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Unknown Few
RAC

Forgotten pioneer wireless young women -
one of Maritime history's best kept wartime secrets!

Unknown to the populace in general and to the Canadian government is the historical fact that women did serve aboard ships during the "Battle of the Atlantic"!


BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC
WORLD WAR II
1939 - 1945

Historical Information:

Battle of the Atlantic

The source of the above image and opinion quoted below was from Merseyside Maritime Museum Website.

"In 1939 Britain depended on its North Atlantic shipping routes. It could not survive for long against the superior military and industrial strength of Nazi Germany. It needed essential imports from the United States and Canada."

Britain's very survival depended on winning the Battle of the Atlantic. A quote taken from Dr Gary Sheffield's "Battle of the Atlantic" article, on BBC History Website stated:

"If Germany had prevented merchant ships from carrying food, raw materials, troops and their equipment from North America to Britain, the outcome of World War Two could have been radically different. Britain might have been starved into submission, and her armies would not have been equipped with American-built tanks and vehicles."


WORLD WAR TWO CANADIAN
WOMEN SHIP WIRELESS OPERATORS

THEIR UNKNOWN STORIES!

Many years have passed since World War II. It is time to recognize these once young women, who if still living would be in their mid-eighties, for their bravery and job well done!

Maritime historians, the Canadian government and the public at large should be made aware that during WW2 Canadian women served as wireless operators aboard vessels of the Norwegian merchant navy. That they were prohibited from serving in this position aboard Canadian flagged merchant ships was the mindset of the times - perhaps women being considered incapable of handling the responsibilities involved.

Whatever the reasons, and despite all obstacles and preconceived notions, these women proved they could handle communications very well and under stressful conditions during wartime on the U-boat infested Atlantic Ocean.

Of the nine thousand foreigners who served aboard Norwegian vessels during WW II about 2000 were Canadians, according to records received from the Norwegian government archives in Oslo, Norway; this volume of microfiches now being held in the DVA archives in Prince Edward Island.

Of these 2000 Canadians, twenty-two were young women who served as wireless operators aboard Norwegian vessels and this fact of maritime history must surely be one of the best kept secrets of wartime!

Undoubtedly, the reason knowledge of these pioneer wireless women is virtually unknown here in Canada is because they served aboard vessels of the Norwegian Merchant Navy, "not" Canadian! Unknown not only to the populace in general but to the Canadian government as well.

To illustrate this point, at the unveiling of the Battle of the Atlantic Stamp in Halifax, Nova Scotia on May 1, 2005, one of those present was Mrs. Berit Pittman, a Norwegian Canadian, who had at one time been part of Norwegian External Affairs. Mrs. Pittman was provided with the mircrofiches of the foreign seamen in order to confirm those Canadians who had served on Norwegian vessels when Canada finally approved a benefit package to Canadian merchant navy veterans.

Mrs. Pittman commented that there were no women on the commenorative stamp! Admiral McNeil of the RCN conferred with the Canada Post representative present and in the discussion that followed Mrs. Pittman was asked to provide relevant information to the Chairman of the Stamp Advisory Committee in Ottawa.

Mrs. Pittman wrote to Canada Post and their reply was...

'...you are wrong, there were no women involved during the Battle of the Atlantic!"

Perhaps we shouldn't fault history or the Canadian government because, from the little information available on these women, information acquired primarily from old newspaper clippings or word of mouth many years ago, all sources for data have long since disappeared into the mists of time, aside from the Norwegian records that is.

After all, the war ended 60 years ago and of the twenty-two girls who served at sea then, only a half dozen were in their very early 20s - which would make any survivors of that group now in their mid 80s! If their stories haven't been told or made known by now they never will be. Even more amazing is that even within their own families often little is known about their wartime experiences. It is almost a conspiracy of silence.


FERN (BLODGETT) SUNDE
FIRST WOMEN SHIP'S
WIRELESS OPERATOR TO GO TO SEA!

Front and foremost of the twenty-two young women is Fern (Blodgett) Sunde of course. The exception, her life at sea is well catalogued in Eiliv Odde Hauge's book "Lykkelige Mosdale - Sagaen om et Skip (Lucky Mosdale - Saga of a Ship) which was published in 1954.

It is the story of the lucky ship Mosdale, her voyages, crew...and Fern. In addition, there are two articles concerning Fern on this YLRADIO website, "Lucky Mosdale" and "YLs at Sea" - Fern was the first woman to earn her wireless licence in Canada, the first to go to sea, and the first to serve as a wireless operator in the Norwegian Merchant Navy.

