The Unbreakable Canadian “code” of the Second World War
By Marc Montgomery
It was a truly amazing story and it has been turned into a great movie.  It’s about the special team led by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and how they broke the German Enigma code in WWII.  But some Canadians had a secret code as well, and it wasn’t broken by the Germans no matter how hard they tried.

The use of native languages, ie Navajo,  by Americans was also made into a successful film in 2002 called “The Windtalkers”.  As a result of that film, many are aware of the secret weapon of native language use to foil German and Japanese attempts to break into Allied communications.  What few know is that Canadian aboriginals played a vital role as well.

Several aboriginal Cree from western Canada- Alberta and Saskatchewan had joined the army and were given a very secret assignment of communications. The Canadian aboriginal language speakers would translate vital messages into Cree and transmit them to another Cree speaker at the other end who would translate the message back into English.

One of these top-secret speakers was Charles “Checker” Tompkins, a Metis from Saskatchewan who spoke fluent Cree After enlisting in 1940, he completed his training and  was transferred to Britain six months later.One day he was summoned to Canadian military headquarters in London, under unusual secrecy, not even his commanding officer was told why.

There it was explained his new role as a “code talker”.   Because many military terms didn’t exist in native languages, new terms had to be made up for things like tanks, and machine guns and bombers.  A machine gun might be called for example, a “little gun that shoots fast”, while a Mosquito fighter-bomber would use the cree word for mosquito- “sakimes”. After a week of developing new terms, they went to work.

Tompkins was sent to work with the American  8th Air Force, and was sworn to absolute secrecy.
Tomkins returned from the war, but with jobs difficult to come by, he returned to the military where he served for another 25 years, in various regiments’ The Sherbrooke Fusiliers, Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.  The code talkers took their oath to secrecy seriously and for almost the rest of his life, never told of his work. Tompkins only talked about it shortly before his death in 2003 at age 85, he was interviewed by a team from the US Smithsonian Institute.

His own brother, Frank said he never knew about the secret work of his brother.  ”All that time, they were under an oath of secrecy, and they honoured it. I never knew about it”, he said. While their work was quietly declassified, in 1963,  most still never talked about the highly secretive work, and most of the information went with these veterans to the grave.

Now (July 2015), two young filmmakers are making a short-documentary about the Canadian code-talkers.  Alexandra Lazarowich and Cowboy Smith and crew were in Alberta recently interviewing people for the film.

Tompkins was her uncle and she says of the Canadian code talkers, “We want justice for them. That’s what we want to do with this film. In my secret heart of hearts I’m hoping to get congressional medals for them. …They were never honoured while they were alive. This is the best we can do for them now.”

We’re trying to piece together a timeline, pulling strings of information to see how to build the story, trying to find connections. There are so many pieces that are unknown, ”She notes that the Canadian code talkers were never honoured by either the Canadian or US governments. Because the Canadian Cree worked for the US, she says she is trying to get a Congressional medal awarded to their memory.

More information about the Cree codetalkers can be found at this location. The date in the top photo caption should read as 1943 instead of 1934. That photo depicts the codetalkers using a No. 18 wireless set.

Wireless Set No. 18 was a man pack transmitter-receiver developed in 1940 for short range communication in forward areas between Battalion HQ and Company HQ. Frequency range 6-9MHz. MO control. RF output 0.25W. R/T, CW. Range up to 10 miles. (Photo courtesy Wireless for the Warrior site) 

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