A Droitwich woman was one of the first people in Britain to learn that the D-Day Landings had taken place.
Marge Barton (nee Payne) was working as a teleprinter operator with the Auxiliary Territorial Service when she received a message at 8.30am on June 6, 1944 stating that Allied troops had landed on the beaches of Normandy.
Born in 1920, Marge hailed from Birmingham and received her call-up papers in August 1942. She was told to catch a train to Droitwich where she’d undertake her basic training.
She and the other women were split into patrols for their three weeks at Norbury House. Marge’s patrol was judged the best, and they were rewarded with a night at the Raven Hotel.
Marge was then posted to Bradford to train as a teleprinter operator and it was while working at Luton Hoo, a country house in Bedfordshire, that she received the message of seismic proportions.
After the war, Marge had no desire to join civvy street and was posted to Germany to help with the clear-up operation, witnessing cities that had been razed to the ground.
At a dance she met future husband Mick Barton, a quartermaster sergeant in the Royal Corps of Signals, At the time, women had to leave the ATS to get married so Marge was demobbed in 1946, having achieved the rank of corporal.
Mick was demobbed the following year and they set up home in Birmingham. In the early 1950s, Mick’s employers relocated to Droitwich and Marge was delighted to return to the town she had grown to love during her wartime training.
She also returned to Norbury House, appearing in many Norbury Theatre shows, later volunteering as a props mistress and doing all she could to support the venue.
Now aged 101, Marge still lives in Droitwich. She is keen to mark the 80th anniversary of conscription for women (December 8, 2021) by helping to promote the work of military charity the WRAC Association wraca.org.uk
You can read much more about her Droitwich training and wartime experiences, in the words of her family, below….
Marge’s Barton (nee Payne)
80 years after the conscription of women into the British Army, Marge Barton, then Payne recalls her experience of being conscripted. Her training and service took her from Birmingham to Droitwich in Worcestershire, Bradford in West Yorkshire, Cambridge, Saxmundham and Ipswich in Suffolk, Felsted and Harwich in Essex, Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire, Edgbaston, Burton-On-Trent, Rugby, and Chester.
As the operator who received the teleprinter message on the 6 June 1944 that British troops had landed on the Normandy beaches, she was probably one of the first people in England to know that the D-Day landings had taken place.
Opting to stay in the ATS after her conscription ended, Marge found herself in Germany supporting the clean-up effort after peace was declared. At 101 Marge tells the tales of her wartime experiences with warmth and colour, and a significant amount of modesty.
Marge Payne was born in 1920 and grew up in Birmingham. Although her uncles were called up to serve in WW1, she did not have a family military background. When war broke out, she was working at ICI metals, which was functioning as a munitions factory. Whilst there a bomb aimed at destroying the factory narrowly missed them and hit the nearby tram sheds.
When her brother was called up to join the fire brigade as a despatch rider as part of the war effort, Marge left ICI to take on his insurance round in order to protect his job. Having been told that she now had a ‘man’s job’ and was therefore exempted from serving, she nonetheless received her call-up papers for national service and on the 22 of August 1942, caught a train to Droitwich Spa to do her basic training in the ATS.
Very excited to have been conscripted, she and the other girls who had had travelled on the same train were met at the station in Droitwich by a sergeant who herded them to the Norbury House Hotel which was to be their base for the next three weeks. Marge already had hopes of becoming a teleprinter operator, and shared a twin room with a girl called Mary, who wanted to be a driver. The hotel dining room was used as the mess and Marge recalls rushing down two or three flights of stairs to get there on time for meals – and woe betide anyone who was late because they had to go without.
Their first task was to collect their uniforms – a flat cap, tunic with brass buttons, below-the-knee length skirt, shirts and ties, bloomers (eliciting moans and groans and some giggles) and lisle stockings – all in khaki, brown lace-up shoes, and blue and white striped pyjamas. Marge wore her uniform with pride and soon learned that to keep the creases in the skirt, and to save ironing, she could put them under the mattress every night and sleep on it. Hair was kept two inches off the collar, and she was issued with a cleaning kit for shoes and buttons, which all had to be polished every day ready for the regular kit inspections.
“Along with our uniform we were given a number (mine was W/212410) and a very important little book called an AB64, which we had to keep in the left-hand breast pocket of our uniform and always carry with us. This was our pay book and it contained our identity details. Every week, we stood in a line then marched to the table, saluted the officer, passed the book over and stated our Army number before receiving our few shillings pay.”
Basic training included lectures on Army rules and regulations. The new recruits were reminded of the reason for them being there – to relieve the men so they could be sent to the front line. Much time was spent on the parade ground doing PT and drill and Marge found that she enjoyed the discipline. They were split into patrols and judged, with the best patrol at the end of three weeks’ training rewarded with a visit to the Raven Hotel to drink from the winners’ cup. Marge’s patrol came out on top.
Towards the end of the three weeks, the girls appeared before a board of officers to discuss what work they would do in the Army. Marge wanted to be a teleprinter operator, but was told that they were short of girls to support the Ack-Ack batteries (anti-aircraft guns), so she was persuaded to take the test, which required a quick eye and a very steady hand. Failing the test she was then moved near to Bradford to train on the teleprinter.
