In the autumn of 1942, having completed their basic training at Vermillion, Alberta, some 25 members of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) arrived in Kingston, Ontario.
On 29 August, at the Canadian Signals Training Centre (CSTC), Vimy Barracks, they were among the first CWACs to begin trades training as radio operators. Pat O’Buck (nee Moyles) of Peterborough, Ontario, but currently residing near Plains, Montana, was also serving there. The following is a brief account of her service.
“As a Lance Corporal, at the tender age of 16, and disenchanted with an orderly room job, I was reassigned to be the Non-commissioned officer who marched the gals back and forth from Barriefield, where we were quartered, to Vimy, where we did our trades training.
One poignant episode at Vimy during this time was the day our group reported to find our classroom emptied of most of the men with whom we had been training. Those men we later learned had volunteered for the airborne, although in what capacity I have no idea. I have often wondered if they were part of an intelligence group.
In December, part of our group was classified as signals intercept operators, posted to Argyle Barracks in Ottawa and assigned to No. 1 Special Wireless Station (SWS).
In the early years many Canadian men and women held a dim view of women who joined the armed services. This attitude gradually changed as we proved our value to the service. Nonetheless, I don't think there was a man among the SWS members who would not have punched out another for uttering a disparaging remark about one of "their" girls, especially if the culprit was in another service branch.
From day one at No 1 SWS the men were respectful, helpful, and yes, protective. During the bitter winter of 1942-1943, for example, some of us sustained frostbitten legs and ear lobes walking to the Station from where the bus was halted due to drifting snow. Our Commanding Officer (CO) contacted the CWAC hierarchy at Argyle barracks where we were billeted and saw to it that we were issued battle dress.
For security reasons, our group occupied a separate wing at Argyle. Nobody else knew what we were doing, or what our mission was, including the officers. This kinda galled them and there was a perception that we were receiving special treatment. We were not required to do Kitchen Patrol, or any other chores meted out to other gals at the will of those in charge. It was necessary that we be provided meals at irregular hours because we worked irregular hours. Often the mess hall staff showed its displeasure at having to meet our needs. One way of showing that displeasure was in the lunches provided. Again, the CO contacted those responsible at Argyle and instructed that in the future we were to be furnished with healthier lunches than those we had been receiving. I don't recall the specific improvements other than that we began to have an item of fruit each day.
I have to admit that it was sometimes fun and a challenge to sneak back into barracks with the evening shift coming off duty when we were late after a movie or date. We weren't all that angelic that we didn't take advantage of an opportunity. I don't recall that one of us was ever caught.
At No 1 SWS we were copying subversive signals (HAM operators were prohibited from operating during the War), as well as high-speed radio traffic from Argentina, as I recall. I remember the high-speed receiver was a Hallicrafter. Simultaneously we were in training to copy Japanese military communications that used regular Morse code and modified Morse code, or barred letters, to represent elements of their Katakana phonetic writing system. The Japanese operators were well disciplined and we didn’t intercept much chatter in their Kana format.
In the summer of 1943 this first group was sent to Victoria, British Columbia and No 3 SWS where, sometime during 1944 or 1945 the Japanese military changed code. We intercept operators had a month to learn it in addition to performing our regular intercept work. Not to worry! At midnight Japanese time on the day the code changed the Japanese operators were having as much problem sending the new code as we were transcribing it. It was a level playing field.
In the latter part of 1944 almost all of the physically qualified men at SWS3 were pulled for further training and eventual assignment to Australia. Heretofore, the men had rotated, four at a time, month at a time, to man a directional finding (DF) hut located in the middle of a farmer's field near Nanaimo, B.C. That was it, a small hut ringed by a few antennas and a small privy behind it sitting in the middle of vast acreage. The supervisor on duty in Victoria would contact the operator on duty at the DF hut to take a bearing on a particular intercepted signal. When the men left for their new assignment, it was up to the gals to (wo)man the DF hut. The men had been provided with a rifle for their personal protection. The gals were left with a revolver, but absolutely no instructions on how to use it! Lucky for us, a need never presented itself.
In Victoria we were never in barracks but either had room and board in private homes or rented our own apartments. One landlady loved me because I, too young to drink, gave her my wine ration each month. How did I come by a wine ration? I dunno except perhaps it was just because I was old enough to be in the military. After all one could be under age and still vote if in the military.
I was back to Victoria in 1986 and found no evidence that there had ever been a station. The area is now a subdivision.
At war's end married gals had the option to take their release, but some of us who were single had no choice. We were assigned to monitor Soviet and Chinese transmissions. Soviet transmissions consisted of still other barred letter combinations, although not as many as with the Japanese codes, while Chinese transmissions were based strictly on Morse characters. Only later were we demobilized, I, in the rank of Corporal, on 9 June 1946, and the last CWAC member the following September. No choice there! In other words, the CWAC was deactivated -- no more women in khaki.
Another remembrance I have when I look at some of the old pictures of the time is the preponderance of the men wearing Sergeant, or Staff Sergeant and up rank insignia. The highest rank one of the women attained was Sergeant. Hmmmmmm!!!”
In all, there were three Special Wireless Stations (SWS) active during the Second World War; the two in which Pat served and No 2 SWS that had its beginnings in 1939 as a Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System station on the Newton Farm near Grande Prairie, Alberta. The station barely got off the ground, however, before being shut down in September 1939 due to the outbreak of the War. The military returned to the farm in 1942 and established No 2 SWS.
Another station, No 4 SWS turned out to be the "Station that never was." It was to be built at Riske Creek in British Columbia’s Chilcotin. It began life in late March or early April 1944 but ended suddenly in July 1944, before any facilities could be constructed.