Mary Owen, ordinary WREN, St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, 1944.Mary Owen
Mary Owen on her way to work in Baccaro, Nova Scotia.Mary Owen
Left to right: Jeff Jeffries (standing), Elizabeth Cole (sitting), Joan Boyer (on the right), and Cec Lyle (with Bren gun), 1944.Mary Owen
East Baccaro barracks, Nova Scotia, 1945.Mary Owen
Quonset Hut at the RCN LORAN station in Baccaro, Nova Scotia, 1944.Mary Owen
"Actually, one night, a message came from Halifax, warning us that plotting screens had observed two enemy subs about a half a mile offshore from Baccaro."
This is the story of a group of young women, members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service [known as the ‘Wrens’], whose average age was 20, who manned the LORAN [Long Range Navigation] Naval Station in East Baccaro, Nova Scotia, from September of 1944 to March of 1946. After training in Galt [Ontario], they were stationed in Saint-Hyacinthe [Quebec] to take a wireless telegrapher’s course, when the notice appeared on the St. Hy bulletin board, asking for Wren volunteers to go to Nova Scotia on a secret assignment. No other information was offered, other than we were to relieve naval personnel so they could go to sea.
Secrecy invoked the thought of mystery. How exciting that sounded. How could we not volunteer? The journey started with a train ride to Halifax and overnight there, on to Shelburne [Nova Scotia] via the Blueberry Special [local name for the train line between Salisbury and Harvey in New Brunswick]. From Shelburne to Baccaro with an Henrietta, a vehicle similar to an enclosed panel truck that was not made for comfort.
The station was tucked on a remote peninsula, not far from Barrington Passage, which is about halfway between Shelburne and Yarmouth [Nova Scotia]. It reminded me of the foggy moor in Wuthering Heights, where sheep grazed and houses were few and far between. Our ship consisted of a framed building, that was our living quarters, a Quonset hut, where we worked, and a couple of out buildings. All of our questions about our secret assignment were about to be answered. Baccaro was a Long Range Navigation station: LORAN. But you never mentioned that word, not to your friends, other naval personnel, not to anyone. If anyone asked what we did, we told them we were wireless operators.
To understand the technicalities of LORAN, do consult the internet, but here’s a layman’s description. ‘Baker’ in Baccaro and ‘Dog’ on Deming Island in the Cape Breton area, were slave stations, working with the master station, ‘Sugar’, in Nantucket [Massachusetts]. Signals were sent out from these stations and it was our duty to keep these signals precisely synchronized using a telescope. The ship and planes, equipped with LORAN receiving sets, could follow the intersect of these signals and navigate by chart rather than live communications. So, radio silence was maintained.
There were four watches with four girls on each watch. We took turns manning the scopes as the work was tedious and hard on the eyes. Every hour, one of us would leave the hut to chart a reading in a small box about 20 yards from the ocean. You can imagine it was somewhat scary in the early a.m. watches to proceed into the darkness, armed with a flashlight surrounded by fog and the echoing of the fog horns.
Other duties included keeping the fire burning, providing coffee and snacks to the other members of your watch. You’re correct, night watches were not fun. All the LORAN equipment was housed in the Quonset huts. The transmitter was located at the far end, the scopes in the middle and at the other end was a large area with the stove and a receiver. I don’t know what the receiver was for, but we used it for a radio. Underneath the floor were the explosives. As well as the explosives, we had a Bren gun, a revolver, nine or ten rifles, plus a number of Sten guns. Our station was well-equipped to fend off the enemy.
Now you know why those submarines lurking offshore of the East Baccaro naval station never dared to land. They had heard we were well armed. Actually, one night, a message came from Halifax, warning us that plotting screens had observed two enemy subs about a half a mile offshore from Baccaro. That caused quite a stir and an alert in the barracks, but the subs wisely moved on to other areas, to avoid confrontation with the Baccaro Wrens. I’m making light of this situation, but our orders were, “Blow up the equipment and get going.”