Dorothy Robertson, a Wren (Women's Canadian Naval Service) who served at Gloucester and Gordon Head recorded her wartime experiences in a book titled “I Go (Not) Down to The Sea in Ships”. Extracts from that book appear throughout this document.
Gordon Head was located on land now used by the University of Victoria in Victoria B.C. (Map courtesy Mapquest.com)
Gordon Head Special W/T Station was the only "Y" and DF element that had any continually significant role in the RCN's radio intelligence operation against the Japanese. As part of the Naval Service Headquarters Operational Intelligence Centre network of stations that monitored enemy wireless transmissions, the station was opened on 4th of June 1940. At first, it continued to provide to the Royal Navy the kind of radio intelligence data that had been furnished from 1925 by a similar facility in Esquimalt. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour and the rationalization of radio intelligence operations between the UK, the US and Canada, the station became part of the US Navy's West Coast network. SIGINT collected at the station was passed to Bainbridge Island, near Seattle for onward transmission to Washington.
The RCSigs Militaria web page by Joe Costello offers an insight into the station's early days. "Initially, Gordon Head was under the jurisdiction of Far Eastern Defence Organization Singapore, keeping watch on duty O for Orange. (Duty O for Orange is believed to be a term used to identify intercept from Japanese Naval targets.) All intercepted traffic was cabled directly to Singapore, with copies sent directly to Naval Service Headquarters Ottawa (NSHQ). Along with watching out for Japanese wireless transmissions, Gordon Head operators were involved in monitoring German raider frequencies, commercial and diplomatic frequencies being assigned from time to time by the British Admiralty - all traffic being cabled directly to London".
Dorothy Robertson recalls some key events upon her arrival in Victoria from the St. Hyacinthe Signals School. "After volunteering for service on the West coast against the Japanese navy, it meant another sojourn at the Ste. Hyacinthe Signals schools to learn Japanese Morse code, otherwise called Kata Kana. When I completed my training I was on my way to Victoria. Upon my arrival at Moresby House with other WRENS, I was instructed to board a truck for a ride out to Gordon Head where two surprises would await me. First was the news that I had to return to Moresby House to repack in preparation for an early start to Seattle and a week's course at the U.S. Naval Base on Bainbridge Island. Then the second but more devastating bombshell fell.
First, a word of explanation about Japanese naval procedure. They used a five figure code, in International Morse when the war started. As time went on, these symbols were simply too long for the increasing amount of traffic, so a set of shorter symbols was devised. Later I learned that this incomprehensible selection, a mixture of International and Kata Kana, was made up of the first syllables of the Japanese words for zero to nine. This change had taken place some months before my arrival and was well known at Gordon Head, but the news had never been passed to the Ste. Hyacinthe training school. This was surely a matter of secrecy being carried too far! So here we were, supposedly fully trained operators setting off for a week's liaison with an Allied Navy, in complete ignorance of one of the most basic parts of our work. It did little to bolster confidence or create pleasurable anticipation of the coming week.
Both confidence and stamina were at a low ebb by the time we stumbled, in the dark, into the Waves' barracks on Bainbridge Island. The first day on course is better forgotten but the Waves took us in hand and showed us around. After breakfast we were taken to Operations where the Americans soon discovered the terrible gap in our knowledge. They were not pleased. However, they had to accept the fact and proceeded to remedy the lack of knowledge in typically American fashion; we were reattached to the buzzers we thought we had escaped forever and remained attached thereto during working hours for the duration of our stay. By the time we returned to Gordon Head, everyone was an expert in the new figures and ready to tackle the work.
Gordon Head worked closely with the American stations on the west coast, Seattle being the headquarters to which all message were relayed. We also copied the plain-language news broadcasts from Tokyo and sent them to NSHQ in Ottawa. Since the news was in Japanese, we learned nothing. If you wonder at our ability to write Japanese, wonder no more. At Ste. Hyacinthe we were taught to copy direct from the air onto special typewriters where the Japanese characters were transliterated into phonetics in the Latin alphabet. The machines had special keyboards, which created certain pitfalls that haunted me for years after I returned to a standard keyboard. In order to ease typing of the figure code, all the figures keys were put on the top row but moved one to the right, that is, the "one" was where the "two" is, and so on. The result? Years later, on one of my first days at Kemsley Newspapers, I typed a whole batch of letters dated 1066 instead of 1955".
When sold by the Department of National Defence in 1959, the 25 hectare property that the station occupied became a substantial part of the University of Victoria campus. Although the relationship between the nearby Army Camp and the University had been well known for some time, it was only when plans for the Reunion were initiated that a connection with the Naval Station became of some specific interest. This connection was very pleasantly recognized by those attending a 2001 Reunion at a reception sponsored by the University of Victoria Alumni Association.
Historic radio researcher Tom Brent documents what he has found out about the beginnings of the Gordon Head Special Wireless station. ." In a letter dated February 5, 1940 from K.S. Maclachlan, Deputy Minister (Naval and Air) and sent to the Naval Service, he sets the stage by stating:
I beg to inform you it is urgently necessary to acquire certain lands in the vicinity of Victoria...[truncated].......for naval purposes."
