Marie Yvonne Chisholm Douglas

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Marie Yvonne Chisholm Thomas, born Douglas, (6 April 1925 -  14 August 2016) was a Wren and Cold War reservist

Marie Thomas, who has died aged 91, was a wartime Wren turned journalist who later spent decades of her time in a blast-proof underground bunker as part of the country's little-known defence against Cold War nuclear attack.

Curiosity over a mysterious subterranean chamber near her home, into which uniformed figures disappeared then re-emerged from time to time, led her to join the Royal Observer Corps in the early 1970s. The ROC was a uniformed organisation of civilian volunteers who worked in a network of group headquarters and underground posts which maintained a high level of readiness.

Mrs Thomas joined No 24 Group HQ at RAF Turnhouse, near Edinburgh, where she plotted potential bomb blasts and radioactive fallout, linked to air raid sirens on police boxes, in the event of war breaking out with the Soviet Union. Her service with the ROC covered a period of considerable worldwide geopolitical change and increasing tension, and ended after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ronald Reagan's election as US president in 1980, subsequent increases in defence spending from the Pentagon, the Soviet shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007, deployment of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe and "evil empire" rhetoric exchanged between east and west combined to create a climate of fear and mistrust. Set against this background, the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation (UKWMO) maintained the ROC as its field force.

At the core of the ROC was its 10,500 volunteers, who trained at more than 1,500 underground posts and 25 group HQs across the UK. These men and women, aged from 16 to 65 and numbering many Second World War veterans like Mrs Thomas, were unarmed and paid only travelling expenses. But ROC personnel, whose motto was Forewarned is Forearmed and whose cap badge featured an Elizabethan firelighter, were a close-knit bunch who prided themselves on their professionalism and knowledge.

The Home Office funded the ROC but it was administered by the Ministry of Defence, which provided RAF-style uniforms, denoting the Corps's Second World War origins and role of tracking and reporting enemy aircraft approaching Britain. By the mid-1960s, advances in radar technology meant aircraft related roles were withdrawn and the ROC became UKWMO's eyes and ears in nuclear defence until the end of the Cold War and its disbandment in the early 1990s.

Every Wednesday evening, after feeding her children and checking their homework, she would put on battle dress and drive to Turnhouse to join her crew, where her wit and pithy observations were welcome in an atmosphere where most could potentially end up the sole survivors of their families.

She served with the ROC until retiring in 1990, with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. As a combined farewell and birthday present, she was invited to join the 12-man crew of an RAF Nimrod for a night patrol over the Atlantic. She later wrote of "an encounter with a Russian 'Bear', the vast four-engined equivalent of our Nimrod. These Soviet planes patrol the same huge areas as NATO aircraft, but there is a feeling that the spirit of glasnost may have begun to take over from the previous sinister shadowing."

Marie Yvonne Chisholm Douglas was born in Kilmarnock, the daughter of a naval draughtsman in the Clyde shipyards. Her name was put down for Kilmarnock Academy at birth by her parents, whose faith in the school was reflected by the two Nobel laureates it produced, Lord John Boyd Orr and Sir Alexander Fleming. She started at the junior school at five, passed the qualifying exam at 12 then moved to the senior school in 1937, where she was to edit the school magazine, the Gold Berry.

Mrs Thomas worked as a secretary after leaving school before being taken on as a trainee journalist with the then Glasgow Herald, becoming one of the very few women in journalism. Living in freezing digs in Charing Cross, she worked in features on the women's page and wrote frugal recipes, as rationing and food shortages took a grip. Her call-up had been deferred due to her contribution to the war effort, but in 1945 she joined the Women's Royal Naval Service as a volunteer. While serving in Ayrshire, she met her husband Vivian, an RAF pilot.

Never having been away from home, she found naval discipline a culture shock which better suited girls from boarding schools. One fellow recruit asked her: "Do you hunt?" Her language skills destined her to become a tactical communicator in the Royal Navy signals branch. She was a leading coder, dealing with signals up to Top Secret level at bases in Ayr - the commandeered Butlins holiday camp re-named HMS Scotia - HMS Cochrane at Rosyth and HMS Wildfire in Sheerness, from 1945 until demob in 1946.

In 1946 she joined the Ayrshire Post, becoming a senior reporter in 1949 and earning the top union rate of £7 a week. However, equality at work was a long way off and a male colleague announced it was a "damned disgrace that a young lassie like you earns that when I have a family to keep". Mrs Thomas recalled later: "I should have just told him the truth - that I was better than him."

She married in Dublin the same year, where the lack of rationing made luxuries available, gave up her career to be a housewife and moved with her husband to Swansea.

By the the 1960s the family had returned to Scotland, living first in Edinburgh then Penicuik. With her children older, Mrs Thomas returned to the workplace after a 30-year break, taking an administrative job at an estate agent and finding the experience so liberating that she shaved 10 years off her age and joined a secretarial temping agency. Fast shorthand placed her in demand with a variety of clients and she particularly enjoyed her time at the Scottish Council for Research in Education, where she was a prolific writer and sometimes poet for the staff magazine, penning Chaucer-style prose. She also worked for the then Scottish Office at Victoria Quay in Leith.

She still wrote occasional features for national newspapers after finally retiring, and spent long hours tracing her Douglas family tree. It was family knowledge that an uncle had won the Military Medal in the Great War but she unearthed distinguished ancestors who had served with Wellington in the Peninsular War, or been leading lawyers, civic figures or successful businessmen, leading to her wondering: "Where did all the money go?"

Travelling with her husband was one of her joys, initially in the UK by car and latterly by train, often taking the Eurostar to Paris, where they stayed at their favourite hotel. They took a round-the-world trip as paying passengers on a merchant vessel, when she was able to put a headstone on the Australian grave of her grandfather, a sea captain under sail who died in his cabin aged 45, leaving his wife and children, including her father, almost destitute. She never forgot her naval roots and was a member of the World Ship Society and the Association of Wrens.

Mrs Thomas's husband died before her. She is survived by five sons and four grandchildren.




Sources for this article include:

• Her son, Campbell Douglas

Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


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Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024