by John Tatlock
John Tatlock's Alumni page
Winnipeg, 1940 - I had enlisted in the Reserve Army Signal Corps with
military training in the evenings. This was the start of my lifetime
interest in radio and telecommunications. Canada had been the first
country in the British Commonwealth to form a specialized Army Signal
Unit when the Canadian troops served in the Boer War. Soon it was
obvious that to get any higher rank in the military I would have to
take a course in radio telegraphy.
Enrolling in a private school at the Russell Institute in Winnipeg
with specialized classes to graduate as a Commercial Radio Operator I
completed the course in record time. I then passed the Government
Radio Licensing department’s exam (in 1941) to get the required
Certificate of Proficiency in Radio. This qualified me to serve as
the Radio Officer on all ocean vessels in the International Maritime
it later turned out this was one of the best moves I had ever made.
About a year later my radio operating training resulted in my being
selected by the government to serve in the war in a secret Special
Services unit for the Canadian Navy. This assignment required
monitoring covert radio transmissions from German (and later Japanese)
submarines and other enemy war ships during the remainder of the war.
The ability to copy at high speed the radio transmissions of these
clandestine stations led to this opportunity –
to do my part in World
War II service.
above portion of my memoirs forms the foundation for writing the
following chapters describing a lifetime professional career which
developed in a manner far from the normal practice of an average
person - taking that road less traveled.
1.1 Prelude - The Start of
my Wartime Service
I was nearing 20, I sent in my application to join the Royal Air Force
which had set up a Training Unit at the RCAF headquarters at a
barracks just west of the city of Winnipeg. Weeks went by with no
reply, but one morning a letter came in the mail telling me to report
for a medical at noon that very day. The letter had been sent back
with insufficient postage and had arrived several days late. In spite
of this I jumped on my bicycle (we did not own a car) and started to
peddle as fast as I could the fifteen miles to the Air Force barracks
located to the west of the city of Winnipeg, arriving several hours
late for the appointment.
was a bad start. I was immediately reprimanded for being late!
Determined to defend myself, I declared it was not my fault and held
up the double postmarked letter, returned to sender. That put the
Desk Officer (from England) on the defensive and the Commanding Officer
was brought in to mediate the situation with a typical English
apology. I was given the military medical examination and later I
leisurely rode my bicycle back home hoping that my application would
Unfortunately for me, the Royal Air Force was not as hard up at that
time (1936) as they were a few years later with the start of the war.
I was disqualified because I had to wear glasses. On second thought
maybe this was fortunate considering what happened to some of these
adventurous young man, I did not think so at that time.
I wanted to
be a pilot. For awhile I decided to continue with the Army Signal
Corps to become a radio operator.
was at this time that I started the radio training course in the
evening at the Russell Institute in Winnipeg, learning to copy the
Morse Code at high speed in three months and complete the technical
courses to qualify for the Commercial Radio Operators license. This
permitted me to apply for a licensed radio operator career in the
Merchant Marine on ships carrying armaments overseas, or alternately
in the Ferry Command which was ferrying bombers across the Atlantic
Ocean (this was my preference). The former would have been less
interesting while the latter would have satisfied my ambition to be
flying, even if not as a pilot.
Perhaps my angel was still looking after me because several months
went by without a reply from either of these rather perilous war-time
Meanwhile, to do my part, I went to work in the military armaments
factory in Transcona (south east of Winnipeg) where they were
producing the high explosive Cordite. I worked the night shift, from
midnight to 8 am. My job was to walk the many halls of this large
plant and check the rooms to ensure that the relative humidity within
any individual room in this immense factory never became lower than
98%. I had to keep hundreds of humidifiers spraying a fine mist full
time to avoid any kind of a spark which would have blown us all up to
“you know where”.
the workers were required to change into special clothing and rubber
boots when they entered the operational part of the building. It was
an eerie place No fooling around here! All building areas were
meticulously electrically grounded to discharge static electricity.
In consolation, I realize this work was a lot less hazardous than
being in the Merchant Marine where ships in the Atlantic were being
torpedoed by the German U-Boats.
six months later my efforts to attain certification in Proficiency in
Radio Operating paid off. I received a military order to report to
the special Naval Services radio corps working on a highly classified
task monitoring the covert radio transmissions of the German submarine
fleet. This was part of a world wide Allied network of radio stations
equipped with specialized equipment designed for listening to the
broadcasts of these submarines and detecting their location by
triangulation of their transmitted radio signals.
operation was headed up by the legendary Britisher “A Man called
Intrepid” Sir William Stephenson who was born in Winnipeg, Jan. 11,
reported directly to Admiralty London by overseas cable teletype.
