Margaret Cooper was at a car showroom in Hamilton, Ont., in the early 1950s when her husband, Craig, struck up a conversation with a young German immigrant. He mentioned that his father had been the captain of a U-boat during the Second World War. Although Mrs. Cooper knew the captain's name, the submarine he was on and where it had operated, she didn't say a word, since she was still under the strictures of Britain's Official Secrets Act.
Mrs. Cooper, who died on July 18 in Hamilton, Ont., developed her extensive knowledge of German U-boats and their crews while decoding messages during the war at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.
"We knew everything about all the U-boats. We knew all their captains," Mrs. Cooper told a Canadian newspaper several years ago.
But for decades she kept her work secret.
"She never spoke about her work at Bletchley Park, even to my father, until the Official Secrets Act on that aspect of the war was lifted in the 1970s," said her son, Ian Cooper. She then told her family about what went on and spoke on the record for the Memory Project, a collection of veterans' accounts of their wartime service.
"In August, 1942, [Field Marshal Bernard] Montgomery's forward forces had brought [Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel's army to a halt. RAF bombers [and] British submarines had sunk 47 supply ships totalling 169,000 tons. All except two had been a direct result of decrypts from BP [Bletchley Park]," Mrs. Cooper told The Memory Project. "In October, 1942, 44 per cent of Axis shipping leaving Italy for Libya was sunk. By Nov. 4, [Rommel] reported, 'Afrika Korps strength is down to 24 serviceable tanks.' [By] Nov. 10, [it was] 11 tanks. So that really brought to the end the war in North Africa."
Margaret Elizabeth Douglas was born on Jan. 25, 1918, in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Her Canadian father, Jack Douglas, had moved to Argentina to buy and operate a cattle ranch. He was successful and had a beach house in Uruguay, across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Margaret's mother, Vera, was born in Argentina and was part of the large British colony there.
At the time, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world, and there were so many Anglo-Argentines that Buenos Aires had two English language newspapers, the Standard and the Herald (the latter of which still exists).
Young Margaret led an idyllic life on the family ranch in the interior of Argentina. She and her brother, Sholto, were sent to school in Britain, but returned to live in Argentina. When the Second World War broke out, the two siblings soon boarded a ship for the treacherous crossing to Britain. She was unaware of it at the time, but the German U-boats patrolling the Atlantic would become the focus of Margaret Douglas's careful scrutiny once she reached her destination.
When she arrived in England she joined the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and she was asked whether she wanted to be a cook or work in coding, which involved encoding and deciphering military messages. It turned out it was much more than that.
"We were called to the chief officer's office and she pointed to a letter which she said was from [British Prime Minister] Winston Churchill asking for some volunteers to go on to a job which was very, very, secret," Mrs. Cooper recalled in The Memory Project.
"[The chief officer] couldn't tell us anything about it, but it was very urgent. So [she asked us to] sleep on it and let her know the next morning, so I think all but two of us – so that was eight of us – volunteered to do this job. The next day, we were duly put on a bus; we didn't know where we were going and landed up in Bletchley [Park]."
"What we were going to do at that time was to work on a thing called a Bombe, which had nothing to do with being a 'bomb' as you would think of it. It was a machine which had been more or less invented by a man called Turing, Alan Turing [the British computer scientist], which helped to find the setting for decoding encoded messages."
The Enigma machine was used by the Germans to encrypt messages bound for armies in the field and ships and submarines at seas. The standard Enigma machine had three rotors that allowed the coding system to be changed every day. The one used by the German navy was even more complex, employing four rotors.
Though Margaret Douglas was told at the start that her job offered no chance for promotion, she became an officer. Most of her time at Bletchley Park was spent in the U-boat room.
She dealt with all the messages regarding U-boats and passed them on to the Admiralty, as the headquarters of the Royal Navy is known.
"When a message was sent that a U-boat crew member's wife had given birth, they knew about it. That message was unusual and it made it easier to crack the code," said her son Ian.
A month and half before the Allied invasion of Normandy, Margaret Douglas was entrusted with a bigger job: helping track U-boat activity in the English Channel, the route of the invading force.
"I was sent down to Plymouth [on the coast] on the 26th of April 1944. Plymouth and Portsmouth were really the chief naval invasion ports of France [for the D-Day landings]. So absolutely everything was happening there. And I was to be, well, I was on the staff of the chief of staff, but I was liaison between Bletchley and Plymouth; should any U-boat messages relative to that area come up that I could deliver them to the appropriate person," Mrs. Cooper told the Memory Project.
The members of the WRNS (known as "Wrens") stationed at Bletchley Park were billeted at nearby Woburn Abbey, which had been seconded from the Duke of Bedford during the war. One evening in 1942 the young officer Margaret Douglas was standing on the platform at Bletchley Station during a blackout when an officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force started a conversation with her. His train to London arrived and they never exchanged names.
The RCAF officer made the hour-long ride to London then continued to North Africa, where he commanded a mobile radar group. He was so impressed by the woman on the platform that he wrote a letter addressed to "The blond Wren from Argentina on the platform at Bletchley Station." It actually made its way to the local post office, and even though the letter's intended recipient never told him where she worked, the letter found her at Bletchley Park. A long distance correspondence sprung up.
When Craig Cooper returned to England on leave, he proposed marriage to Margaret Douglas. They were married in March of 1945. He soon returned to Canada, and his new wife followed on a troop ship filled with war brides.
Craig Cooper, who had taught Latin and Greek before the war, returned to that profession. The family bought a 65-acre farm in Carlisle, 15 kilometres north of Burlington. They raised cattle, kept horses and operated a cherry orchard, thus the name, Cherry Hill Farm.
Mrs. Cooper raised four children and lived on the farm until 2001, at which point she moved to Waterdown, a community in Hamilton, Ont. She drove a car until last year and was mentally sharp. Her son said she followed the Brexit debate in Britain and didn't like the result.
Mrs. Cooper, who was 98, was predeceased by her husband, and leaves her children, Elizabeth Salton, Ian Cooper, Jane Toews and Peter Cooper; nine grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.