Obituary: Dame Margot Turner
Tuesday 12 October 1993
A FORMER Colonel Commandant of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps claimed to have spotted the high potential of Margot Turner, eventually Matron-in-Chief and Director of Army Nursing Services, on Turner's very first day as a military nurse in 1937. She was, to the end, a tall, handsome woman with a warm smile and a wholly unforced air of authority and was clearly intended by nature to make a mark in the world. It would have taken rather more prescience, however, to have foreseen her remarkable experiences in the Second World War, or her subsequent connection with a television programme, Tenko (1981- 84), watched by millions.
After joining what was then Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, 'the QAs' - largely, she would later say, because she was attracted by their bright red uniform cloaks - Turner's first overseas posting was to India and, after war broke out in Europe, to Malaya, as trouble threatened in the Far East. Lively, athletic, good at swimming, golf and tennis, she briefly enjoyed the peace of Singapore in early 1941 and with other QAs was much in demand at that famous rendezvous, Raffles Hotel.
She served as a theatre sister at a hospital in up-country Malaya, and when the Japanese struck, and moved on Singapore, worked there amid the bombing and shelling. When all the patients were evacuated from a hospital on the Johore Strait, she retired beneath a billiards table with another nurse and a bottle of brandy from the medical stores. 'After a number of swigs,' she remembered, 'the barrage became nothing like as terrifying.'
Eventually, and belatedly, British and Australian military nurses and civilian women and children were evacuated.
The escape fleet was ambushed in the narrow waters off Sumatra, and Turner's ship was sunk in an air attack, the aircraft returning to machine-gun those struggling in the water. After three days on a deserted islet she was picked up by another vessel crammed with women and children, which was then sunk by gunfire from a Japanese warship.
With another QA she swam until she had assembled 16 survivors on a raft, six of them children and two of these babies under one year old. Waterless under a blazing sun, the children went mad and one by one died. 'I examined each of them with great care before committing their little bodies to the sea,' she recalled. 'The last one was a very small baby and it was difficult to know when it was dead.'
By the third day Turner was the only one left alive. She ate seaweed and, having somehow retained her powder compact, was able to catch some water when briefly it rained on the third night. The next day she was picked up by an enemy cruiser, her eyes sunken and her skin so blackened that there was confusion over her nationality.
Her ordeal continued in a women's prison camp on Bank Island, off Sumatra. Her height and blue eyes seemed especially to aggravate the Japanese. She lost a front tooth having received a blow from a guard at the daily headcount, or 'tenko', taken at noon to catch the heat of the sun, and when the Kempei Tai, the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo, appeared, she was one of four women singled out for investigation as a possible spy, and taken to the secret jail in Palembang.
Here, crammed with the others in a tiny, filthy cell and surrounded by surprisingly kind and helpful murderers, thieves and rapists from the local community, she spent six months, living in daily fear of joining the many who were noisily tortured and executed.
The captivity of the Singapore women lasted three and a half years, and, towards the end, starvation and disease killed more than half their number. At the end, those with sufficient strength left buried the dead, and Turner, indomitable to the end, was one of those who carried the ramshackle coffins and dug the heavy soil with primitive native hoes.
After the war she resumed her career with a succession of foreign postings: Malta, Libya, Cyprus, Egypt, Eritrea and, then a Major, led the QA contingent in the 1953 Coronation parade. The nursing equivalent of the private soldier with a Field Marshal's baton in his knapsack, she continued her classic ascent through all the ranks to become, in 1964, the Chief Military Nurse, and was appointed a Dame a year later.
On her retirement in 1968, she became Colonel Commandant of the Nursing Corps. Her achievements, together with her wartime exploits, drew her to the attention of the This is Your Life television programme, but when she discovered that research was in progress she asked the production company (Thames Television) not to go ahead. There followed such a bombardment of the then presenter, Eamonn Andrews, by Turner's colleagues, friends and others encountered along her eventful road, that the project was revived with improved security and she was eventually entrapped in 1978.
She bore this ordeal with the fortitude and humour that were her hallmark and, following its well-known conventions, the programme brought together a number of her fellow prisoners, whom she had not seen since the war's end. At the conclusion of her story she joined these women in singing a hymn composed by a missionary captive who died in the camps and which was sung each Sunday morning in captivity, even when voices were almost too weak to be raised. It was a moment of extraordinary drama and was, in fact, the moment when another television landmark, Tenko, was conceived by an alert young television producer. The drama series, which drew large and devoted audiences from its first run in 1981, could only sketch the appalling misery of the camps but was the first that many people knew of a wartime episode involving extraordinary courage and selflessness which had been largely overlooked before.
'In her quiet, understated way Margot Turner was inspirational,' Lavinia Warner, the creator of the series, said, 'and although all who survived were heroines and the inspiration for Tenko, Margot was the perfect example of what brought the survivors through.'
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