Ronald Turnbull


Born: 29 May, 1914, in Edinburgh

Died: 2 March, 2004, in Pencaitland, East Lothian, aged 89

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RONALD Turnbull’s work for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, including persuading the Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist Professor Niels Bohr to escape from Denmark to join British and American scientists working on the atom bomb, led to him being made an OBE and a Knight of the Dannebrog, and given the American Medal of Freedom.

He was born in Edinburgh, the second child of Bruce and Jessie Turnbull, after his sister Barbara. For most of his early life, his father served abroad with the Indian Army. In due course the family grew bigger with the birth of Hester and Tom.

Ronald Turnbull went to Cargilfield School in Cramond, then to Fettes, where he excelled at sports, mountaineering and history, and in 1935 to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to read history. At Fettes, he had struck up a friendship with a visiting Danish schoolboy and, when a rugby injury forced him to take time out from his university studies, he spent a summer at Copenhagen University, reading out texts to Danes studying English literature.

On leaving Cambridge, he stood (unsuccessfully) as a Liberal candidate for the London constituency of Bethnel Green, and began work as a journalist on London’s Evening Standard, before being recruited for the fledgling Special Operations Executive (SOE). His fluency in Danish enabled him to broadcast for the BBC until he was posted as a press attach to the British Legation in Copenhagen. In the spring of 1940, shortly after he became engaged to Maria Thereza do Rio Branco, the daughter of the Brazilian ambassador, Turnbull was awoken at 7am by the sound of aircraft. He rushed to the window of his apartment to see German bombers flying over the city. Soon, Denmark was at the mercy of the Nazi forces. Turnbull eventually escaped in a sealed train through Germany to Belgium and so to London. There, he was joined by his fiance and they were married in London on 22 May, 1940.

Turnbull was sent to Stockholm later that year to build up the resistance organisation in Denmark with the intention of eventually supervising developments in Northern Europe, including both political warfare and special operations. He left England on 15 December, accompanied by his new (and expecting) wife and his assistant, Pamela Towers, sailing to Cape Town, where his party was taken by flying-boat to Cairo, then reaching Istanbul by car and train through Palestine. On 15 February, his son, Michael, was born. On 6 March, he took the last Soviet ship to Odessa, via Bulgaria, and went by train to Moscow, where he was put up at the British Embassy by Sir Stafford Cripps. The following day (12 March), he flew to Stockholm. His roundabout journey incurred the derision of Lord Haw-Haw in one of his propaganda radio broadcasts.

In 1942, Turnbull made first contact with the Danish general staff intelligence organisation. This laid the basis for further work in Stockholm, and in April 1942 the first three-man team of Danish resistance personnel trained in England was dropped into Denmark. Turnbull’s main goal was to co-ordinate the efforts of Danish intelligence (LIGA) with those organised in London. He was authorised to act as the only authentic channel of communication between Denmark and London.

Danish resistance and sabotage were stepped up, culminating in a general strike in 1943. There were now 16 parachutists in Denmark and large supplies of explosives and weapons were dropped to help the underground.

In August 1943, LIGA supplied Turnbull with drawings of a V-1 bomb fired from Peenemunde on to the Danish island of Bornholm, obtained at great personal risk by the Danish resistance. These were sent immediately to London, about ten months before the V-1 attacks began on London.

In September 1945, Turnbull’s wife was tragically killed in a motor accident. With his son and a newly-born daughter, Claire, he left government service and went to Brazil where, in December 1946, he married Maria Helena Arantes Negro and set up a thriving advertising business. In the 1970s he moved into commercial translation, at which he became an expert. Last year, he returned to Scotland to recuperate after a long illness. He is survived by nine children and 11 grandchildren.