The land, which was the RCN's first choice of a site for their station, was a 60 acre parcel located at Lansdowne Road and Richmond Road. It had been the site of Lansdowne Airfield in the 1920's and early 1930's and was essentially flat and clear of obstructions such as towers or buildings which could impair operation of the direction finding receiver that was an essential part of the signals intelligence operation. This was not to be the only example of establishing such stations at former airports; the RCN built a similar station at the airfield in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland in 1941. Following the war, the Canadian Army's #3 Special Wireless Station, also in the Victoria area, would move to the former airfield at Boundary Bay, near Vancouver.
A second document goes on to explain the RCAF has expropriated the southern 15 acres of this property and further expropriation is hinted. However, the date of this document is February 29, 1940. Over three weeks have passed since the Deputy Minister expressed a need to urgently conclude the property purchase and it appears that little (if any) progress had been made. Mrs. Scott, the owner of the land, is still holding firm on her demand for $600 per acre. Mrs. Scott was demanding the high price because she believed the northern part of her land would be slated for residential use one day. Interestingly, although the southern portion of her land did become a residential subdivision (contrary to her thinking) the northern part was used for the site of Lansdowne Middle School which opened in 1955 and is still there.
A third document, dated March 23, 1940, again conveys a sense of urgency to get the Gordon Head SIGINT station constructed. In other words, purchase the materials for the buildings and be ready to go when the land is acquired and then get it built as soon as possible.
No doubt there are other documents in the Library And Archives Canada (LAC) files relating to ongoing efforts to acquire Mrs. Scott's land but until I see them I can only guess as to the final outcome. The last document I have is dated March 23, 1940, one week away from the start of April. If we suppose that negotiations went on into April, two months would have passed since the Deputy Minister described the situation as "urgent" and no progress had been made. Expropriation was likely considered but did the RCN have the time to go through the legal process? My guess is that they did not. Japan's intentions were clear and the need for signals intelligence from the Pacific had a very high priority. Rather than going through a time consuming legal process to acquire Mrs. Scott's land, I suspect the RCN decided they couldn't wait any longer and went looking for a suitable property somewhere else. As you know, the land they purchased was across the road (Finnerty Rd. property) from the Army base
The fourth document that I have is a drawing that shows the land I have been discussing here. I have found two published references to the initial date of service for the Royal Canadian Navy Gordon Head SIGINT station. Both state it was June 04, 1940 but cite no reference as to how that date originated. The paper written by Dr. Peter Smith in 2001 (copy on file at McPherson Library) was based on research done by/for him at LAC in Ottawa and also states the station entered service on June 04. I mention this only because, if we consider that it was early April 1940 before the Finnerty Road property was purchased, to have the signals intelligence station built and operational by June 04 was impressive."
From August 11th to 14th, 2001, telegraphists who were WWII Special Operators at the Gordon Head Special W/T Station met near the wartime site of the station at the University of Victoria. Of the wartime complement of approximately 65 RCNVR Reservists and about 65 WRCNS Wrens who replaced them in 1944, 9 men and 13 women attended the Reunion.
Among the pleasant events of the Reunion, was the invitation for those attending the Reunion to have "Tea at the Empress" as guests of the hotel - for the same charge (ridiculously low by present day comparison) that prevailed during the wartime! Also, Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt made arrangements for an excellent tour of the Dockyard with access to the impressive Chiefs' and P.O.s' Mess for lunch, followed by an interesting visit to the Naval Museum at Naden. One of the highlights of the program was the address at the Reunion Dinner by a former RCN/Armed Forces Commodore on the topic "The Navy Then - the Navy Now".
A particularly interesting aspect of the Reunion was the fact that the former WRCNS and the former RCNVR types had never met each other, having "passed in the night". The program provided opportunities for these groups to meet and for everyone to renew acquaintances, some of which had lapsed for over fifty years. As well as the casual story-telling that was facilitated by being together on campus, there was semi-structured time for people to spin yarns about what did (or didn't!) happen during their time at the station and elsewhere during their "Y" experiences. This was the first and probably the final reunion for the people who served there.
The Station building still stands in a remote corner of the University - having been moved from its original location to serve as a Day Care Centre and later as a furniture warehouse. There are tentative plans for the funds left over from the Reunion program to be donated to the University as seed money towards the placing of both a commemorative plaque on the station building and a framed statement in the University building that now occupies the original site. Additionally, photographs, other memorabilia items, the research materials from National Archives together with the Reunion Proceedings will be used to enhance the Special Collections that the University of Victoria Archives Department maintains on campus history.As of 2018, the OPerations building is being used as office space by the university of Victoria.
PHOTO SELECTOR Buildings Equipment/Operations
Credits and References:
1) Bill Robinson <jnewman(at)golden.net>
2) Don Cameron papers. Part 4
3) Dorothy Robertson, WREN : Extracts from "I go (Not) Down To The Sea in Ships". Used with permission.
4) Tom Brent <navyradiocom(at)gmail.com>
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