Grace Clark (Barbara Brown photos)

This is the story of two women, Grace Clark and Edna Cooper. During World War II, in the anxious days of 1944 Britain, they worked just a few miles apart in the south of England. Grace was a nursing Sister with the Canadian Army. Edna was a cryptographer working on the famous Enigma Project.

Grace is a seventh generation Canadian, born in Crestline, Saskatchewan - at one time a tiny dot on the main rail line - now non-existent. Grace's passport names her birthplace as a section of rural Saskatchewan, marked by a county line.

From such a tiny beginning, a great story was begun. Grace Clark (nee Canning) is a 1941 graduate of the Moose Jaw General Hospital. Her graduation pin is almost the same as the Royal Victoria pin from Montreal, except that Grace's pin has a moose's head where a crown surmounts the cross in the centre of the Montreal pin.

In war-time Canada, a nurse was a valuable commodity. Grace's first job after graduation was in her training hospital's O.R. She soon rose to the job of Night Matron for the whole hospital and learned to juggle staff, assess and prioritize emergency cases, and deal with the needs of patients and their families in times of great personal crisis.
Two years later as Sister Canning, responsible for a 1200 bed field hospital in France, she remembered it all. She and her assistants made all their own field dressings, right down to the swabs used in the O.R. Flat sheets of non-absorbent gauze were laid out in huge swaths, then absorbent gauze pads of different sizes were arranged, and badly needed dressings were made. Grace learned to expand the absorbent gauze and thus increase its absorbency for the oozing wounds. She did this by steaming the gauze on the top of the huge autoclaves used for sterilizing.

Edna Cooper

When Edna first arrived in France, the colonel in chief complained because their equipment allotment was badly incomplete. For example, there were no Wagenstein suctions, a staple piece of gastric suction equipment needed for the many soldiers with abdominal wounds.

"But the colonel didn't reckon with a depression-era nurse from the prairies! We spent years making something from nothing."

So Grace invented the prairie-inspired, field hospital equivalent of a Wagenstein suction, using wine bottles, rubber tubing and French safes. "I was in charge of handing out the French safes (condoms) to the boys. We had lots of safes. And they worked wonders in more ways than one!”

Grace had signed up in 1941 and worked a year in a military hospital in Regina before she was sent to England with the other nurses of No. 21 Canadian General Hospital. Her ship docked at Liverpool on D-Day, June 6, 1944. They were rushed north to Scotch Corner in Yorkshire and quickly trained for battle and to march. "We had to put away our pretty uniforms and wear battle dress, the same as the men.”

But on a regimental march through Scarborough, they wore their 'pretty' nursing uniform one last time: blue dress, white cap, brown shoes and nylons. The marching nurses could hear the women of the town exclaiming, 'Eee, look at the nylons!”

As a lieutenant serving overseas, Grace was paid $200 a month and felt like a millionaire. "I sent most of it home. My dad was on disability." Nursing sisters were paid the same as men of equal rank. As a civilian registered nurse, Grace had been paid $40, 'all found'. Living in the staff residence, 'all found' included room, board, laundry and all the toiletries a woman needs.

From Scotch Corner, Grace was stationed to Horley Hospital, just five miles from Gatwick airport. Wounded men were transported directly off aircraft. Some days, ambulances were lined up as far as you could see.
"We had to cut the uniforms off some of the men. Many, many of those boys had battle field amputations. That is one of my hardest memories.”

Grace Clark of St. Fancis-in-the-Wood served as a nursing sister in England and France.

At Horley, buzz bombs regularly flew overhead on the way to London. "My roommate had placed a crucifix on the wall above our bed. But she had to take it down. 'I'm sorry Lord', she says. 'But you're hitting me on the head every night!' And so long as the buzz bombs continued, the crucifix stayed on the bedside table.

After the war, while working at Deer Lodge Veterans Hospital in Winnipeg, Grace was approached by an ex-navy petty officer.

"Sister Canning, do you remember me?" "No, I can't think. Remind me.”

"Well, you ran out of space for the wounded at that 'hospital' near Windsor. And you very kindly had them put a bed in your office. That was my bed. And if I didn't thank you then, I want to thank you now.”

This story makes Grace recall another story from the same time. A young flying officer was admitted to the factory hospital with a skull fracture. Grace was in the habit of asking each wounded man to tell the story of how he was injured.

"Yeah, flyboy, tell Sister your story!" was shouted by several other patients in the room, amid much laughter. It turned out the abashed flyer had yanked too strongly on the pull cord of an ancient toilet, and the wall-hung cistern fell on top of his unprotected head. "We didn't get many good laughs from the boys about their wounds, but that was one!”

By September 1944 the No. 21 Canadian General Hospital shipped out of Southampton, landing in France near Calais. Grace and her company set up their first field hospital at St. Omers near the famous French chateau. From there, as the front moved, so did the hospital, staying as near the wounded men as possible, and re-locating through France, Belgium and Holland.

A rare picture of secret code cracking at Bletchly Park (Bletchly Park Archives Trust photo)

The No. 21 ended its war days based at Oldenberg, just inside the German border.

Here they took over a large German field hospital that had been abandoned, fully equipped. "They were supplied only the finest surgical instruments, of German engineering and design. We could hardly believe our eyes!”

It is here that Grace recalls another 'hard memory'. As the German army fled, their wounded men were left on the battlefield. Over their first few days at Oldenberg, the Canadian troops brought in the injured Germans. Some of these men had laid so long in the mud and rain that their wounds were maggot filled.

