Cheers to the 'Girls' of Bletchley Park
These women weren’t veterans, but they served their country faithfully and probably had a greater impact overall. Given the popularity of the new movie called The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing and his code-breaking Enigma machine, this is a fascinating article about the women who served with him at Bletchley Park. These survivors reunited for the release of a new book by Michael Smith called The Debs of Bletchley Park.
(I’m still waiting for a movie about those other heroes, the aerial photographic interpreters who worked at RAF Medmenham, just sixty kilometres from Bletchley Park. They were the focus of my novel Bird’s Eye View. You can read more by clicking: RAF Medmenham.)
Back to the Bletchley girls: you may read the article by clicking here: Bletchley Park “Girls” Break Code of Secrecy. (Try saying the word “Bletchley’ ten times quickly. It’s almost as big a tongue-twister as "Medmenham.")
Here’s a photo of them, with the author of The Debs of Bletchley Park.
When stockings were as rare as hen's teeth
During the war, both silk and nylon were needed to manufacture military items like parachutes. And that meant pre-war stockings were hoarded and made to last.
Ruth Miller of Calgary, Alberta, was eight years old when war broke out and thirteen when it ended. She remember a working lady friend of her mother’s had a supply of silk stockings. “I had (and still have) a tiny crochet hook and she paid me ten cents to repair one run. Good spending money. I couldn't do that fine work today!”
When I was signing books in Calgary, Ruth came along to buy my book – and brought with her the same mending tool she used back then, to give me a demonstration of how it was done.
Ruth also remembers that her older sister, who was 15 years old in high school and 20 years old when the war ended, used to paint her legs with flesh-coloured leg makeup to look like stockings, and draw a pencil seam up the back. This was so difficult that some girls had their friends do it.
I found this old photo showing how you could use a pair of calipers with a coloured pencil for greater accuracy!
Wolfe, The Donkless Hero
From Leslie Vass in Kelowna, British Columbia, comes this newspaper article called “Donkless.” I couldn't find a photograph of the author, but here's the background.
Larry MacDonald was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan on August 22, 1921. He joined the army at the outbreak of the Second World War and was injured at the Battle of Caen in 1944. Following the war, MacDonald entered the field of broadcasting, working as a journalist for CBC in Ottawa and earning many awards before his death in 1998. He was married to another CBC journalist, Mildred MacDonald.
In 1997 CBC ran a contest asking for new lyrics for The Maple Leaf Forever, to avoid mentioning "Wolfe, the dauntless hero" and his victory over the French. While the contest was underway, Larry MacDonald wrote this piece for Southam newspapers.
Let me go back to Grade 3, Elmwood Public School, Swift Current, Saskatchewan. The year was 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression. I was eight years old. Our teacher was Miss Preston, who always smelled of Turret cigarette smoke and mothballs. Shortly after the nine o’clock bell sounded, we trooped into class to stand by our desks. The morning ritual began.
“Good morning, class.”
“Good morning, Miss Preston.” This from 40 treble voices.
Miss Preston raised her right hand and on the downstroke we would drag out the slow moving dirge-like anthem. God Save the King. You don’t hear that or The Maple Leaf Forever in hockey rinks much anymore.
The way we sang it always sounded like some ancient Presbyterian hymn for some old dour Scot who died a millionaire and never left the orphanage a cent.
Pause. Again Miss Preston’s down-stroke.
The Maple Leaf Forever! Boy, did we belt that out! We sounded like a bunch of people who had just seen the light.
I do remember its opening verse:
In days of yore from Britain’s shore
Wolfe the donkless hero came
And planted firm Britannia's flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
Long may it wave
Our pride and joy . . .
This went on for several verses. We particularly liked the part where General Wolfe worked in Saskatchewan. (Although where the General would have heard of the prairies in 1759 is something that never crossed our minds) We sang, “the thistle, rose and binder twine . . . the maple leaf forever”
We were the despair of Miss Preston. It took her some time to get us to sing “the thistle, shamrock, rose entwined, the maple leaf forever.” We still slipped in binder twine, just mouthing the words.
Well, no sooner had that contretemps been sorted out, than another one arose.
Fat Campbell, a kid in our class, wondered how Wolfe got into the army considering he was donkless. This had never occurred to any of us before.
I should explain here that when I was eight years old and in Grade 3, male genitalia consisted of a single word: donk. We had never heard of another word for it. If someone had suggested the real word to us, he would have been laughed out of the school yard.
During the period of the 1920s, Gertrude Stein was in Paris telling the world that “a rose, is a rose, is a rose.” Exactly. And a donk was a donk, was a donk.
I was elected, against my will, to approach Miss Preston after four to inquire if Wolfe was donkless. What to say? How to dodge a lightning bolt: To duck a steel-edged ruler?
“Was General Wolfe donkless?”
Miss Preston started to laugh and laugh and laugh. I thought she was losing her mind. And what would happen to me if that was the case? Regina Jail? Tears rolled down her face. I was waiting for a bang on the side of the head.
“No, Lawrence. The word is dauntless, unafraid, a hero, brave.”
I told the kids. Wolfe had lost his stature. When he was donkless, he was somebody. We could see the flag on Canada’s fair domain.
But now that he was just dauntless, the fire had gone out of our singing. We lost the evangelical fervour.
Subscribe to The Senior Paper
Speaking of newspapers, for the past six months I’ve been writing a column based on Wartime Wednesdays for The Senior Paper, published in Regina, Saskatchewan, and distributed across Canada.
Here's a photograph of one recent issue, with an article written by me. You can read the whole article by clicking Girls Also Trained to Defend Their County.
The newspaper is available by subscription only, but if you want to subscribe – or have a friend or parent who likes reading a real 32-page tabloid-sized newspaper, one filled with reader-submitted memories of a simpler time -- here’s the link to subscribe. Click: The Senior Paper.
STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image showing a tough sergeant wondering who could have given him a Valentine. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.
Happy Valentine's Day, dear readers!