We continue our trip down Memory Lane this week with the diaries of Margaret Spencer, the Secret Intelligence Service spy, who lived in Eastbourne and saved countless lives during the Second World War.
She passed away last month aged 94 and is buried in St Mary’s Church Cemetery in Westham.
Margaret was recruited in to the organisation, now known as MI6, by a family member and at the age of 20 was given a gun, swore allegiance to the King and signed the Official Secrets Act.
She retired from service and handed back her gun in 1977 but it was another 18 years before she was absolved from the Official Secrets Act and was able to tell her family about her fascinating double life.
We take up Margaret’s story in 1945 when she was working at a hospital with a secret building nursing sick agents back to health once they had been brought back to Britain.
“One evening in April I was writing the report in the hospital when the red light flashed so I put on my cloak and went over to the house.
“At the house all seemed quiet downstairs, but on going upstairs I saw one of the orderlies on the floor pointing to a door so I cautiously went in to find a man holding down a patient and questioning him.
“He spun around and pointed his gun at me and told me to walk over and stand with my back to the wall and that was his big mistake because while my back was turned to him I got my gun out of my cloak and as I turned I shot his gun out of his hand. That does not injure them but it is very painful so I was able to put the cuffs on him, then blew the whistle for another orderly and we tied him face down on a bed.
“Then the fun began. Our cover had been blown so I rang headquarters and a team arrived and by the morning it was once more a dusty old house with no trace of occupation and for the next week I was matron of the Fever Hospital.
“After that I was sent home to Eastbourne for a rest, the first leave I had had since 1940 and the war was almost over.
“On May 8 1945 I was sent to London to mix with the crowds outside Buckingham Palace. About 8pm I received a message to go to the side gate where the two princesses were coming out to join the crowds and I was to shadow them. I wonder if they realised they had a very pregnant lady escorting them wherever they went.
“Having shadowed the princesses, I was met by an equerry and taken into the palace where I was presented to the King who thanked me for looking after his daughters.
“That was the end of my wartime exploits but I was still in the service. My daughter was born in July 1945. I then worked at St Mary’s Hospital, Eastbourne. In the mean time the department informed me that my husband was living with a native woman from Chittagong, Bangladesh, and intended bringing her home with him.
“He came home in 1946 and in 1950 he asked me for a divorce which I gave him, for which heinous crime I was thrown out of the Mothers’ Union.
“I then served as a district nurse for the next 17 years. In 1952 I went on the most frightening trip of all and I am pleased to say it was my last. It was during the Cold War and we were dangerously near war with Russia. We needed to get a woman over the border who was married to a Russian.
“Now, to go it meant lying to my mother, lying to my seven-year-old daughter and lying to my employers.
“However I flew to near the Russian border – where I cannot disclose – and there I changed into a male Russian officer’s uniform. It was a good job I was thin in those days and wore short cropped hair. I learnt the map by heart and drove an army car with the woman in the boot.
“Next was the test of my nerve because I had to drive through the border control just giving a cursory salute. I knew if I was stopped I would have been shot because I could not speak a word of Russian.
“I was very frightened, however all went well and after my cargo was delivered, I drove into a forest where I changed out of uniform and was bundled into the boot of an Embassy car and back over the border and was home again in 48 hours. So that was the end unless an emergency occurred.
“In 1964 I got married again and had 20 happy years. In 1967 Len and I took over an old people’s home. In 1977 I surrendered my gun and retired from active service and from work to nurse my sick husband who died in 1984. In 1995 I was informed I was now absolved from the Official Secrets Act and the rest of my life was my own at 75, big deal.
“I would just like to say it is the loneliest job in the world and that is what causes breakdowns which I saw so many times at the ‘house’. You can talk to no-one and I mean no-one.
“Just imagine when you come home from a scary job and all you want is a hug and understanding but not for us.
“Jesus was my friend and I could talk to him and leave my troubles with him, I used to sing the last verse of O My Saviour Lifted to myself. It goes like this – Bringing all my burdens, sorrow, sin and care, At thy feet I lay them, And I leave them there.
“There were no medals or thanks for the men and women of the shadows but what we did was vital to our country so we did our duty.”