"And the captured German pilots were just kids - some looked just sixteen. All they wanted was water to drink and a bath. When I asked them if they were afraid, being taken prisoner, they said, 'No, our officers told us we were going to the Canadians. They'll treat you right.' That made me very proud."

Grace says she met Jim, her husband-to-be, back in Regina when she had just enlisted. Because women were in such short supply on the military bases, it was the custom to assign nurses to attend military dances. Usually, officers were assigned to ensure decorum.

Grace and her lieutenant were assigned to the same cocktail party where Jim promptly spilled his drink over her dress. He told her it was love at first sight because she didn't get mad. She says she loved him on sight because he was such a gentleman and so graciously apologized. They corresponded throughout the war, and met again at Oldenberg where Jim, now a captain, relieved the German officers of their arms. They were happily married for 49 years until Jim's death in 1994.

Edna Clark says she was a 'navy brat' and could sleep standing up. Good thing, too. As a member of the great Enigma de-coding team at Bletchley Park, she worked three-week shifts before getting her days off. Edna's World War II career began when she was called up at eighteen, and interviewed in London, a day trip from her home.

"Can you keep a secret?" she was asked. As a navy brat she was familiar with rules, regulations and the need for security. "Of course!”

So in 1942 she signed on for duty at England's famous Station X, the site of the United Kingdom's main code breaking establishment, otherwise known as Bletchley Park. Codes and ciphers of several Axis countries were deciphered there, most famously the German Enigma cipher machine. The high-level intelligence produced by Bletchley Park is often credited with aiding the allies' efforts and shortening the Second World War.

Edna finished school at 16 and worked for Boots Chemists as a bookkeeper. It was likely her understanding of military security, her natural aptitude for mathematics and her innate curiosity that convinced the intelligence bureau recruiters of Edna's fit for this 'war effort' job.

"I never thought I was entering into five years of work and thirty years of silence. My biggest regret is that I never talked with my father about our work. He died in 1972 and the ban on public disclosure of Ultra wasn't lifted until 1974. "

Ultra was the name used by the British for intelligence resulting from decryption of German communications in World War II. Edna's father, Albert Neville, worked at the Royal Navy's intercept station at Flowerdown - one of the 'Y' stations - about 100 miles south of Bletchley. It was here he took down coded messages and sent them to Bletchley for deciphering.

Flowerdown was near Winchester, ancient capital of England and site of Winchester cathedral, which was begun in 1079. This historic cathedral was the setting where long ago kings and queens were crowned.

"My father died never knowing what I did or what a great contribution he had made to the war effort. He never had a chance to share in the glory of his efforts. I really regret not having talked with him about Bletchley Park.”

"Bletchley Park was like the hub of a wagon wheel. About 9000 of us worked in and around a hundred square miles of the place. We were spread out along the spokes in different villages around Buckinghamshire.”

Most of the workers were bused to their jobs. On any given day, up to ten buses delivered workers for their around-the-clock code breaking work. A few, like Edna, rode bicycles. How did such an immense operation remain secret?

"Well, only about 600 of us were actually working on message breaking and subject to the secrecy oath. And all of England was on the move! The whole country was disrupted. There were troop convoys and civilian re-locations every day. Everything was on the move. What was another few buses going back and forth?”

Secrecy was so tight in Hut 'D' where Edna and eight other young women entered the intercepted Morse code messages, that not once, throughout all their time at Bletchley, did they speak about their work with the actual code breakers in the next room. In fact, the folks working in the rest of Hut 'D' never knew what Edna and her co-workers were doing. Edna says with pride, "Churchill called us his geese that laid the golden egg and never cackled!"
Edna also remembers a special night, breaking the code. For her whole 8-hour shift she typed the same block of 5 letters over and over again until her head and her fingers throbbed. Finally the code broke. It was only a partial message. But it was a crucial one. That night there were 10 women working in her group, two more than usual. The same in the code breaking room. In fact, that night, more than 50 people were working in Hut 'D', almost double the usual staffing and all working to decipher this critical message. 'You could cut the air with a knife, it was so tense.”
On a lighter note, Edna can still rhyme off a constant Morse code message, 'ARGF' translated as, 'Today's weather will be ....' "It was partly because of this predictability and the repetition of certain messages that the German codes were cracked.”

She also remembers the silence of all the church bells in England during the war. Ringing church bells were the signal that the invasion of England had begun. Joy could not be contained when the armistice was signed and church bells rang throughout England for twenty-four hours. For Edna the war was over. "It all ended like a car stopping.”
In spite of the cold dampness of the concrete block building that was Hut 'D', Edna made and kept friendships that have lasted her lifetime. In fact it was through a Bletchley Park friend who was computer savvy that Edna's whereabouts became known. Because of this good friend, Edna finally received, sixty-one years after the event, her Bletchley Park pin, struck by special permission to honour Bletchley Park World War II veterans. At the same time, she was also awarded her father's pin, recognizing his outstation veteran war efforts.

And true romance also found its way into Edna's heart. Working in the next-door hut, also part of the code breaking efforts was a handsome young cyclist named John Cooper, more often known as 'Jack'. The two were happily married for 46 years until the time of his death in 1992.

After receiving her pin from the Bletchley Park Trust, Edna decided to pray and 'put my story out there'. She feels there are many others with war stories and that it is time for these special stories to be told.

"War is the last way to solve a problem."