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2017 Issue 2: The Technology Issue

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Wartime work recognized

Wartime work recognized

[photo of Bea Corbett]
Garrett Elliott

As a student during the Second World War, Bea Grant (later Corbett) knew exactly what she wanted to do when she finished her degree – join the Navy.

Grant had always loved sailing and being out on Lake Ontario and she knew there were opportunities for women in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. She was so eager to get started that she accelerated her English studies, going to summer school so she could get her degree sooner. She joined the WRCNS soon after graduation.

Grant was soon disappointed to learn that all her work, from basic training (which involved a lot of marching and scrubbing floors) to signals training, was land-based. But while she didn’t end up on a ship, the work she did during the war was vital not only to the Royal Canadian Navy but to the war efforts in the Pacific Theatre by the British and American forces as well.

Chosen for communications work, Bea was assigned to work in a secret location, which turned out to be Gordon Head, on Vancouver Island. She worked there for 18 months,working eight-hour shifts in a room with four other women. They listened for audio communications between Japanese ships, then transcribed the Japanese version of Morse code, called Kana.

They had to be ever-vigilant, waiting for hours for the next signal to come in. Bea can still recite the dot-dash-dot cadences of the Kana code.

The work of Bea and her fellow “Wrens” was then passed on to the American Naval Radio Station on Bainbridge Island in Washington and then on to British intelligence forces in Bletchley Park, England. At Bletchley Park, others were conducting the same sort of work, cracking codes from German communications.

All of their work was top secret, and for decades Bea kept the details of her wartime work to herself.

In November, Bea Corbett, Arts’44, MA'95, received special recognition for her intelligence work, a Bletchley Park commemorative badge. The badges were issued by the British government last year to the code-breakers who worked at Bletchley Park and its outstations, including Gordon Head.

At a special ceremony in Kingston, Lt.-Cmdr. Robert Brunner of EHAM Cataraqui presented the badge to Bea, who was surrounded by family and friends, including two of her fellow Wrens.

The badge she wears proudly on the lapel of her naval uniform is inscribed with the words “We also served.”

[cover of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 1, 2017]