University of Oxford
7 files

How I joined the Intelligence Corps

online resource
posted on 2024-06-05, 18:11 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

When war was announced I found the news so exciting! I had been working, since the age of 13, as a bookkeeper in the World Stores in Margate. I thought now finally an opportunity must come my way to do something else and experience more of life. I was not fearful but excited! The girl on the main desk at my store was called up and I took her place but as this was not considered promotion, there was no increase in pay, but now at least I interacted with the public.

One day, in the store, one of my Girl Guide leaders came in wearing an ATS uniform and this had a profound effect on me. I decided there and then that I would volunteer and join the ATS at the earliest opportunity. This was in the time, at the beginning of the war, of the "phoney war" with blackouts and only a dim blue lamp above a pub breaking the darkness in the streets. For entertainment we went to the pictures. We had a radio and these were our sole entertainment - it was a miserable and profoundly boring time and no wonder I yearned to volunteer and see some action somewhere.

I knew that the ATS were asking for Cooks, Orderlies and Clerks. I couldn't cook and I didn't know what an orderly was, but the latter appealed to me and, much to my mother's chagrin, I opted for that.

A little while later a notice had appeared in the local newspaper asking for volunteers for the ATS and so I wrote in to the Scotland Yard office offering to volunteer. There was a short delay because of the rush of volunteers but eventually the papers came and I duly filled them in and posted off my application. I waited what seemed like ages, Christmas came and went, but in January the papers finally arrived and I submitted them quickly and without informing anyone. Very soon I was ordered to report to the recruiting Office in Wincheap, Canterbury on Thursday 22 February 1940 to complete my application and join up.

Looking forward to the day when I was going to Canterbury I had planned to get the bus from Margate Harbour at 08:50 to Canterbury to be in time for the recruiting which would start at 11:00. However, I hadn't reckoned with the weather. When I woke up that Thursday morning in February, after a bitterly cold winter, there was a thick blanket of snow! I was unable to take my bike owing to the snow but this suited me as I had told no one where I was going so that no suspicion would be aroused. I set out for Margate harbour hoping the buses would still be running but nothing was on the road and I was not optimistic. When I got there 2 men were waiting and they told me that the buses would still be operating that day but would be very late and this worried me, I thought I would miss my appointment. Instead of waiting I set off on foot following the bus route knowing that the buses, if still running, would catch up with me at some point. I can tell you that I walked no less than 5 miles in that deep snow, to Birchington, until the bus caught up with me! I was nowhere near any bus stop and I was on the verge of open country, but I stuck my hand out and the driver kindly stopped and picked me up. I was so relieved, climbed aboard and after that, in no time at all, I arrived in Canterbury at the Wincheap Recruiting Office.

On arrival I was instructed to strip off for a medical examination and this was followed by lectures of field craft and form-filling etc. But now, at last, I was in the ATS.

We then had to write an essay entitled "Why do I want to join the Army". Of course I was impassioned about joining the Army and resolved to write a very good essay. I had a good command of English and determined that I would impress the recruiters. I wrote about girls not having an even chance in life, that this was a wonderful opportunity and more besides and, though I say it myself, it was a very good essay. However, the time for collection came in and I wasn't finished, I still had so much more to say; stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I hadn't reached the end. But, when the papers were collected I noticed that some girls were still chewing their pencils and had hardly written anything! Looking back now I feel sure that this might have had a bearing on the role for which I was selected and how I got into the Intelligence Branch of the ATS, though no one can ever be sure.

I arrived as instructed at Margate Station the following Thursday 29 February and, together with others, we were taken, by coach, to Brighton, to Saltdean. We were put into the Ocean Hotel and there I met two other girls from Canterbury and was told I would join A Company. We were given a mattress and blankets and quickly taught how to "barrack", i.e. to fold the blankets, make the beds etc. There was hot and cold running water, heaters in each rooms and it was luxury far greater than I had been used to at home. Reveille played on a bugle the next morning at 06:00 and our training started.

I was made a Guard Runner, which involved me standing at the main entrance gate with a large stick held behind my back and when a visitor came to the gate I would be assigned to take the visitor to the required destination and another Guard Runner would take my place. It was so military, we had our uniforms and we had to be smartly turned out. I did this every evening from 18:30 to 21:30. Because my duty was at night I would not be excused all the squad drill that took place during the day, but frankly I loved it and enjoyed this first taste of military life!

After those first three weeks a notice was placed on the noticeboard telling us where we were all going to be posted. My name was there but crossed out with a note "see notice board". When I looked at the other notice board it said, "these six Volunteers have been selected for Special Duties at MI8, Scotland Yard". My name was on that list.

I had no idea what MI8 was but one of the six was the wife of an Army Officer and she confirmed we were going to Military Intelligence. I puzzled why we had been selected for MI8 but feel it may have come to their notice that we six loved crosswords and puzzles, or may be it was that essay I mentioned! Nevertheless I was joining the Intelligence Corp.

My war story had begun.


Item list and details

Service book and internal pages, photos of Mary

Person the story/items relate to

Mary Watkins nee Wells AKA Mary Vardy

Person who shared the story/items

Bobby Cadwallader

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

She is my mother

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID