WREN recalls lessons and benefits of wartime experience

Former WREN Margaret Haliburton recalled her experiences as a radio operator during the Second World War. She spoke to students and faculty at Centennial College during a Nov. 11 observance. Photo – Matthew Wocks. (MARG_HALIBURTON_E)

Margaret Haliburton is proud of the contribution of Canadian women during the Second World War. However, joining the navy, she admits, was not her idea.

“My mother told me to,” she said.

Haliburton participated in a Remembrance Day ceremony at the East York campus of Centennial College, on Nov.11. She told students and faculty about becoming a member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service during the Second World War. She said initially she wanted to join the Sea Cadets, but they didn’t accept women; so at the age of 21, with her mother’s encouragement, she joined the WRENS as a decoder.

Haliburton explained that she received training in Cambridge and Quebec for six months before being stationed in Moncton, N.B., where she worked as an Enigma decoder for the next three and a half years. The Germans created the Enigma machine for encryption and decryption of secret messages. She said the Allies had secured an Enigma machine and through the work of their decoders were able to interpret a vast number of messages issued by the German military.

Haliburton revealed that being a decoder was hard work.

“We would spend hours, whole nights listening to signals and hear nothing but static,” she said.

Then suddenly in May of 1945 a signal came through loud and clear. Haliburton said a woman (from Kitchener, Ont.) who spoke German, put the message together and they learned that Hitler had died. The decoders had this information before the Canadian officials.

Haliburton said she didn’t fully realize the importance of her work or the meaning of living independently until she returned home.

“After being responsible for myself for three and half years, it was hard to fit in,” she said. “My parents expected me to be the same person I was when I left. I realized that what I had experienced was liberation,” Haliburton said.