From a fully-furnished hotel room with a washbasin, Marge found herself in a Nissen hut in mid-winter with toilet and wash facilities in a field. Many girls wept from the bitter cold. Marge recalls her first lesson there on E&M – electricity and magnetism – and being taught that “the molecule is the smallest particle that can exist alone”. This resonated with her years later with the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
From Yorkshire, Marge was sent to a holding unit in Cambridge whilst she waited for her first posting. Here she recalls watching Gone With The Wind at the cinema, and visiting the university to tell the students there about the ATS.
Marge’s first posting was to Felsted in Essex where she stayed for nearly a year as part of Two Corps. With 6 girls to a room, she got on famously with the other girls – Betty from East London, Hilda from Romford, Melvis from Wales (who was later to be her bridesmaid), Rita from the Isle of Wight and Marian who went on to become an officer, and who introduced the young Marge to the sights and sounds of London through their shared love of the theatre. Wearing their uniform they got free entrance into the shows and concerts – her first being the ballet ‘Giselle’
Marge had 14 postings in total, including Saxmundham and Ipswich in Suffolk, Harwich in Essex where screeching rats kept her awake at night, and Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire. She recalls that on their days off during the summer months, she and her friends sometimes functioned as land girls on local farms, helping with hay making and pea picking. It was at Luton Hoo where she experienced the V1 and V2 bombers flying overhead, and where she received the message on the teleprinter that at 8.30 that morning, British troops had landed on the beaches in Normandy. Although she did not realise it at the time, she was probably the first person in England to know that this mission had been carried out.
Whilst at Luton Hoo she received a letter informing her that her father was seriously unwell, so she found herself on a compassionate posting to Edgbaston in Birmingham near her family home. This was followed by other postings within travelling distance at Burton-On-Trent and Rugby, before being sent to Chester for Morse Code training. The Army expected to discharge Marge at the end of the war in 1945, but she had other ideas, and with no desire to join civi-street, she signed up to stay in the ATS and was posted to Germany.
Landing in France, Marge travelled to Brussels, marvelling at how, after years of austerity in Britain, Brussels was brightly lit and the shops well stocked. After 3 weeks in Brussels she boarded a train to Germany, and on the Dutch-German border her train stopped overnight. The view from the window the next morning was a shock – cities razed to the ground in the Ruhr area of Germany. She discovered that one of her two kit-bags had been stole from the train – the one containing her personal belongings including family photographs, items purchsed in Brussels and her precious new camera. Marge feels sure that the items were sold on the black market and rues their loss to this day.
Marge was billeted at the spa town of Bad Oeynhausen where she worked at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Most of the messages she was taking on the teleprinter were in code so, although she was not aware of the contents, she knew that this was highly important work. Day shifts worked well for Marge, but the night shifts were tricky as she struggled to sleep during the day and would find herself falling asleep on duty after lunch. Still a Private rank at the time, she was expected to carry out menial duties including scrubbing the floor. One day, whilst complaining as she scrubbed the familiar boots of a Sergeant came into view, and the next day she found herself not in trouble, but promoted to Lance Corporal! Proud of her new stripe, she was told to take the patrol, which meant lining up the Privates and marching them through the town to go on duty. Having only marched in England, she found herself caught out when she marched her ladies up the wrong side of the road into the path of an on-coming lorry. The scramble to safety caused her much embarrassment.
Whilst in Germany, Marge met future husband Mick Barton at a dance. Mick was a Quartermaster Sergeant in the Royal Corps of Signals. One of their dates included a guided tour of the town of Hamlin and a visit to a nearby dam which, the guide explained, had been hit by a bouncing bomb. It wasn’t until she saw the film ‘The Dam Busters’ years later that she understood the significance of what the guide was trying to tell them.
At that time, for women, getting married meant being required to leave the Army, so Marge was demobbed in 1946 having attained the rank of Corporal, and returned to the UK. Arriving home to a cold house and no way of heating it because of the coal shortage, she heard there might be coke at the local gas works and headed out dressed as she was in her uniform. Despite the long queue, she was ushered to the front because of her uniform, and with the help of a local lorry driver was able to carry the bag of coke she bought back to her family.
When Mick was demobbed in 1947, the couple lived in Birmingham, going on to have four children together. In the early 1950s, Mick’s employers announced that they were to relocate – to Droitwich Spa, and Marge was delighted to be able to return to the town she had grown to love during her ATS training. The Norbury House Hotel later became the home of the Norbury Theatre, boasting a vibrant amateur dramatic and operatic society, and it was there that Marge rekindled her love for the stage, appearing in numerous musicals, pantomimes, and concerts, then later working as props mistress for all types of production and doing all she could to support the running of the theatre. Many years after the war ended she was able to collect her war medal which she proudly keeps to this day.
Still living in the West Midlands, Marge’s wartime memories are a treat to hear and a strong reminder of the important part that women played in the Second World War.
Marge is a member of the WRAC Association, the national military charity which supports women who served in the ATS and Women’s Royal Army Corps. Women of all ages, ranks and experience come together to share their stories, experiences, and the camaraderie they once felt within their Corps – whether they meet in person through the various branches and interest groups across the UK, or enjoy phone contact, benevolence support or the Association magazine.