Cambridge, Ontario – For Helen Leadbetter, keeping the secret of her clandestine work performed during World War II was easy. Speaking about it is a challenge.
“Just because, after 72 years, someone says you can does not make it an easy thing to do,” says Helen.
Enthusiasm over the film The Imitation Game based on the true story of World War II German Enigma codebreaker, Alan Turing, has opened a vault of intrigue.
It has also released Helen from her oath.
“We have been declassified up to the end of the war but can’t go beyond that time,” says the 92 year old from her Cambridge, Ontario home. “Secrets…secrets.”
Helen was born Ethel Helen Leadbetter in Cambridge to WWI Veteran Sgt. Duncan Leadbetter and his wife, Mabel. Her sister, Shirley, came ten years later.
“I was a tom-boy,” Helen admits. She attended Galt Collegiate Institute and “hated math with a passion that was anything but pure.”
She describes her father as a mild man. Her mother loved a lively discussion. Both parents passed away without ever knowing of their daughter’s involvement with the infamous Bletchley Park.
“Growing up, I had no interest in the Navy,” says Helen. “Then the war came along.”
In her 20’s, Helen took a correspondence course as a wireless operator with the Radio College of Canada not realizing how it would alter her life or impact the war.
A Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens) brochure listing Wireless Telegraphist Special Operator changed all that.
“I knew at a tender age that if I was going to do anything, go anywhere, I would have to do it on my own,” Helen says. “I never went home with the application from the Wrens to talk to my parents.”
Instead, she asked for $2 for her birth certificate in order to join the Navy.
“That was [my parents’] first clue,” she says. “I think my dad sniffed a rat. He told my mother not to ask questions.”
They never did.
“I fell into it. Mind you, if I had known what it was all about, I don’t know if I would have done it or not. How did any of us know what we were getting into?”
Basic training was completed at Galt (HMCS Conestoga). There, Helen was told she didn’t look like an Ethel. She was also told never to divulge what would happen next.
Helen and her fellow Wren recruits were whisked to the Guild of All Arts, an artists’ retreat and Inn located on the Scarborough Bluffs, then used by the Federal Government as a Wren training centre.
Tables were set up and the girls donned headphones to listen to their first chorus of Morse code.
“We didn’t know it from a hill of beans,” recalls Helen who had trouble learning the letter ‘q’ until she realized that the Wedding March sounded similar to the beat. “A bride is a queen. From then on, I had it.”
Recruits began as “Y” Operators. They had mere seconds to find, intercept and copy encrypted enemy transmissions from surfaced submarines.
Helen soon progressed to “Z” Operator, analyzing and recognizing distinctive transmissions from specific ships in order to locate them in the future as well as identifying Morse code habits unique to particular enemy radio operators.
“When we walked out of the Operations door, we left everything in there,” says Helen.
The women lived in what were called Cabins at the Inn that consisted of six double bunks.
“You try to pick a gang you want to be with because you played, ate, slept and worked with them,” she says. “You never lost them. They became part of you.”
The names Clarkey, Kaye, Marie and Budgie – who never did figure out how to tie her tie – bring a smile to Helen’s now vision weakened eyes.
“When I think about the pals I had.” Helen stops for a moment. “Joy, the way I saw her last. I have no idea what she looks like today.”
When work on Naval Radio Station Gloucester, also known as Number 1 Station outside of Ottawa, was completed, many of the Wrens were transferred.
“We were the first station operated by females with a female commanding officer,” she says. “Silent Listeners, That was us because when we got a signal and we yelled out a frequency, everyone went silent.”
The transmissions or “traffic” intercepted were coded and according to Helen, usually in 5 letter increments and indiscernible to the receiving operators.
For a short period, they moved to Signal School Ste. Hyacinthe, east of Montreal.
“Everyone had been diligent in using bleach to get their shirts clean and we killed the septic tank [at Glouchester],” recalls Helen. “We were getting sicker than dogs.”
Each morning, the women lined up in threes then marched. In order to stay out of the river, they made two turns, which their Petty Officer assumed they would take without direction.
“One morning, we kept going,” she says using her fingers to show how they almost marched themselves into the drink.
Helen’s voice rises to the pitch of a sergeant as she imitates her P.O. “Back up on the road ladies.” A mischievous chuckle follows the recollection.
Helen’s next destination was the newly constructed Coverdale outside of Moncton New Brunswick. Here, a naval officer from Ottawa paid a visit.
“He said that with one intercept, just one, one of us had paid for the building of the [Coverdale] operation as well as our pay and food for a year. That’s how important one intercept was,” Helen says.
The women were not told who made the intercept, but they now realized the importance of their work.
“We didn’t take it importantly, as in we never put on a mantle of ‘my, aren’t we wonderful.’ We’re not saying that we caught every sub when it came up, but we did our best and there was enough of us that surely to goodness, we got a lot of them.”
They saved the lives of thousands of men while providing safe passage for ally ships and submarines. They were able to track Hitler’s U-boat wolf packs to ensure supplies were brought into Britain.
That wasn’t all.
Bletchley Park was receiving encoded messages containing German intelligence vital to the upturn of the allied war effort. Helen admits asking how the operators contributed to the information sent to Bletchley Park.
“Someone had to get the ball rolling,” she says.
When it was confirmed that the “Y” operators were responsible, Helen responded, “Maybe you should tell the girls that.”
Out of eight candidates, Helen was chosen as one of the four “Z” Operators transferred overseas.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” she says. “We were too low on the totem pole.”
The women would work in the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Scarborough, Yorkshire. Half buried, bomb-proof bunkers were the Operation Rooms for the women sending coded messages directly to Bletchley Park.
“We took a crazy course at Marconi’s Research Bureau. That’s where the Boffins were,” says Helen and leans over. “It’s slang for a brilliant scientist.”
She describes absent minded scientists wearing orange pants, yellow jerseys, and green socks who might answer her greeting a day later.
“A true Boffin doesn’t live in the world you live in. They are way off in the ether,” she says.
V-E Day was celebrated with a day off for the Wrens. Helen remembers a stewardess asking the girls what they wanted for breakfast. They could order anything.
“It was still sardines on toast, but we had the satisfaction of ordering,” she says. Her eyes light up.
She arrived home from her duties during WWII only to be asked back into the Navy. She stayed for six years as a Petty Officer. These are the years still under the curtain of secrets.
After her years in the Navy, Helen lived in the home of her parents in Galt securing jobs with local manufactures including the Galt Brass Company and XYZ Painting. It was a change from the excitement of the war and the cold war that followed.
Helen never married, not that she didn’t have ample opportunity. “Nothing felt right,” she admits.
Today, the bustle of friends knocking on her apartment door and phone calls asking her for dinner keep her busy.
She is told that her voice and mannerisms don’t reflect a woman in her 90’s.
“You tell me how a 92 year old is supposed to speak and act and I’ll try to do it. But until someone can tell me that, I have no idea.” Her chortle rings in the room.
Helen has one piece of advice.
“Put your memory in first gear. Memorize everything in your life. You may have to use it one day.”
Tags: Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, canada, candidates, Duncan Leadbetter, Galt Brass Company, Galt Collegiate Institute, home, Naval Radio Station Gloucester, Operation Rooms, Petty Officer, Research Bureau, Scarborough Bluffs, Signal School Ste, Silent Listeners, visit, voice, Wireless Telegraphist Special Operator, work, WWII