Margot Evelyn Marguerite Turner

Dame Margot Turner © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dame Margot Turner © National Portrait Gallery, London

Margot Evelyn Marguerite Turner – a serving sister with Queen Alexander’sImperial Nursing Service. She left Singapore on the Kuala, which was bombed and sunk off Pom Pong Island on 14.2.42. Survivors who reached shore were taken off on the Tanjong Pinang – this was then bombed on 17.2.42 and it is believed that Margot Turner was the only survivor of this second bombing.  After being picked from the sea by a Japanese warship she reached Banka Island where she was interned.

She was then one of 4 nurses who were placed into solitary confinement for 6 months in the Palembang Jail.

After the war Dame Margot Turner was featured on an episode of  ‘This is Your Life’. One of the producers of this episode, Lavinia Warner,  was so inspired by the stories of the former internees that she visited Palembang in 1980 to make ‘Women in Captivity’ and then wrote ‘Women beyond the Wire’.  She later made the TV series ‘Tenko’.

The artist David Wingate whose Grandmother Penelope Landon died in the bombing of the Tanjong Pinang gave a print to the Muntok Peace Museum of his painting of the Tanjong Pinang.

Turner’s post war career with the Queen Alexander’s culminated in her being made Colonel Commandant and later Brigadier Dame Margot Turner.

Margot Turner later made the following affidavit:

I, Evelyn Marguerite Turner, Sister Q.A.I.M.N.S. of 2 Palmeira Square, Hove, Sussex, say:-

I went to Malaya (Tanjong Malim) in March, 1941, with 17th Combined General Hospital and met Mrs. Landon in May 1941 and saw her fairly frequently (playing tennis etc.) till I left Tanjong Malim in December 1941 on going to Singapore on the move of the 17th Combined General Hospital.

I saw Mrs. Landon with her husband at the Docks at Singapore on 13th February 1942 the day on which I embarked in the ‘Kuala’. We sailed during the early part of the night of the 13th February and I saw Mrs. Landon on the ship and spoke to her.

The ‘Kuala’ was anchored off an Island Pom Pong some sixty miles from Singapore. At about 0800 hours on the 14th February the ship was bombed and received a direct hit at about noon. I swam ashore and met and spoke to Mrs. Landon on the island (I cannot say how she got to the Island) I was with her on the Island till 16th February 1942, she helped me nurse the injured and wounded.

During the night of 16-17th February, all women, children and wounded were taken off the island in rowing boats and placed on board the ‘Tanjong Pinang’, a small cargo boat which was very crowded. As a nursing sister I remained on deck but all the passengers, including Mrs. Landon, were below decks in the hold. I saw Mrs. Landon on the ‘Tanjong Pinang’ and spoke to her. The ‘Tanjong Penang’ sailed for Java on the morning of the 17th February 1942. She was hit by gunfire at 9.30 p.m. on that day and sank in about 5 minutes. As I was making for the hold to see what help I could give I met Mrs. Stafford, a V.A.D. who told me it was useless to go down to the hold as all the people appeared to have been killed. The ship had heeled at an acute angle and I just stepped into the water, swam around, got hold of a raft and then during the night picked up 16 people but not Mrs. Landon. I was on the raft for four days during which time all the sixteen people either died or fell off the raft through exhaustion.

On the night of the 21st February I was picked up by a Japanese Cruiser and taken to Muntok Camp on Bangka Island and interned. Sister Mary Cooper Q.A.I.M.N.S. (R) and Mrs. Watts Carter and three Eurasians who got away from the ‘Tanjong Pinang’, how I do not know, were brought into camp at the same time as myself. These ladies have since died.

I was released on 19th September 1945 and went to Singapore.

I have naturally made enquiries as to any survivors from the ‘Tanjong Pinang’ but have never heard of any”.

(There is a good book on Dame Margot Turner by Brig. The Rt. Hon. Sir John Smyth, Bt., V.C., M.C. called “The Will to Live”.  ISBN 0 7089 1560 4.)

Obituary: Dame Margot Turner
The Independent October 12 1993

Margot Evelyn Marguerite Turner, military nurse: born London 10 May 1910: nurse, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service 1937-1949, QARANC 1949-74, Matron-in-Chief and Director, Army Nursing Services 1964-68, Colonel-Commandant, QARANC 1969-74; MBE 1946, DBE 1965; died Brighton 24 September 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.”

Dame Margot Turner Article

Phyllis Thom 24 June 1979