Dorothea Wilkins

Dorothea Wilkins was born in 1922 in Calcutta (now  Kolkota), India while her father, Joseph, was posted there. Joseph was a telecommunications engineer and was subsequently posted to Burma (now Myanmar).

He often worked away from home and, in 1941, was given an apartment on the top floor of the Central Telegraph Office in Pansodan Street.

 

In December that year knowing her husband would be spending Christmas alone, Dorothea’s mother, Mary, decided to move the family into the apartment to be with him. So, Dorothea found herself together with her parents, her younger sister Casey and their younger brother Barney, ready to celebrate the holiday. But it was not to be the happy, relaxed Christmas that they had envisaged. The Japanese army started their invasion on 13 December. On the 23rd they staged their first air attacks.

 

The Central Telegraph Office building was on the corner of Mahabandoola Road which was the site of the famous Rowe and Co Department Store. When the first Japanese planes flew over the area people, including Dorothea and her mother, were inside the store buying Christmas decorations. They were so unprepared for what was to happen that the customers thought the noise was part of some Christmas celebrations and went outside to see. 

 

Dorothea heard a man shouting at them to run for cover. She felt this unknown stranger's hand in the small of her back pushing her to run across the road to where her father was calling out to them, telling them not to look back. Dorothea and her mother made it to the other side but the stranger did not. So began Dorothea’s understanding of the war. One of the first things the invaders would try to do was to destroy the communications. A lot of communication was literally done with handsets and from roofs or tree tops.

 

The bombing around the family's area was so severe that no employees could possibly risk the journey to The Telegraph Office and so Dorothea was quickly trained by her father and installed on the top floor to receive and pass on all intelligence regarding the Japanese invasion. 

 

The Burma Campaign was brutal with many initial setbacks. The danger Dorothea was in cannot be underestimated. If she had been discovered, the consequences were unimaginable.

 

Later, she talked with great affection about a young man who would contact her just for a chat. He was literally in a tree with his equipment and feeling far from home.  In order to pass the time, they would duet together Christmas Carols and songs. He had a wonderful baritone voice, she would say. But one day he stopped contacting her, she did not know why, but she missed him.

 

Dorothea was fortified by sandwiches taken to her by her father, as no-one else dared to reach her. She stayed in her post for a number of weeks, until there was no longer a need to inform anyone of the Japanese invasion. The family left for Calcutta without Joseph on the last ferry from Rangoon in February 1942.

 

For her bravery and playing a vital part in the Civilian Personnel of the Air Radio Control Unit, Dorothea was awarded the Burma Star. She was recommended for it by Brigadier General Ronald Nesbitt Hawes of the Burma Signals. The Star was rarely awarded to civilians or women, leave alone teenage girls. So it was a significant achievement for such a young woman.

Dorothea lived in a number of different countries before moving to Ramsgate in 1996. Her love of style meant that she made all her own clothes. Her daughter, Alison, has curated two exhibitions of her couture. Dorothea died in Margate in 2009.

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