Many people are unaware that a small number of women also served as ships' radio operators during the Second World War. It is worth remembering these brave girls when history is being written about the role of wireless and seafaring during those years. So let us have a look at the one who paved the way and made it possible for other women to follow.
Canadian Fern Blodgett joined the Norwegian M/S Mosdale in the summer of 1941. Fresh out of radio school, she was the first woman wireless operator to join the merchant marine in wartime. Fern had always wanted to go to sea, and when war broke out she saw her chance to serve the war effort by becoming a wireless operator. She enrolled in an evening course that permitted a woman to study, and succeeded in passing her exams with flying colours. The next hurdle was then to actually be allowed to join a ship.
M/S Mosdale was in Montreal, ready to sail except that she had no radio operator. Would Fern be willing? Needless to say, there was a 'shock, horror' reaction at the Royal Navy's Control Office in Montreal at such an outrageous proposal.
A girl! Impossible! A woman could not be trusted with such a responsible position etc. etc.! The answer was no!
Mosdale was, however, in dire need of a radio operator and there was nobody else available. And so Fern was reluctantly given the all clear.
Mosdale, a peacetime fruit carrier, was now carrying provisions to starving England. She also carried a numbers of passengers, usually airmen who had completed their training in Canada and were heading for England to join the fray.
A modern ship with a Telefunken radio station which had all instructions written in either German or Norwegian was thus to be Fern's first assignment.
A radio inspector was in place when she arrived onboard, and he proceeded to give Fern a couple of hour's guidance before the ship sailed. Once he had departed, Fern was on her own with the ship heading out into the U-boat infested Atlantic.
Mosdale was a fast ship, able to make 15 nautical miles and, therefore, allowed to travel alone. In theory, she should be able to outrun any U-boat.
To direct the thousands of allied merchant ships in the Atlantic, the Admiralty used a complex system of codes, which the Radio Officer had to deal with. There were certain identifying signals that were changed frequently.
And for 'longers' there were special codes that were issued to each ship and changed for each trip. The Admiralty would then send coded messages at certain times and it was of vital importance that the radio operator was able to copy and decipher such messages.
To miss one could mean that the ship sailed straight into a U-boat attack. These messages were transmitted 'blind'. No receipt was transmitted by any ship, as the transmitter was only to be used in an emergency.
Or some 48 hours prior to ETA, to send the position report, also in code. The radio operator's most important job was therefore to listen.
So this was the situation Fern had to face when she set off on her first trip across the Atlantic. She was miserably seasick, but stuck to her post with a paper bag strategically placed within reach in which to throw up.
Not many of the officers and crew onboard the Mosdale expected Fern to stay onboard for the return voyage, but she did. Just one day out of Liverpool, Fern received and deciphered a coded message.
U_BOATS NEAR BY CHANGE COURSE TO … Shortly afterwards the ship's crew spotted a U-boat surfacing only 300 metres aft of starboard. The Captain instructed Fern to send a brief message: - U-BOAT OBSERVED. "They know our position," he said on leaving the radio room.
And so, while the ship's crew went to their various positions at the guns, and the cannon was made ready, passengers gathered on deck and the lifeboats were swung out; Fern sat at her key, sending her dots and dashes with no idea of what was happening outside. (For some inexplicable reason the U-boat soon dived and disappeared.)
By the time the ship reached Montreal on her return voyage, Fern had come through her trial and gained the respect of both officers and crew. Mosdale's Captain Sunde was in fact concerned in case she had decided that this was no life for her. But he need not have worried. Fern turned up in good time for departure, eager and ready to face the next trip. And the next, and the next.
In a letter from the Admiralty, headed SECRET, addressed to the Secretary of the Norwegian Shipping Mission, special mention was made of "the exemplary manner in which the ships (Mosdale and two other Norwegian ships) have followed their route instructions, more especially the diversions which are passed to the ships by wireless and which are designed to keep them away from suspected dangers."
M/S Mosdale was considered to be a lucky ship but it did not mean that she never encountered danger. And Fern, as radio operator, would play her vital role.
When a U-boat was sighted by the ship's crew just east of Nova Scotia, the Captain instructed Fern to prepare to transmit a distress call - in clear language: "Mosdale attacked by submarine" together with the position, and ask for confirmation from Halifax.
And so, while the ship gathered speed, Fern received the confirmation she was anxiously waiting for. They were close enough for a destroyer to reach them from Halifax within a few hours, or a plane could reach them much sooner … Mosdale's luck held and she evaded the U-boat - for now.
But at dusk, it reappeared and Fern was again obliged to send her distress call while the Chief Mate took careful aim and fired the cannon from the after deck. The U-boat quickly dived.
Maybe it had mistaken Mosdale for a corvette due to her particular shape? Still, careful watch was kept through the night as the wind increased and the sea roughened up.
As the years passed and Mosdale continued her Atlantic crossings there were of course other incidents. During listening watch some four days out of Liverpool, Fern suddenly caught the coded signal for "being attacked by enemy aircraft" AAA and the position, only some 50 nautical miles to the starboard of Mosdale.
She called the Captain, and the ship's two Oerlikon guns were quickly made ready Fern was waiting and ready at the key when she heard the guns firing at a plane overhead.
She started her transmission, AAA and again AAA. The German plane veered off with shells exploding from both plane and ship. In seconds the plane was out of range.
Maybe it had used all its bombs for its missions, as it did not return. But there was no relaxing of watch keeping onboard Mosdale. U-boats would surely have been informed of the ship's position. For some reason, their luck held and they suffered no further attack that night.
When M/S Mosdale had completed her 51st wartime trip across the Atlantic, King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav of Norway came onboard to honour the crew. Fern was among those so honoured and received the War Medal from the King himself. By the end of the war, Mosdale had safely made 96 wartime crossings of the Atlantic. No other allied merchant ship made that many crossings. Mosdale had spent 1000 days at sea and sailed some 300,000 n. miles in nerve-racking circumstances.
And Fern? She stayed onboard till the end and then some. Having married Captain Sunde along the way, she continued to sail as radio officer until 1952 when she went ashore to start a normal family life with children and so forth.
Fern paved the way for the acceptance of other sea-going female radio operators. That it should turn out to be Canadian girls who were the first to join Norwegian ships in such a capacity was a fluke of wartime necessities.
By the late 1940s Norwegian girls had also taken to sea as radio operators, and by the time I myself went to radio school in 1955/56, roughly one third of the students were women. We were not a novelty any more, but I can't help feeling that if it had not been for Fern's good example we might never have made it onboard ship!
Thank You To:
Kirsti Jenkins-Smith VK9NL for translating Lucky Mosdale into English and for giving YLRADIO permission to print this article providing credit be given to its source below.
The above information is taken from the Norwegian book Lykkelige Mosdale (The Saga of a Ship) by Eiliv Odde Hauge. Published by J.W. Eides Forlag in 1954.