Marie Scott vividly recalls the horrifying sounds of D-Day as she relayed orders down the line to the troops storming the Normandy beaches.
She was only 17 and one of nine women transmitting critical messages back and forth between communications headquarters in England and the fighting in France, as the Allied invasion to liberate Western Europe began.
Seventy-five years on from June 6, 1944, the wartime switchboard operator who heard men charging at the Nazi enemy is now a 92-year-old living a quiet life in a southwest London flat.
“The most vivid memory I have of that day is on the first occasion they lifted their lever to send their response, I could hear battles and gunfire,” she told AFP.
“And I knew those men were fighting for their lives. You’re hit with the reality of war.
“I grew up on that day.”
‘Shattered and horrified’
Scott reminisced on how her life took a dramatic turn.
Raised in south London, she started work as a manual telephone switchboard operator at 16, passing rigorous training.
In March 1944, aged 17, she volunteered for the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
After two weeks’ re-training, she was posted to Fort Southwick in Portsmouth on the southern English coast.
Dug into the hillside, its labyrinth of tunnels was the communications nerve centre for Operation Overlord: the Allied invasion of Normandy.
A month before the assault, Scott began special training on the VHF radio she used on June 6.
On D-Day, three operators each from the army, navy and air force sat in a row, working the switchboard linking comms HQ and the front line across the sea.
“There was excitement at the fort, but also apprehension. Will they succeed? What will be the cost in lives?” she recalled.
“There was a sense of anticipation; once we heard the battles, a sense of dread.”
Scott relayed spoken coded messages.
“The gunfire continued all the time we were passing messages and your hearts went out to the men,” she said.
“They were laying their lives on the line. It was quite frightening. We were all very young — as were they.
“I was shattered and horrified, but we had to get the messages through.
“The whole thing was fluid, changing all the time.
“It was a very momentous day. I’m just so honoured that I was part of it.”
After the war, Scott married and had two daughters, one of whom lives in France and took French citizenship in 2001. She has three grandchildren.
“I now have a direct link to France rather than a direct line,” she said.
Scott became a secretary, then a local government officer.
Her lifelong passion remains opera. She saw Maria Callas’s 1952 debut at the Royal Opera House in London and met Placido Domingo.
“I have seen the great voices of the 20th century,” she said.
Her ordered, suburban garden flat is filled with opera CDs and tapes, while family photos and framed opera posters adorn the walls.
Though in her nineties, she lives an independent life: up at 6:00 am, a walk in the park or to the shops, home for lunch, an afternoon nap and no television before the evening.
The switchboard veteran is unfazed by modern communications. Scott has a mobile phone for emergencies and is getting to grips with an iPad.
“However obscure my life has been, it’s been fulfilled. Mundane but immensely lucky. I’ve had a happy, good life,” she said, mindful of the lives cut short or blighted by World War II.
A medal of honour
Scott has now been awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest order of merit.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said after receiving the medal in the post, adding that she felt “totally undeserving, being a non-combatant”.
Scott travelled to northern France on Monday and will be invested on Wednesday in a ceremony at Normandy’s Pegasus Bridge.
Her family will be with her for one of the greatest moments of her life.
“I feel I’m receiving it for all the people in Fort Southwick that day, working to facilitate Operation Overlord,” she said.
Scott has one last message to relay — this time to a younger generation she hopes will never face the sacrifices hers had to make in the name of liberty.
“Tolerance of other people whose lives are different; kindness and compassion for those who are not so fortunate,” she said.
“Wars are brought about because people forget their humanity. So a little more of that would not go amiss.”