The Unknown Few...
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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"!
WORLD WAR II
1939 - 1945
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."
WOMEN SHIP WIRELESS OPERATORS
THEIR UNKNOWN STORIES!
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...
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.
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?
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
1943 (December) - Betty (Lake) Ottersen
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
1944 (February) - Barbara Lucy (Briggs) Ulrichsen
1944 (February) - Margaret Benham
1944 (May) - Maude Elizabeth Steane
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
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
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
1944 (July) - Josephine (Ryan) Fredriksen
1944 (November) - Suzanne Marie Gens
1944 (November) - Mabel Graham
1944 (December) - Rosemary Byron
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
1945 - Betty (Lake) Ottersen
1945 (January) - Cecile Richards
1945 Barbara Lucy (Briggs)
1945 (April) - Elizabeth L. Prescott
1945 (April) - Margaret Spence
1945 (April) - Margaret Dickson
1945 (May) - Yvonne Demers
1945 (September) - Mary McDermott Milne
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
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
1947 (February) - Elizabeth (King) Anderson
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
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
1970s - Dallas Bradshaw
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