A third article on this YLRADIO Website is titled "YL Sparks History" which mentions the other Canadian girls who were known to have sailed wartime and postwar. Since the writing of that article, further information has been received from Oslo, Norway which contains what must be the definitive list of all these young Canadian women who served at sea in the Norwegian Merchant Navy during WW2.

Regretably most all that we know of them are their names, ages when joining their first ships, dates of signing on and off, and the names of those vessels. Spartan as it is, that information should be recorded ... and, perhaps remembered?

CANADIAN WOMEN LISTED CHRONOLOGICALLY

1941 - Fern (Blodgett) Sunde      M/S Mosdale Image

As could be expected, Fern's accomplishment in 1941 made newspaper stories in Canada after her successful first voyage. It must have inspired a number of other young women to follow in her path. However, it would be over two years before the first of them became licenced to ship out in December of '43. Dorothy (Sullivan) Ramsland of Halifax and Betty (Lake) Ottersen of Toronto.

1943 (December) - Dorothy (Sullivan) Ramsland
A 20 year old Dorothy served aboard the M/S Maud from the beginning of December '43 until early April of '45. She married Norwegian gunnar, John S. Ramsland, who also served aboard M/S Maud, and they later made their home in Halifax. Dorothy became widowed a few years ago.

1943 (December) - Betty (Lake) Ottersen  
External Link to - "M/T Garonne Image"

At age 31, Betty signed onto the M/T Garonne in New York as 3rd Operator December '43 and served aboard this vessel for almost a year. After a month's holiday ashore over Christmas of '44 she joined the T/T Kirkenes leaving the ship February of '46. Betty married a shipmate, Arne Ottersen, and she passed away in 1998 at the age of 85. She left her memoirs to her sister and a small, paperback book, Quite the Gal, was published in 2002. Only 250 copies were printed, and they are no longer available. Betty saw much of the world and the war during her seatime and experienced a close encounter with a submarine while on MT Garonne.

1944 (January) - Esther Chricton
From January '44 to July of that same year eight young women signed aboard Norwegian vessels in quick succession. The first was former librarian 42 year old Esther Chricton of Halifax. She served aboard the M/S Narvik, a C1A American built ship, until April of '47. M/S Narvik was taken over by Westfal-Larsen & Co. A/S of Bergen in 1946 and renamed Siranger. After three years sea service, Esther returned to eastern Canada where she worked at the library in Toronto.

1944 (February) - Barbara Lucy (Briggs) Ulrichsen
Barbara was almost 22 at the time, signed aboard the M/S General Ruge in Feb. of 1944 and served there for 10 months before signing on the D/S Vadso until October of 1946. The captain of the Vadso was named Ulrichsen so it looks as though Barbara married the skipper of her ship.

1944 (February) - Margaret Benham
At age 40, and like Esther Chricton, Margaret was one of the more mature women. She began service on the M/S Hoegh Silverlight in February of 1944. Margaret was a year aboard the vessel before signing on the M/S Roseville for almost six months, leaving in November of 1945.

1944 (May) - Maude Elizabeth Steane      
S.S. Viggo Hansteen Image

Maude was the only fatality of the young women who served during the war years. She was 28 when she signed on the Viggo Hansteen and had made only the one trip to Piombino, Italy when she was killed by gunfire while the ship was in port. Until not too long ago, the impression existed that Maude was killed by enemy gunfire, but it was recently discovered that this was not so. She was shot by the Norwegian gunnery officer who then killed himself - their bodies were discovered by the ship's bosun. Maude is buried at the Allied War Cemetary in Florence, Italy. Her Silver Cross medal has never been collected by her family.

1944 (June) - Anne G. Martlieu      
External Link To - "D/S Iris Image"

At 36 Anne went to sea. Married to Mark Martlieu, the owner/operator of the Eastern Radio School in Halifax, N.S. She probably received her radio training there. Anne signed on D/S Iris in June of '44, a service that was to last only four months as on October of 1944 the D/S Iris went aground on the coast of Labrador during stormy conditions and high seas. Water rushed into the engine room and soon the vessel was covered with water for three feet over the deck. Help was called for but the crew stayed onboard until the USCG M/S Laurel came on the scene next morning when the D/S Iris was abandoned. The vessel was declared a total loss but all 36 crew and 47 passengers survived. Two months later Anne went aboard D/S Gudvor signing off toward the end of June 1945. Mark and Anne had a son who was also a radio operator and at one time after the war all three were serving aboard different vessels on the Atlantic - getting together on the air occasionally for family reunions!

