TORONTO – Helen Leadbetter knew she didn’t want to be a secretary.
As a young woman in small town Galt, Ont., in 1942, she wasn’t sure exactly what to do with her life. But she was determined to not take on the typical desk jobs many women her age were tasked with.
So when she saw a brochure for a mysterious “wireless telegraphist special operator” position, she immediately signed up.
She and her dozens of mostly female colleagues were “as green as grass” and “had no idea what was going on” when they first landed the gig, recalls the 92-year-old: “We were a bunch of naive kids.”
Turned out they were recruited for a top-secret chain of wireless intercept stations that listened in to the enemy’s radio messages during the Second World War.
Best picture Oscar nominee The Imitation Game shines a light on those wartime workers as it 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 Morse code messages that had been sent to them from overseas operators —operators like Leadbetter.
She notes that while Bletchley Park was certainly the headquarters of the U.K.’s codebreaking efforts, the work of wireless operators from Canada was just as vital.
“All you hear about is Bletchley Park, which did a fantastic job, by the way. They really did,” says Leadbetter from her home in Cambridge, Ont. “But they had to have a source in order to do their job.
“We were the source.”
Thanks to efforts by Elevation Pictures, which is distributing The Imitation Game in Canada, Leadbetter was recently granted permission from the Department of National Defence and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service to finally talk about her experiences. She was also recently awarded a commemorative badge from Bletchley Park for her services.
Her basic training centre was conveniently located in her hometown. After studies there, she and a selected group got Morse code training at the Guild of All Arts in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.
They then moved on to a more permanent station in the countryside just outside of Ottawa.
No trains or buses travelled through the area and Leadbetter wasn’t allowed to tell anyone where she was or what she was doing.
“Nobody knew we were there, supposedly,” she says. “We weren’t allowed to have the naval ensign flying over our head because we were under security regulations, and really, not even the farmers were enthusiastic to know what we were doing.
“We were kind of lost to the human race.”
Leadbetter and her colleagues all started off as “Y” operators, picking up German submarines’ frequencies and copying their Morse code messages or “traffic,” which were then sent to decoders overseas.
“When you saw somebody screaming into the microphone, ’86, 25!’ or whatever, everybody kept quiet,” she says. “So you’d just sit there: ‘I wonder who it is, I wonder what it is.’”
She and eight others were then promoted to “Z” operators, and were shipped overseas to an English town.
Leadbetter, who is now legally blind, can still recall the striking sight of the bombers overhead there.
“All the streamers of vapour from the planes and their motors, they left trails all over the place,” she says. “Strangely as it seems, it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen in my life,” she says.
“But then you have to remember that beautiful sight was going to turn into a very terrible act when they got over their bomber stations.”