Mary’s secret war mission – a remarkable story for Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday

Written by: Alison Reijman Published: November 10, 2023

Ahead of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday this weekend, we would like to tell you the remarkable war time story of Mary Watkins, one of our residents at Brendoncare Stildon in East Grinstead. 

 

 

 

Mary Watkins pictured with her daughter Bobby and the book they wrote about her life.

Now aged 103, Mary joined the ATS, (Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army), just after the outbreak of World War 2. The ATS gave her a very special job. Mary became a member of its Intelligence Branch, working at Bletchley Park where she was a log reader, part of the team who helped to crack the Enigma Code.

Highly secret

Born in 1920 in Chelsea, London, Mary missed out on a scholarship aged 13 after her family moved to Margate. She left school, got a job as a book-keeper, but her life changed when she volunteered for the ATS.

Because of her love of puzzles and crosswords, Mary was selected for special duties with M18, the Military Intelligence, at Scotland Yard in London.

“We were told that the work for which we had been selected was so highly secret, we had to win this war and it was only by everyone doing his or her job that this would happen,” recalls Mary.

“We were also told we would never be able to talk about it, there would never be any formal recognition for what we were about to do, but that it was vital work and highly secret.”

Messages

Initially, Mary worked on a punch card system representing coded letters and numbers. During this time, she also became aware of a top secret place called Bletchley Park.

Her jobs mainly entailed recording German and Russian call signs from intercepted and decoded Enigma messages. The only details she knew about them were from where they came and where they were going.

Mary recalls seeing names of personnel, locations and theatres of war as well as military and technical details. But her role prohibited her from reading the messages or asking questions about them.

She was promoted to sergeant and went to work in Harpenden, Hertfordshire then in Leicestershire. Afterwards, Mary returned to Bletchley Park, working day and night shifts on 24 hour duties.

She married her first husband Max and hoped she would be posted to the Middle East. However, when she became pregnant, she had to leave the ATS but found a job in a printing office. Her daughter Vivien was born while Max was in Saigon.

Mary and her parents moved back to Chelsea until they were bombed out and rehoused. Max returned home and was posted to Germany. However, the couple had grown apart and they later divorced. She married Tony Watkins and they had a daughter Bobby and son Anthony.

Mary later trained as a teacher, becoming a deputy head in a Surrey school before retiring aged 61.

Having signed the Official Secrets Act, Mary never talked about her wartime work and her family only found out about it much later.

Honoured

Neither did she ever receive a medal for her top secret work. Instead, she was given a lapel badge. “This made me happy as I realised that those brave men who served in the Arctic convoys didn’t get a medal but they too only received a lapel badge. My lapel badge made me feel honoured and perfectly happy,” she says.