1944 (June) - Alice (House) Hansen
Alice (House) Hansen was 31 and Ola M. McLean 37 when both she and Ola travelled to Portland, Oregon to sign aboard the M/T Kaptein Worsoe as 2nd and 3rd operators. They had received their training at the Sprott Shaw School of Radio in Vancouver, B.C., graduating in June of 1944. Less than a month later the brand new tanker they had joined was on its way to the South Pacific. Letters received from the girls told of a strafing attack by Japanese planes while the ship was at a South Pacific island port but no damage was done. Both girls served on the Kaptein Worsoe until June of 1946. Alice went on to sail aboard the Karsten Wang for a few months and at some time thereabouts she married Kaptein Hansen who had been the 2nd Officer on the Kaptein Worsoe.

Of all the twenty-two girls who sailed, as far as can be determined, nineteen of them were from Ontario or the Maritimes. Only three young women came from Western Canada.

1944 (June) - Ola M. Mclean
As just mentioned, Ola travelled together with Alice to Portland, Oregon to sign aboard the M/T Kaptein Worsoe as 2nd and 3rd operators. She graduated in June 1944 from the Vancouver, Sprott Shaw School of Radio. Both girls served on the Kaptein Worsoe until June of 1946. After Alice left to work aboard the Karsten Wang, Ola remained at sea for four years or more serving on such vessels as Three Rivers, Glorono and Beau Regard.

1944 (July) - Josephine (Ryan) Fredriksen
From Toronto, Josephine was born on Dec. 22, 1915. At age 28, she signed aboard the M/S Ferncliff in July of 1944. During the vessel's crossings of the Atlantic, they twice were attacked by submarines but escaped unharmed. In November of 1945 Josephine married the ship's Chief Officer, Alv Fredriksen. Josephine signed off on Nov. 10, 1945 to make her home in Norway while her husband remained at sea. Josephine passed away in 1998.

1944 (November) - Suzanne Marie Gens
Twenty-four year old Suzanne Marie Gens was next, signing on the D/S Harald Torsvik from November of 1944 until June 1945 along with fellow countrywoman 26 year old Mabel Graham. Both girls signed off in June 1945, shortly after VE day.

1944 (November) - Mabel Graham
Twenty-six year old Mabel signed on the D/S Harald Torsvik with Suzanne Gens from November of 1944 until June 1945. Both girls signed off in June 1945, shortly after VE day.

1944 (December) - Rosemary Byron
M/T Jotunfjell Image

Twenty year old Rosemary Byrom from Victoria, B.C., was the third girl from Western Canada to sail wartime. Rosemary received her training at the Sprott Shaw School of Radio in Victoria and she joined her first ship M/T Jotunfjell in San Francisco December of 1944. Her ship was in the last convoy to cross the Atlantic before VE Day and after that her vessel carried fuel oil from South American ports to Pearl Harbour for the U.S. Navy, together with planes and tanks for the war zone. In all, Rosemary served aboard three tankers and six cargo passenger ships, leaving the sea in 1948.

1945 (January) - Joan (Aiers) Henriksen
Joan was just 19 when she signed on T/T Kirkenes as 3rd Operator in January of 1945. She served on that vessel along with Betty (Lake) Ottersen, signing off in April of 1946. Joan also married a fellow crewmember. It is known that she later resided in Victoria for a time.

1945 - Betty (Lake) Ottersen
Betty served aboard the T/T Kirkenes along with Joan Henriksen

1945 (January) - Cecile Richards
Almost 25, when Cecile went aboard D/S Vadso in January of 1945. The war was winding down and she left the ship in September, just nine months later. She would have worked along side of Barbara Lucy (Briggs) Ulrichsen during that time.

1945 Barbara Lucy (Briggs)
Barbara worked aboard D/S Vadso and worked along side with Cecile Richards.

1945 (April) - Elizabeth L. Prescott
Twenty-three year old Elizabeth L. Prescott signed aboard T/T Honningsvag April of 1945, leaving five months later in September 1945. Elizabeth also sailed on D/S Harald Torsvik and Apollo from June of 1946 untill September 1947.

1945 (April) - Margaret Spence
Margaret at 26, joined T/T Honningsvag the same day, April 1945, as Elizabeth Prescott, signing off May of 1946.

