'We were sworn to secrecy': Canadian women share stories of their efforts to help win WWII

Members of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service, nicknamed the Wrens, did covert work that has been credited with helping win the Second World War.

Members of Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service, known as Wrens, did covert work

Mary Owen, now 93, worked at the Baccaro long-range navigation installation in Nova Scotia during the Second World War. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Late night, late fall, 1944. An urgent call from Halifax warned the tiny base at Baccaro, N.S., that two German submarines had been tracked a kilometre offshore. The women stationed there knew what they had to do in the event of an attack.

"We had dynamite. We had Bren guns. We had Sten guns. And we had rifles," said Mary Owen. "And the story was: Shoot, set the dynamite and then run like hell ... We were going to blow the whole thing up." 

The "thing" was a long-range navigation (LORAN) installation perched on the tip of a Nova Scotia peninsula. It was connected to two other stations, one further north on Nova Scotia's Deming Island, the other in Nantucket, Mass. 

Together, they maintained a 24/7 signal from which ships and planes could navigate without making radio or voice contact — technology that had proved crucial to the success of D-Day.

But nothing at the base gave that away — a Quonset hut, a frame building and a car affectionately called Henrietta was the extent of it. Still, Baccaro was considered so secret, so vital to the Allied war effort that it had to be destroyed if attacked.

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Luckily for the 24 women of the Royal Canadian Navy operating the base, the warning proved a false alarm. The German subs moved on.

"That put a little scare in us," the 93-year-old Owen said recently, sitting in her dining room in Perth, Ont.

The women stayed put at Baccaro through to the end of hostilities, and came to be counted among those whose covert work has been credited with helping win the Second World War.

'The thing to do'

Like so many, Owen joined the war effort because it was "the thing to do." Straight out of high school, she enlisted with the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), more commonly known as the Wrens. The nickname was taken from the Women's Royal Naval Service in Britain, which was formed in the First World War and revived in 1939.

Wrens marching
In 1942, the Royal Canadian Navy became the last of the country's military services to create a unit for women. (George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

In 1944, Owen left her home in Kirkland Lake for basic training in Galt, Ont., (now Cambridge). From there, she was sent to learn Morse code in Ste-Hyacinthe, Que.

"There was a little notice put up on the bulletin board at Ste-Hyacinthe: 'Wanted: Girls to go to Baccaro to do secret work,'" Owen said. "That sounded good, sort of interesting, so I signed up."

In January 1945, Owen and the other Wrens set off for Nova Scotia without a clue of what they were going to do. After a 36-hour train ride through a blinding blizzard, an overnight stay in Halifax and a drive to the southernmost point of Nova Scotia, Owen arrived in Baccaro. 

"Like Wuthering Heights," she recalled. "That was what Baccaro was like. No trees … a lot of sheep and ocean all around you."

Owen said that "in the morning, when the sun was coming up, that was the nice part." But in the dead of night, "you were always worried that there was a submarine out there."

According to Owen, the LORAN was easy to operate — a matter of maintaining the radio frequency and staying in tune with the two other stations. However simple the task, it was the most essential of the Wrens' duties, as Owen discovered after D-Day. 

Wrens practise their shooting at Baccaro in the 1940s. (Mary Owen)

"We learned that they had put LORAN on a lot of the ships … taking the troops over to France," said Owen. "The weather was so bad, that … they wouldn't have gotten over if it hadn't been for LORAN."

Owen said, "we were pleased to know that," but she still downplays the significance of the role she played.

"I don't feel that we were doing anything that was very secretive," she said, singling out other Wrens who she believes deserve greater recognition, including "the ones in New Brunswick that were very secretive, and could never reveal what they did."

'The listeners'

HMCS Coverdale was a signals intelligence station set high on a hill across the Petitcodiac River from Moncton.
Elsa Lessard joined the all-women ranks at Coverdale in 1944. Tasked with taking bearings on German submarines and intercepting their coded messages to Nazi Germany, the women sat for hours, earphones on, listening. 

Wrens intercept German radio transmissions at HMCS Coverdale, one of Bletchley Park’s outstations. (George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

"It's noisy," said Lessard, now 96, referring to all the shipping vessels that were sending messages. "And you have to find your U-boat."