Their international headquarters was located about 60 miles outside of
London in a place called Bletchley Park, which became famous for its
success in deciphering the German Enigma code used by their warships.
also monitored the transmissions of clandestine radio stations along
the Atlantic shoreline which broadcast weather reports, as well as the
transmissions from the captured French naval vessels, often in plain
language messages (which encouraged me to learn French). These
intercepted messages aided the British by reporting information on
enemy naval troop movements.
English movie film Enigma (mid 2002) gave a detailed interpretation of
the activity performed by this organization of radio signal intercept
stations (of which we were part). The 1979 newspaper article in the
Annex to this Memoir describes the amazing activities of “Intrepid’s”
war time career.
order to transmit and send their messages to their headquarters the
German submarines were required to come to the surface to expose their
antennas, placing them in danger of being detected. For this reason
they stayed on the air usually only about 15 seconds. At our radio
monitoring post the U-boat detection action started with hearing a
wailing sound during tune up of the sub’s transmitter. This was
followed by transmission of a series of 10 to 15 four letter code
words. It was very short (about 40 seconds) but an alert radio
operator could rapidly adjust the goniometer instrument connected to
the antenna circuit of his short-wave radio receiver. This rotated
the receiving antenna to maximum signal.
We located and recorded the geographical bearing of the source of the
signal, while other operators copied the code groups.
reports and those identical signals heard at the other listening post
locations around the world were sent to Admiralty London and Bletchley
Park where mappers plotted by triangulation the submarine’s location.
enabled the Air Force of the Allies with their aircraft and destroyers
to attack the marauding enemy subs.
in the war the British had broken the German code and were able to
decipher the content of these messages and plan their defense
was later reported in the American media that during 1942 and 1943 the
German subs had sunk more than 400 Allied ships along the Atlantic
coast, many just outside of New York harbor. Save for my “guardian
angel” I could have been on one of them as radio operator.
Fortunately our enemy monitoring efforts contributed to keeping this
devastation to a minimum. The English movie named ENIGMA playing in
movie theaters around the world during 2002 was an excellent
description of the part we performed in this wartime support.
assignment in 1940 started with a months training at the radio station
in Forrest Manitoba, followed by a transfer to the Ottawa Command
where I was stationed for the next few years. I went on leave back
home to get married in Sept.1942. Earlier that year my mother had
became seriously ill and died. I had traveled home to be at her
bedside – for me, a very sad memory. This is a time in one’s life
when every son wishes he had done more to make his mother’s life
In 1943 I was transferred to the monitoring station
located just west of the Winnipeg Airport where we monitored the radio
transmissions of both German and Japanese wartime naval activity. This
required learning to copy the Japanese version of the Morse code which was
quite different from the international code. With the
surrender of the German army on May 8, 1945 we concentrated our monitoring on the
activity of the Japanese fleet in the Pacific.
1.2 Next four years –
Engineering Course at University of Manitoba
was in this latter part of my wartime radio operator activity that I
decided to complete my schooling and enter Engineering at the
University of Manitoba. I always had a yearning to go to University
so I went to evenings classes to complete Grade 12 to satisfy the
University entry requirements. Next I had to convince the Dean of
Engineering that what I planned to do was feasible. This was
the fall of 1943 while still working the night shift in the Government
radio station I started University attending classes during the day.
This continued through four long years of the rigorous Electrical
Engineering course. It was difficult but eventually successful,
graduating in 1947, ready to start a new career.
the University years, my routine had been to work the night shift at
the radio station from midnight to 8 am and then race across town
those days I had a 1935 Dodge coupe with rumble seat!) to get to the
morning classes at the University. This required endurance and
discipline throughout the nine months of study. I never missed a
class and sat in the front row to absorb every word of the lectures.
At the end of the afternoon classes it was home to sleep until time to
start out to get to work again before midnight.
completion of exams at the end of each University session I was so
exhausted that I vowed to quit and not return to this torture.
However after the three month summer break my energy was replenished
and I chose to return to the vigorous routine. Fortunately I had the
co-operation of my wife to encourage me.
Mixing studying with working was difficult, however at the end of each
year the feeling of accomplishment on completing the term examinations
in the top quartile of the class was rewarding.
the end of the third year I remember that I consulted with a doctor
for a heart burn problem. He handed me a postcard depicting
in a horizontal position, burning at both ends - and a prescription
for an anti-acid.
summation of that period: The greatest moment in my entire life was
when I turned in the last examination paper and feeling successful
walked out of the building - to lay outstretched on the University
lawn in complete relaxation in the summer sun. I will never forget
proudest moment was walking at the head of the May 1947 Engineering
Faculty graduation parade - which signified attaining
unachievable milestone. This became the start of my professional
career, the recollections of which I will share in the subsequent
chapters of these memoirs.
Oh Happy Day!
I am fifth from the
front. Bruce Webster (my lab-mate) is to my left