1945 (April) - Margaret Dickson
The last two girls to serve wartime and aboard the same vessel, T/T Hammerfest, were Margaret Dickson, 27, and Yvonne Demers, 41. Margaret signed on April 1945 and probably made just the one voyage as she left the ship about five months later. Her husband, a soldier, had been repatriated back to Canada from Europe, and he was waiting dockside when the tanker tied up, making sure Margaret signed off.

1945 (May) - Yvonne Demers
Yvonne signed on Hammerfest in May of 1945 and she served alongside of Margaret Dickson, leaving the ship Jan. 1946.

1945 (September) - Mary McDermott Milne
Twenty-nine year old Mary, was ten months aboard M/S Trondheim, leaving the ship at war's end in September of 1945.


POST-WAR CANADIAN WOMEN SHIP
WIRELESS OPERATORS

Five Canadian girls continued to sail aboard Norwegian ships in the immediate post-war years, one reportedly aboard a Danish vessel, and one on a British ship.

1946 - Lylie (Smith) Palmer
The first of the five was Lylie Smith. Lylie's first professional assignment was as a radio operator for the Hudson's Bay fur trade at Moose Factory on Hudson's Bay. Lylie then became an intercept operator for the DOT at the Lulu Island station in B.C.

At war's end, with radio positions becoming unavailable for women in Canada, Lylie was accepted as a ship's wireless operator with a Norwegian company.

She served at sea from 1946 until 1958 sailing aboard Roseville, Bouganville, Siranger and Brandanger. Lylie served at sea longer than any other Canadian woman.

1946 (year not confirmed) - Anna (Ozol) Haakonsholm
Anna (Ozol) Haakonsholm followed shortly after Lylie. While her first vessel is not known, it was while serving aboard M/S Skaubo in 1948 that Anna had to send out an SOS when the vessel took on a severe list due to the cargo of soft ore concentrate shifting during a storm while off the West Coast. The ship was able to make port unaided. Anna married an officer from Skaubo and she passed away in December of 1999 at the age of 78.

1947 (February) - Elizabeth (King) Anderson  
External Link To - "M/S Skauvann Image"

Returning to Vancouver between ships for brief shore leave, Anna brought news of a vacancy for a wireless operator aboard a Norwegian freighter in San Francisco. Word was passed to 22 year old Elizabeth King who was working as an intercept operator for DND in Victoria at the time.

Within days Elizabeth flew South to join the M/S Vito in February of '47. Elizabeth served aboard this vessel a little more than a year then, after a lengthy holiday ashore, joined M/S Skauvann in 1949, leaving the sea in February of 1951. For more details on Elizabeth's sea stories, visit: "Post WWII Sparks". Two other interceptor operators, Norma and Olive, followed Elizabeth almost immediately.

1947 (March) - Norma Gomez
Norma joined M/S Lutz. Lutz was a rather primitive small coastal vessel and Norma left the ship six months later to be married.

1947 (April) - Olive Carroll      M/S Siranger Image

Interceptor operator Olive Carroll, 22, flew to San Francisco to sign aboard M/S Siranger, replacing Esther Crichton. Olive was four years aboard this vessel and signed off the end of December, 1950. For more information on Olive visit: "Deep Sea YL Sparks"

For anyone interested in learning more of Olive's experiences and adventures at sea Cordillera Publishing Company of Vancouver published her book, Deep Sea 'Sparks', a Canadian girl in the Norwegian Merchant Navy in 1994. Some copies are still available and the company can be contacted at Box 46, 8415 Granville St., Vancouver, B.C., Canada, V6P 4Z9, telephone: (604) 261-1695 or Fax; (604) 266-4469.

Date Unknown - Aja Vibeke Norgaard Gron
Danish-Canadian Aja Vibeke Norgaard Gron reportedly served as a wireless operator aboard a Danish vessel. No dates or details are available.

1970s - Dallas Bradshaw
The last Canadian girl known to have served at sea as a Sparks, Dallas Bradshaw of Penticton, B.C., took her training in the U.K. in the 1970s and her first ship was the Duncraig Castle, a British vessel. Being a Marconi operator Dallas probably sailed aboard a number of ships and it is known that she was serving on the Naess Texas in 1974. Dallas was said to be the first female Marconi wireless operator. In May of 2001 it was learned that Dallas made her home in Wales where she was working at the time at the headquarters of the North Wales Police.

Twenty-two wartime female Canadian Sparks, six (perhaps seven) sailing post-war. Perhaps these women represent only a paragraph or two in the history of maritime wireless operating but theirs was a fine achievement - a small contribution to a profession that is no more.


Thank You To:

Olive Carroll VE7ERA for giving YLRADIO permission to print this article.