Eileen Glavin has fond recollections of her days as a “spy” during the Second World War.
The 2015 Academy Award nominated film, The Imitation Game, is about the life of Alan Turing, a British computer scientist/mathematician who many consider the inventor of the first computer. In the Second World War, he developed techniques for breaking German codes – and Glavin was one of many women who worked in “listening stations” across England.
“I was a spy,” she smiled. “I was listening in to the German messages. I even got some from the German High Command, you know. We were able to intercept their messages, too. That was something.”
Sworn to secrecy under the Official Secret’s Act, Glavin couldn’t even share any information about her work with her parents.
“My mom and dad didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “They knew I was a typist and was doing typing. That is all they knew.”
Some historians have estimated the work done at Bletchley Park and listening stations in England may have shortened the war by two to four years.
“I am very proud, very,” Glavin said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. It was in the ‘70s when it all really came out.”
As an “interceptor” or a “radio operator”, Glavin intercepted Morse codes, transcribed the codes into English and typed it out.
“It was very interesting, although we didn’t know what we were taking down. We knew it was important. That’s all we did know. We didn’t know why it was important,” she said. “We were taking this down and it was sent straight over to Turing’s office. It went straight to Bletchley.”
While the folks working in the listening station didn’t know they were breaking codes, they knew their work was important. Because they had all signed oaths under the Official Secret’s Act, it wasn’t until the 1970s that they started to get details about the work they’d been doing years earlier.
Glavin worked at a “listening station” in Dunstable, which was about 40 miles from London and about 10 miles from Bletchley. She was billeted in a home near the station.
"We all rode bicycles. We weren’t allowed to have cars. It was more or less so nobody noticed what was going on,” she said. “We ourselves didn’t really know.”
Born just outside of London, England in 1921, Glavin got her first job at the age of 18 at a seed manufacturing company. Each day, she made the hour-long trek from her home in the country to London.
“It was terrible,” she said. “Walking in London during that blitz, we used to have to walk. You’d be walking through the streets and both sides of the streets would be on fire or smoldering. The tube underground, it was layered with beds on the platforms, all the way along the platforms.”
Returning home from work one evening, Glavin was on a train that derailed. Passengers had to climb up the luggage racks to get out of the dark, toppled train.
“Bombs were falling all this time, too,” she said. “We had to walk to a subway. We stayed in the subway until special buses came around and took us to a different part of the railway.”
The bombings ultimately put an end to Glavin’s job in the city.
“For three days in a row, I didn’t get home until after 12 o’clock at night. We left the office at 4 p.m., so it took us eight hours to get home. It was pretty rough,” she recalled. “On the third night, my father wouldn’t let me go to London anymore.”
Glavin (nee Gurnett) stayed at home for a couple of years, helping her mother care for her four younger brothers until she was called into the Air Force and worked at the listening station. Having seen the devastation firsthand, she’s proud to have played a small part in the efforts to end the war.
“It was a sad time for everybody,” she said. “And we were hungry, too. We were living on little bits of rations. We had two ounces of butter a week, one egg a week, maybe even a month. What was going on was terrible. The U-Boats were sinking all the big ships that America was sending to us with food, ammunition, everything. They were all going to the bottom. We knew we were losing all these ships, but we didn’t know what we were doing was going to help. It did. We knew where the submarines were once we broke the code. We knew where they were going.”
When the war came to an end, Glavin joined in the celebrations.
“VE-Day was a day of celebration. I was in Trafalgar Square all night long,” she laughed “We danced all night. Everybody loved everybody.”
Sadly, one of Glavin’s brother’s was killed in the war while on patrol in North Germany. A sniper, who may not have known the war had officially ended a few days earlier, shot her brother less than six months after he’d joined the war effort.
Following the war, Glavin worked for Lloyds of London, married in 1953 and moved to Canada in 1957, where she raised her four boys in Burnaby and worked in jobs like a laundromat and nursing home. When her youngest was about 10, she became a nanny for a mother who was a principal at the Hebrew school she started in Vancouver with her rabbi husband.
“I had my own four boys, but I became a nanny to eight children,” Glavin smiled. “There were three when I went there. The youngest was a few weeks old. There were no girls in my family – there were six girls in their family and two boys. They were wonderful people.”
Glavin worked for the family for 19 years until the American family returned to New Jersey. Then 79, she retired for good.
Glavin, 93, has called New Westminster home for many years. Along with her daily walks, she keeps busy by singing with the Century House Singers, spending time with family and friends, keeping in touch with her former charges, travelling (including a trip to Dunstable and Bletchley) and maybe even taking in a movie now and then, including The Imitation Game.