"And we got this message many, many hours before that, and we could warn our people to get off that bridge, or off that building site, at five o'clock."
My name is Fred A. Pollak. I'm a retired army officer, and I'm also a retired public servant, having worked in the Defence Department as a civilian officer. I was born on the 20th of May in 1919, in Czechoslovakia. I came to Canada as a penniless refugee in 1939 with my family.
On the 21st of August, 1941, I joined the Canadian Army here in Ottawa as a Private, and within days I was assigned to an intelligence unit, because I was a German speaker. I spoke Czech and German, and additionally I could do German shorthand, so I became very attractive to a signals intelligence intercept unit, which was just ready to go overseas. And six weeks later, I found myself in England with not even one day of basic training. Another month later, I'm on the south coast of England with a unit monitoring German traffic, which was just across the English Channel at that time, 1941.
What I find really fascinating at that time - that nobody in the Canadian Army had any idea about signals intercept on a tactical level. You know, you listen to a battalion, a brigade, a division, a corps. There was some intercept done on the diplomatic side. You know, high-level diplomatic exchanges, but nobody knew how to do, or had any idea what this involves. So we started right from scratch. We had to learn our job on the job. The other thing I like to stress is that at that time, there was no such thing as recording machines. You had to write it down, either by shorthand or just longhand. And particularly signals traffic, which we used to call 'CW.' I don't even know what CW means, but morse, you know - 'di-di-dee-da. Da-da-dee-da' - this sort of stuff. It was all copied by hand. If a German fighter pilot flying across the channel needed direction where to go, he was told on voice which way to go, because they had him on a beam. I could record this in shorthand. So I became a relatively important person, although I was a very low level.
In the battle for Antwerp, we had one of those highlight units where we intercepted a message, and because of the urgency of the message, it was pretty well in plain language that... like you and I talk. It wasn't in code, it wasn't in cipher. And it required all available artillery in that area to fire onto one bridge, which was being built by our sappers... the engineers. And the time was given five o'clock in the afternoon. And we got this message many, many hours before that, and we could warn our people to get off that bridge, or off that building site, at five o'clock. And sure enough, the thing came down, and so we saved quite a few lives. So this is the sort of thing that doesn't happen very often, but we could do that.