At the age of 98, Marjorie West has been appointed by the President of France to the rank of Chevalier in the Legion d’Honneur, the highest order of merit in France. This award is given as thanks from the French nation for her work in the preparation for the D-Day landings and the subsequent liberation of France three quarters of a century ago.
Marjorie describes those turbulent times in a brisk matter of fact tone in her room in her son’s house in Grove Hill, Dedham, looking onto the large garden that she used to tend. A copy of today’s Times lies on her table as she recalls the dreadful news in 1942 that caused her to leave her job at the Post Office and join the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).
At the age of 21 she learned that her husband Ted Graysmark, an RAF Spitfire pilot, had been killed while defending the island of Malta against German attacks. Ted was also 21, and they had been married for only six weeks.
“I decided I needed to do something to help the war effort. The WRNS wouldn’t employ you then unless you had a skill. However they needed teleprinter operators, and that’s what I had been trained to do by the Post Office, so I was able to get in.” The Navy sent her to Southwick House, near Portsmouth, the nerve centre from which Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery and Admiral Bertram Ramsay were planning the D-Day invasion of France. Teleprinters were then used for sending and receiving secure communications by wire.
“We didn’t see much of the top brass. They were all upstairs, we teleprinter girls were down in the basement. Montgomery had a caravan in the park – he was always there – and we lived in huts in the beautiful grounds.”
Secrecy at Southwick was paramount, not least because British spies were successfully deceiving the German High Command about the time and place of the landings. Marjorie and her fellow workers saw all the communications coming in from ships and other forces as well as the commands that went out from the centre. So they were subject to an almost Trappist regime: absolutely no contact with people in the outside world.
“We could never go out alone. On our days off we would be taken to a beach on the coast about 20 minutes away in an army lorry. No other visitors were allowed to go there.”
Was such isolation difficult for a girl in her early 20s? “No, I didn’t mind. At that time you didn’t think you were important and you did not chat about your work,” she says.
In the days before the Normandy landings (planned for 5 June 1944), there was tense anxiety on all floors of Southwick House “The bad weather put it off for a day. I just thought it was a very brave thing that they were going to do, so I hoped the weather was not going to affect them, or the planes – they needed good weather as well.”
After the success of the D-Day landings, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) was moved from Southwick to the French coast. Marjorie hated the sea crossing and stayed in her bunk all the way. “But I didn’t mind, it was part of my duty,” she says. Once in France, they were billeted in a school where they slept on the hall floor, waiting for Paris to be liberated.
When that great day came in late August, 1944, SHAEF was relocated again to Versailles near Paris, and the girls were housed in a nearby nunnery – “They sent the nuns away; we moved in.” However, the Navy was no longer enforcing Trappist discipline, and Marjorie was able to socialise again. In Paris in 1944 she met and fell in love with Victor West, then serving in the RAF as a radio operator, also serving with SHAEF.
Three years later, soon after she had been demobbed she and Victor married. They had two children: Colin, who lives in Dedham with his wife Lyn, and a daughter Christine who lives near Dover.
Thirty years ago, Marjorie and Victor moved to Dedham to live with Colin and Lyn, because, Marjorie says, “they needed help with their garden.” Apart from gardening she used to go to keep fit classes in Dedham and became treasurer of the village Women’s Institute, when it still had one. She now goes regularly to the Monday lunch club, organised at the Essex Rose café opposite the War Memorial.
Colin discovered that his mother might be eligible for the French honour after an announcement by France’s former president Hollande. As part of the D- Day celebrations in 2014, he said that it could be given to British veterans who had served in France. The British authorities confirmed Marjorie’s service
and the handsome medal was awarded to her this summer by President Macron. The Miltary Attaché from the French Embassy will visit Dedham at the end of November to present Marjorie with her medal.
Apart from the honour there is a rather modest annual stipend of €6.40, and Colin has discovered that the Légion d’Honneur, originally established by Napoleon, offers another curious and perhaps theoretical perk. Any great- granddaughter of Marjorie’s (and she has four) would, Brexit permitting, be eligible to attend certain designated schools in France – a privilege that Napoleon could never have intended for a veteran of the Royal Navy.
All photographs by Roy Laverick
Article by Max Wilkinson, Dedham and Ardleigh Parishes magazine
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