D-Day heroine – interview with WREN veteran Marie Scott

Deep in the bowels of Fort Southwick, radio operator Marie Scott was one of the first to hear reports as Operation Overlord got underway, passing critical communications between the men on the beaches and high command. Pick up History of War issue 133 to read the full interview!

Featured image by Robin Savage

A photograph of teenaged Marie Scott in black and white wearing her WREN cap.
Marie Scott at 17, when she joined the Wrens.

Marie Scott was just 13 at the outbreak of the war, and four years later she decided it was time to play her part on the home front. However, dreading the prospect of toiling in the fields with the Women’s Land Army, she was saved by her switchboard operating skills, which made her an excellent candidate for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens). After a short time training at Mill Hill, Scott was transferred to Fort Southwick, Portsmouth.

There, she was placed on the communications frontline. Little could the teenager have known, she would be taking part in one of the most important operations in world history. Working deep in the tunnels on the switchboard before becoming a VHF (Very High Frequency) radio operator, she was about to play a vital role in Operation Overlord. 
Aged 97, Scott is now a retiree living in New Malden, South London. She spoke to History of War about growing up in London during the war, her time in the Wrens and her thoughts on remembrance as D-Day reaches its 80th anniversary.

A teenager at war

When Britain and its allies declared war on Nazi Germany, Marie was living with her family in London. Though the conflict precipitated the mass evacuation of children from the capital, Marie’s parents hated the idea of the family being separated, so the Scotts remained in London, despite the relentless bombing. The constant danger terrified Marie: “I remember one night when the Luftwaffe bombed the docks for two or three nights in succession,” she recalls. “They obliterated the docks, and the sky was red all over London. After that, we had the V-1s and V-2s. There’s nothing worse than knowing that when you hear the engine cut out, there’s going to be an explosion.” 

“They obliterated the docks, and the sky was red all over London. After that, we had the V-1s and V-2s. There’s nothing worse than knowing that when you hear the engine cut out, there’s going to be an explosion.” 

As most schools moved out of London during the evacuations, Marie’s formal education ceased abruptly at age 13. So, she decided to start her career at 16, joining the GPO as a switchboard operator. Her experience became useful when a year later she decided to join the Wrens, who were looking for communicators to help with the upcoming Operation Overlord. “I wanted to feel I was doing something to help, but I had no idea what,” Marie explains. “When they heard I was a GPO-trained switchboard operator, they said, ‘ Yes, you can certainly help.’ That gave a little boost to my morale. It felt good to have the skills they were looking for.”

A photograph of two Wrens in uniform standing at the dockside. Many ships are in the ocean in the background.

Wrens in the Warren

Soon after joining the Wrens, Marie was transferred to Mill Hill, North London, to take part in the standard two-week induction. Looking around at her fellow new recruits, she saw other young women of her age. Only the officers were older. “It was no different to the young lads sent to Normandy’s beaches”, she reflects. As the training began, however, Marie started to feel that she might have made a mistake. She recalls that the work “consisted mostly of cleaning floors and toilets. I thought that had little to do with switchboards, but it had to be done.” 

Related: The WI in World War II: How British women kept the countryside running

Marie soon found herself on the move again, this time bound for Portsmouth and Fort Southwick, where she stayed for 18 months. Here, she worked deep in the tunnels, having to walk down endless flights of stairs to reach the claustrophobic switchboard  – jokingly referred to as ‘The Rabbit Warren’ by many Wrens. For her 24 hours off duty, she was quartered at Heathfield House near Fareham, where she could enjoy some much-needed sunlight. She also became close with the owner.

A map of Normandy and the English channel, with a clock at the bottom and model ships positioned.
A recreated D-Day live map. Communications from the beaches, received my Marie Scott, helped keep the map up-to-date.
(Ben Queenborough / Alamy Stock Photo)

Not long after starting work on the Fort Southwick switchboards, Marie was transferred onto a VHF radio. This advanced, more powerful device enabled faster one-way spoken communication between two directly connected users. When one had finished speaking, they would depress their lever, allowing the other to lift their own lever and reply. 

Related: Stella Rutter, the woman who hosted a party on the eve of D-Day

Fort Southwick was a fast-paced environment, with everyone working hard on preparations for D-Day. However, Marie was unaware of what was being planned. “On the switchboard, all the important calls between high-ranking officers were coded. We had no idea what was going on apart from that something big was happening…. There was an air of expectation.” It wasn’t until 5 June that she appreciated the scale of what was about to be attempted: “When I went on duty the day before D-Day, I walked past Portsmouth Harbour and you couldn’t see the water for ships and boats. Then, when I came off duty, the harbour was empty.”

A group of Wrens walk together at the docks, carrying their luggage.
What Marie Scott and the Wrens were working towards. A group embark for France while on leave in August 1944.
(Reg Speller / Fox Photos / Getty Images)

This is an extract of our interview with veteran Marie Scott – to read the full story pick up History of War issue 133!

Our thanks to Taxi Charity for helping arrange our interview with Marie Scott. To read Scott’s full story, including her service on D-Day and beyond, and how she continues to commemorate D-Day, pick up the latest issue of History of War