here I am today, enjoying Women’s Military Week at the Brighton centre. The training has made a great difference and the talking watch is the best piece of equipment that I’ve been issued with."

"I have been given talking scales for cooking and a tablet that Anna Brownlie has taught me to use, and she’s just lovely. I have a love hate relationship with computers and didn’t really want to learn how to use them. My husband was a physicist and he became involved with computers at the beginning and taught his students and he could write programmes and that sort of thing. Well I never wanted to do anything like that. I have a Mac and Anna has given me instructions for that and for the tablet and I’m getting on with it. It’s always good to learn new skills."