Portrait of Sheila Whitton in her WREN uniform taken in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photograph taken in 1943.Sheila Whitton
Public Relations photograph of WRENs in uniform, taken in Halifax in 1943. Stamp on reverse states that the photograph was 'Passed by Naval Censor, July 9, 1943'.Sheila Whitton
Feature on the WRENs in Chatelaine Magazine. Photograph shows Sheila Whitton (née Hill) at one of the ship's lamps. Published in the August 1943 issue.Sheila Whitton
Sheila Whitton in her WREN uniform in London, UK. Photograph taken in July 1945.Sheila Whitton
"I was a coder."
I was a coder. We took over mostly from civilians who had been doing the communications for the Navy, so we did work with civilians for a while. Our training was all on the spot, but it wasn’t difficult once you had learned how to use the books. We used coding books, great heavy coding books, which would have four letter insignia for a word. And, you were coding a message in letters and sometimes in numbers, but mostly in letters, when we were in Halifax. When I was sent overseas, we worked on coding machines, with cylinders, and that was new and we had to learn how to accommodate to that. It didn’t take long. We didn’t know at the time about those coding machines that we worked with – it really was the size and shape of a fairly large typewriter but they had cylinders in it and as you typed cylinder would go ‘round. The cylinders which if I’m correct, there were 4 in each machine. And, you had a set up each day for how to start each one, how you placed them in your machine. That code would change every day, so you’d have to make sure you would be able to break the message for the day unless you had your machine set properly.
When I first went overseas, there were 6 WRENs that went over to be coders. As the weeks went by, more and more were sent over. We were sent basically to be there for D-Day. We were never a large group over there. I can’t remember exactly how many but I don’t think there were more than 21, 22 of us all together. We were working 24hr shifts, in other words, one week you’d be working day shifts, and then the next week you might be working the afternoon to midnight, and then midnight to 8 in the morning. We were pretty well, kept to ourselves, except when we had occasion to eat with the British WRENs. We were all a very close-knit group. And, you really associated with the people who were on your shift.
Bob joined the Queen’s Own Rifles and was sent to Brockville for training in 1941, and I suppose that… and shortly after that in 1942, he was sent overseas. So he was overseas for two years before I got over, almost to the day. We remained in contact with each other, writing frequently, and were – although I certainly was not pressed to make a decision before he went overseas – I pretty well knew that if, when I got to England, if there was an opportunity for us to get married, that was what he wanted, that I would say yes. We arrived Easter Week in April’44, and things were pretty quiet. Within two days, on Easter Sunday morning, he phoned, and had come up to London. And so we had a day together, Easter Sunday, and made up our minds that we would like to be married, if we could. Finally, we did, Bob was given permission, and I, at the end of a four-week schedule that the WRENs were on, we always ended up with a week of midnight to 8 in the morning. And after we came off that duty we had a long weekend of almost five days. So the Navy said if I could be married in that 5 days, I could travel to where Bob was. So that is what happened. The Padre of the Queen’s Own married us.
We were able to write for a couple of weeks, and then, because this was all about a month before D-Day and then the mail was stopped both ways. As Canadians in London, after the Invasion, we couldn’t get, we didn’t have any news. The news was all on the British regiments. If Canadians were working alongside a British unit, it would just be, they might just say, ‘Well, the Canadians were alongside’. But there was nothing special about what Canada was doing, so it became very, very frustrating because we had to wait for news from home to know what our boys were doing. Any mail from any of the invading troops was stopped and my letters did not reach him. The last letter I had from him in Normandy they still had not mailed. I guess I received them after I knew that he had been killed.
My whole life was completely turned around and shattered. But the thing that kept me going was, I had the work to do. You got up in the morning, you put on a uniform, and you had work to do that was important. So I got through the worst of the first few months. But I was determined that if at the end of the war, and before I came home, that I wanted to go over to France, and see the beaches, see where the first Canadian cemetery was at Bény-sur-mer. And so after VE-Day, I applied to my Commanding Officer to be allowed to go over to Normandy, and that was May. By the end of June I got permission to travel and I was given travelling papers but I was on my own. I just had to find my way alone, which I did, it wasn’t difficult. And I had the help of a very nice sergeant that I met on the ferry going over from Newhaven to Dieppe, where I caught a train for Paris. This very nice fellow, I guess he wondered what one lone WREN was doing and he said that he was taking, he was going back to Caen the next day on the train, and he said if I needed any assistance – there was only the one train going from Paris down to Caen – and he would look out for me.
The war was something that has never left me… it was, it’s not something that you put aside and forget or even try to accommodate to. That war had to be fought. And I still feel that that’s the case. Lord knows what ever would have happened to Europe if Hitler had continued with his program. The invasion had to take place, and the Liberation had to take place. But, in the broader view of things, it doesn’t solve anything. I think there are better ways to solve problems than wars.