As soon as they were able to identify messages from a German sub, "we hung in there and copied," said Lessard. The messages were encrypted, but emitted in Morse code. 

"You just copied like mad and in pencil. And as the supervisor went around, she saw you getting towards the last of it, she slipped it off … sent it down the hall and a teletype operator sent it off to England."

The messages were received at Bletchley Park, the U.K.'s covert government station about 80 kilometres north of London, where a team led by Alan Turing famously broke the German encryption system, the Enigma code.

The Wrens at Coverdale and units like it across the Allied world became known as "the listeners." 

Lessard claimed that "the listeners around the world shortened the war by two years at least, and saved a quarter of a million lives. So that makes me feel pretty important ... and in good company."

Like those at Bletchley, the women at Coverdale were told to keep quiet about the details of their service. 

Elsa Lessard, centre, was among the guests of honour at the Battle of the Atlantic ceremony in Ottawa on May 5, 2019. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

"We had no idea what was happening [at Bletchley]," said Lessard. "All we knew is that we were sworn to secrecy for at least 40 years. It was on pain of death. You didn't think about it twice."

Bletchley Park

Jean Tackaberry certainly never did. She was one of 15 Canadian Wrens who joined the code-breakers at Bletchley Park in April 1945. Experience on Canada's West Coast saw them assigned to the Japanese section at Bletchley. 

"Her story was she was just a file clerk," said Bill Powell, one of Tackaberry's sons, who lives north of Toronto. "And the real truth is she was a classifier. That's basically a person who takes data that's been decoded, and then moves it on down the chain."

Tackaberry, who died in 2015, had always been clear with her sons that she'd worked at a place called Bletchley Park. But she stuck to her file clerk story, even after the truth about Bletchley began to trickle out in the 1970s.

"She had … taken the oath of secrecy and she obviously just decided that was the way it was going to be," said Powell. "And you couldn't press her. She wouldn't say anything." 

During the war, Jean Tackaberry sent everything from Wren training manuals to photos back to her mother at home. (Bill Powell)

But interest in Bletchley's code-breaking continued to grow, and popular culture provided Powell with a new way in. 

"We were watching the ladies from Bletchley Circle," Powell said, referring to the popular 2012 British TV program. "The ladies' cover story was file clerk, and I'd ask, 'Mum, are you sure you were just a file clerk?'"

After Googling "Wren Jean Tackaberry" and finding her listed in the Bletchley Park honour role as a classifier, Powell turned to clues closer to home.

In his basement, he had one of his mother's old suitcases, taken for safekeeping a few years earlier when she'd moved into Toronto's Sunnybrook Veterans Hospital. He started digging through the memorabilia and discovered her "Navy albums" — scrapbooks of everything Tackaberry had sent home to her mother.

Her secret had been in plain sight all those years. But her sons respected her silence and didn't insist. Still, in her last years, Tackaberry let bits of her story slip. 

As a classifier, she had been privy to information about Allied soldiers caught in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Carrying this secret proved to be a burden to Tackaberry, especially when some of her colleagues at Bletchley pressed her for any news of captured relatives. 

"She couldn't tell the people because ... she just couldn't," said Tackaberry's other son, Tom Powell. But he said she also worried that "God would punish her for not telling the truth."

Tackaberry's mother collected her war memorabilia in a series of scrapbooks. (Bill Powell)

Tackaberry never said anything more about the POWs to her sons. "I guess that she had to walk away from that," Tom Powell said. "Like anybody who deals with unpleasant things ... they can't dwell on those unpleasant things that are going to affect their real life."

'We also served'

In 2009, Bletchley Park began issuing commemorative medals to those who'd worked there and in its outstations. The inscription on the back reads, "We also served."

Jean Tackaberry received hers at Sunnybrook Veterans Hospital in the spring of 2015, about a month before she died. Elsa Lessard helped some 30 Wrens obtain their medals, and, of course, was awarded one of her own.

Mary Owen admits she's proud of hers, but insists it's the friendships and the experience she cherishes most. 

"I wouldn't have missed it for anything," she said. "I'm glad I did what I did, and I'd do it over again."


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.