This weekend we are making four Prisoner of War collections completely FREE to browse, from Saturday the 13th to Monday the 15th of August 2016, to mark the Japanese Surrender. Few records, however, exist for female Far East Prisoners of War. One of the most famous of these is Dame Margot Turner, who later rose to become Director of the Army Nursing Services in 1964 and Colonel Commandant of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC) in 1969, not to mention a Dame. But that was a long way in the future as World War Two dawned, and Margot would escape death several times first.
Having trained as a nurse because she loved people, then joined QARANC (attracted by the striking red capes), Margot pleaded to be placed abroad, and got her wish when she was posted to India in 1938. Very soon war broke out, and she was transferred to Malaya, before fleeing to Singapore in front of the Japanese invaders (she famously hid under a billiard table with another nurse and a bottle of brandy from the medicine cupboard when the bombing got bad).
Soon, British and Australian nurses and children were evacuated from Singapore, but the ship on which Turner was travelling was struck in an air attack and sunk. Margot and another nurse managed to save several people from the water, ending up on a raft of 16 survivors; by the time a Japanese boat picked her up three days later, all the others were dead. Margot had survived after managing to collect a little rainwater in her compact mirror on the third night.
Transferred to a Prisoner of War camp, Margot first suffered greatly from blood poisoning, then was singled out because of her blue eyes and tall stature. She lost a tooth after being hit in the face for failing to bow low enough to a Japanese officer at the daily headcount. She was placed under investigation as a possible spy, and spent six months in a secret prison, surrounded by local rapists, thieves and murderers – who she described as “surprisingly kind and helpful”! She later said that the things that the Japanese did to the local prisoners were unspeakable, and something she didn’t like to talk about.
Though she feared for her life, unlike many of her cell mates she was neither tortured nor executed, and was eventually returned to the main camp, where she spent a further three years. As the Japanese surrender drew closer, many of the guards fled or killed themselves by hara-kiri. By the time the camp was liberated by Allied troops, over half of those originally placed in the camp had died of starvation or disease, and Margot was one of those who, at the end, helped to bury the dead with rudimentary local tools.
After her ordeal, no one would have blamed Margot if she had stayed quietly in the UK for the rest of her life, but she was having none of that! Instead, she continued her work as an army nurse in Malta, Libya, Cyprus, Egypt and Eritrea, and very good she was at it too, if the aforementioned honours she earned are anything to go by.
After her retirement Margot was given a taste of fame, albeit very reluctantly. She tried her best to halt the research for her episode of This is Your Life, but her colleagues rebelled and she finally bowed to peer pressure and took part in 1978, being reunited with several of her fellow prisoners in the process. Her war experiences were immortalised in the television show Tenko in 1981, and a ward was named after her at Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital. She died in 1993.
Thanks to the AMS Museum for their research assistance.