Marj’s war secrets shared

SECRETS: Port Elliot woman Marj Thornton with a photo of herself and her friend Joy while working as wireless operators in the UK during World War II. Photo: Dani Brown.
SECRETS: Port Elliot woman Marj Thornton with a photo of herself and her friend Joy while working as wireless operators in the UK during World War II. Photo: Dani Brown.

PORT ELLIOT – If Port Elliot woman Marj Thornton had breathed a word to anyone about her work when she was in her early 20s, she would have been shot.

After living between the family home in Birmingham, England and an Anderson bomb shelter in the backyard for two years, Marj received her notice of conscription for World War II in 1942.

She could join the land army, the munitions factory, or services. She chose the army.

After a month of training, the women were asked which branch of the army they would like to be in.

People higher up saw her academic qualifications and she was asked to consider being a wireless operator. She thought it would be something different. She couldn’t have been more right.

“We had to learn the Morse code, we had to learn all the letters and the international cue codes which were used by wireless operators all through the world, and all the punctuation marks,” she said.

Marj was sent to Shenley, an old country house just outside London, where they were introduced to the work they would do and the equipment they would use. Her role would involve listening to the wireless and intercepting coded messages sent between the German army.

“We were the first women to go there as wireless operators, until then it had been men who had done this,” she said.

“We had to sign the Official Secrets Act swearing that we would never divulge anything about what we were going to do.”

Marj and her colleagues would intercept Enigma machine-coded messages from German forces and send them to Bletchley Park, but were never aware of what was happening there as they were only told what they needed to know.

Her parents never found out what line of work she did – they passed away before she was allowed to say anything – and her husband didn’t find out until the 1970s.

Marj and the other women continued their work at Shenley until Christmas in 1942, when they were split. Marj and her friend Joy were posted to Kedleston Hall, just outside Derby.

Bombe machines were used to decipher the codes, but the Germans did not know this. They thought secret agents were leaking information as they believed the Enigma machine was secure.

She stayed at Kedleston Hall for two years, which she said included some exciting times around D Day.  

She was then posted to Harrogate where they were billeted in Queen Ethelburga’s school. While there, her husband-to-be Ed returned to the United Kingdom after working behind Japanese lines in Burma.

They were married in March 1945, but he was posted to Birmingham and she was without work after Victory in Europe Day as there were no more German messages to intercept. She was demobilised in July 1945.

It is only recently the 95-year-old Order of Australia recipient has been able to reveal her story.