People and Places

World War II spies in Sandy Hill — Revisiting Ottawa’s own Bletchley Park

Where an apartment building now stands, there once stood an imposing Edwardian mansion that was cloaked in secrecy. Built in 1902 by John C. Edwards, the building at 345 Laurier Ave. E., next to Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s residence, served in the Second World War as an outpost of the British government’s Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. A disarming plaque beside the mansion’s front door identified the residence as a “National Research Council Annex.” As a result, nobody in the neighbourhood, except King, knew that its occupants were engaged in clandestine work aimed at helping the Allies’ war effort.

Pre-war Intelligence

Prior to the eruption of the Second World War in September 1939, Canada depended on Britain for foreign intelligence information. All this changed in 1940, however, after several wealthy Canadian benefactors provided the National Research Council (NRC) with much-needed funds for military research, writes Diana Pepall in the Historical Society of Ottawa pamphlet “Canada’s Bletchley Park.” From this windfall, the NRC allocated money to set up a code-breaking bureau that would enable the Sandy Hill spies to decode messages they were intercepting from the post office, cable offices, and listening stations.

The NRC's code-breaking bureau. Photography: pa 178055 (public archives)
The NRC’s code-breaking bureau. Photography: pa 178055 (public archives)

Pearson Promises
In the wake of these generous contributions, NRC established the so-called Examination Unit in June 1941. The team would be administered by NRC but report to the Department of External Affairs. Lester B. Pearson, then assistant under-secretary of state for External Affairs, played a prominent role in recruiting staff for the bureau, and his involvement in the operations became even more apparent after it moved to 345 Laurier in 1942. Pearson arranged for the mansion’s plaque and asked that “two dispatch riders complete with their bicycles” be supplied. The unit’s original mandate was to intercept the communications of Germany and Vichy France — in particular because of possible sympathizers among Quebecois. After Japan’s entry into the war, Japanese messages were intercepted and decoded but German messages were dropped from the mandate.

Colleagues in Code-breaking
Sylvia Gellman (née Abelson) worked in the Japanese section on the second floor, a young typist with a newly minted diploma from the Willis Business College. Now 95, Gellman recalls: “I typed decoded messages, sealed them in envelopes, and then arranged for them to be delivered to the Department of External Affairs. It was a most exciting part of my life.” Herbert Norman, who then headed up the Special Intelligence Unit, worked on the third floor. Born in Japan to Canadian missionary parents, Norman would later attract controversy after the Americans accused him of being a Communist; Canadian authorities concluded the allegation was groundless, but a distraught Norman died of suicide in 1957 when the old charge resurfaced. However, in the 1940s, none of this suspicion hovered over him. Gellman remembers only a “very quiet man.” Thanks to the British government’s lifting of the veil of secrecy from Bletchley Park and its out-stations, Gellman received a badge commemorating her work.