Helen Leadbetter, 92, reveals secret story told in The Imitation Game

After 72 years of secrecy, Cambridge resident Helen Leadbetter finally has permission to talk about her work as a wireless telegrapher during the Second World War.
Cambridge resident Helen Leadbetter, 92, was recruited in 1942 as a 'wireless telegraphist special operator.' (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

After 72 years of secrecy, Cambridge resident Helen Leadbetter finally has permission to talk about her work as a wireless telegrapher during the Second World War. 

In 1942, Leadbetter and hundreds of other women were recruited by the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service to intercept messages sent from German submarines. 

Their assignments were considered top-secret and they were forbidden from talking about what they did until a few months ago, when the Department of National Defence declassified their work.

Leadbetter said permission to share her story has been difficult to accept. 

"You can't talk about it immediately," she said. "An explanation of what we did – it's difficult to stay there, because there is where we couldn't go."

Wartime workers like Leadbetter have been given some prominence in best picture Oscar nominee "The Imitation Game," which tells the true-life story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who cracked Nazi Germany's Enigma code.

The film, which is also up for five other Oscars, showcases the efforts at England's Bletchley Park, where teams deciphered and translated the enemy's messages that had been sent to them from overseas operators like Leadbetter.

Leadbetter's job to find the enemy

Leadbetter was trained at the Guild of All Arts in Toronto, but said her work didn't begin in earnest until she was sent to a facility outside Ottawa called Number One Station.

She said the wireless telegraphers were each given a desk and a frequency dial and told to "start searching...for the enemy."

"You were wearing headphones, searching the dials on the frequencies you were given, hoping that, sooner or later, you'd trip over a submarine [signal] that wasn't ours."

Leadbetter and her colleagues were expected to copy German code messages that were intercepted.

Wireless telegraphers vital to war effort

At first, Leadbetter said she could only guess what happened to the copies she made. Later, she learned that the messages were sent to Bletchley Park north of London, which was staffed with coders and decoders.

"Bletchley Park was held up as a wonderful place," Leadbetter said. "But the one thing that got to me was, 'Where does Bletchley Park get the work from?'"

"Eventually, they had to say, 'You people are supplying it.'"

Leadbetter says the work she and her colleagues did during the 1940s was vital to ending the war, but the women didn't think about that at the time. 

It is only now, 72 years after the fact, that she said she's able to see the enormity of what she did.

With files from The Canadian Press


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