by Justin Beddall
Kathleen Wood can keep a secret – a profound, history-altering secret that’s often credited with shortening the Second World War.
But she couldn’t tell anyone – not her parents, her best friend, or even her young Canadian husband – about her secret life as a code-cracker.
She was sworn to secrecy.
But decades later, as the true story behind the clandestine British military operation used to crack encrypted German military codes became public with a 1979 movie titled A Man Called Intrepid and later in a novel titled Enigma in 1995, she finally revealed her classified role in the war to her family.
It happened unexpectedly one day as two of her adult children sat in the living room of her Abbotsford home with stunned expressions.
“We were discussing it and discussing how amazing it was that the Royal Navy was able to keep their possession of the [German’s] Enigma machine and codes a secret,” writes daughter Sharon Raine, who was with her brother Craig Wood at the time.
“And then my mum said, ‘Well, I guess it’s OK to tell you about it now … I guess it’s not a secret anymore. They told us we were not allowed to tell anyone … that is what I did in the war. I worked at Bletchley Park.’ “
“You’re kidding!” Sharon recalls saying. “And then she told us about her experiences there. We were all amazed…”
For Kathleen it was a relief to finally be able to tell her story.
Kathleen Wood (nee Hall) was one of about 12,000 code-hackers – most of them women – recruited by the British during the Second World War to painstakingly decode intercepted messages delivered by the German’s sophisticated Enigma machines between Nazi military commanders.
The clandestine hub of hackers was located on the grounds of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, northeast of London.
Kathleen grew up in Feltham, Middlesex, about 21 kilometres west of central London, and after the start of the war she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service – known as WRENS – in 1943. Because she had strong typing and short-hand skills, along with an ability to recognize German words, she was recruited for special assignment at Bletchley Park.
Once seconded, she was sworn to secrecy and given cover stories to tell her friends and family. If anyone inquired about her efforts during the war, she would reply “cleaning guns” or “clerical work,” recalls Kathleen, 91, with a grin, as she sits at the living room table of her Sumas Mountain home.
Sharon recalls her mother telling her about a fellow WRENS recruit asking nervously, “Do you think we’ll be shot if we slip up?”
Kathleen, dressed today in a turquoise leather jacket with a poppy on the lapel, smiles widely.
While working at Bletchley Park, Kathleen and the other WRENS were bused in from Wavendon House each day and greeted by armed guards who checked ID badges before they could gain entry to the small huts that dotted the grounds of the park.
Inside each hut, 25 or so women clacked away on typewriters as they listened to enemy messages while trying to break codes. The feverish din of the typewriters was deafening. “Bang, bang, bang,” she recalls.
During the eight-hour shifts, they were not permitted to leave the huts or speak with those working in adjacent buildings.
Hour after hour was spent “typing gibberish on the Enigma machine” so there was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when a message was decoded that gave valuable intel.
Fuelled by tea and tenacity, she remembers the overall mood at Bletchley as being one of resoluteness.
“Get the job done. Get those Germans. I wasn’t scared because I knew we would win.”
She didn’t need added incentive to do that. Her beloved homeland was under siege and her own neighbourhood had been targeted by Germain air raids.
She recalls a time a year before she joined WRENS that she was walking with her cousin in her neighbourhood when a Luftwaffe aircraft suddenly dive-bombed from overhead. The plane was so close she could see the outline of the pilot. They retreated to a basement cellar of her house and emerged unscathed. Another time after she’d joined WRENS, she narrowly escaped a fire-bomb attack while returning from the mess hall.
But not all was dire for Kathleen during the war. While attending a party at her cousin’s house she met a handsome young Canadian Flying Officer named Hugh Wood (pictured with her in photo above).
They soon married and when he was granted a medical discharge in 1944, she prepared to follow him to Canada.
Her superiors at Bletchley Park sternly tried to dissuade her from leaving, but she refused.
Kathleen’s transatlantic journey to Canada was delayed when the merchant ship she was scheduled to travel aboard was sunk.
Later she left aboard another vessel that had to navigate the U-boat-infested waters of the Atlantic and one night shortly after they departed she was awoken by the sound of depth charges being discharged
“Oh, we’ve had it,” Kathleen thought.
After evading the U-boats, the ship was greeted by stormy winter seas, but after a treacherous two-week transatlantic journey she arrived safely at the port in Halifax. She then took the train to Vancouver, where Hugh was waiting for her. They eventually settled in Abbotsford in the late 1950s. Hugh became a teacher while Kathleen focused on raising their four kids.
She leaves the interview for a moment to go down the hall to retrieve a wall hanging.
She unfurls it. It’s a drawing of Bletchley Park with a white goose standing in the foreground.
Underneath is a famous quote from Winston Churchill about the tight-lipped code-crackers who helped end the Second World War. It reads: “My Geese that Laid the Golden Egg But Never Cackled.”
Locals fought in First World War
by Vikki Hopes
Among the soldiers honoured every year during annual Remembrance Day ceremonies are the 142 from Abbotsford and district who served in World War One.
Information is difficult to find on Abbotsford’s participation in the Great War – which this year marks 100 years since its start – but old newspaper articles indicate that 29 local men lost their lives during the battle (1914-18).
Of those, 24 were killed in action, three were gassed, one died of his wounds and one died of pneumonia.
Others who survived are listed as being wounded, becoming prisoners of war, or suffering shell shock.
Some surnames familiar in the Abbotsford area today can be found on the list, including Trethewey, Hill-Tout and McCallum. (The photo at left shows Leslie Trethewey standing behind an unknown soldier. According to records, Trethewey was gassed in the war.)
An “honour roll” in the Abbotsford Post – the area’s first newspaper, running from 1910 to 1924 – published the list of names with a note at the top that said, “Abbotsford and District has done magnificently in sending her sons to fight for the freedom and rights of the British Empire and her Allies.”
During the war, the newspaper published correspondence on April 23, 1915 titled “Letter from Abbotsford man in the trenches.”
The writer was Bernard Suthern, who worked as a surveyor in the area before the war, and the note had been sent to a “local lady,” according to the newspaper.
In the letter, Suthern indicated he was being billeted in a town about five miles from the firing line.
“We are resting here for a few days after our spell in the trenches,” he stated.
Suthern said they had been building barbed-wire entanglements, hurdles for the trenches, filling sand bags for protection and taking shifts on the firing line.
“So far we have done nothing big; have been on the fringe of big things and after this rest, shall probably get something quite exciting for any of us,” Suthern wrote.
He said he had seen plane duels, bombs dropped near the soldiers and “shells at various times near enough to get one thinking.”
“In the trenches, the chief motto which one never wants to forget is, ‘Keep your head down.’ “
Suthern is listed on the honour roll as one of the soldiers who became a prisoner of war.
Several centenary World War One commemorative events are taking place across Canada this year.
More than one million Canadians served in the military in WWII, with 45,000 losing their lives. In the Korean War, 1,558 Canadian service members perished, and since February 2002, 158 Canadians have died in the war in Afghanistan. In addition, Canada has played a major role in international peacekeeping, suffering 122 casualties since 1956.