CSE 75 - Vignettes

CSE - CST 1946 - 2021

Latest story

CSE’s First Green Initiative

From 1941-45, the Examination Unit (XU) was Canada’s first civilian SIGINT organization. It’s focus was on wartime decryption of traffic from the Vichy Government in occupied France, as well as other military and diplomatic communications.

Mary Oliver was known as the XU’s “Unit Secretary”, but in her role as Executive Assistant to the Director she was in many ways responsible for administration of the entire organization. Taking care of every aspect of the running of the place, including recruitment, training, and operations, the resourceful Mrs. Oliver was often called upon to find solutions to unusual problems.

Mary Oliver

One such problem came about in 1943, when XU Director F.A. Kendrick (a codebreaker on loan from Bletchley Park) inquired with Washington about the possibility of acquiring material that might be of use to the XU’s Japanese military decryption section. While it was typical at the time for such requests to take months to see results, Mrs. Oliver recalls being surprised when, within a few days, a notice came to XU headquarters on Laurier Avenue in Ottawa that there was a special delivery from the U.S. Signal Security Agency waiting under armed guard at the train station: five tons of IBM punch cards.

“I was given the horrible task of finding space for it at once,” Mrs. Oliver recalls. “The Public Works Department could give me no assistance, and the Director of Military Intelligence was not really interested […] I went about the building, measuring struts and cross-struts to see if they could support the boxes of cards. Owing to the fact that IBM cards will warp if not kept in a dry place, it was necessary to find a location where they would not deteriorate. Finally, after taking a great many measurements, a Public Works Department engineer agreed that the material could be stored on the third floor and in the attic on the fourth floor.”

One night, when the entire staff had gone home, Mr. Kendrick went to the Union Station and accepted the delivery. It took three hours to stow it all away, with the local Veterans' Guard having been elected on fatigue duty to do the job.

Despite the massive effort involved in delivering and storing the IBM punch cards, they ended up being of very little use. According to Mrs. Oliver:

“The cards remained above us for two solid years and I don't think more than half a dozen of them were ever used.”

At the end of the war, as Mr. Kendrick prepared to return to the UK he felt the “white elephant” in the attic of the XU ought to be dealt with. And so the first ever green initiative by a Canadian SIGINT organization was undertaken when Mary Oliver decided that, rather than have the cards destroyed, they would be sent to be pulped by Booth's Paper Company.

“Thus five tons of IBM cards came to a useful end in the form of cake boxes, ice cream cartons etc.”

IBM punch cards photo

Previous stories

Edward Drake

Considered by many to be Canada’s cryptologic pioneer, from 1940 to 1971 Edward Michael Drake was the architect of both the Canadian Army’s SIGINT service during the Second World War, and the establishment of Canada’s civilian Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) service in the post-War era. He was the Director of the first integrated, national SIGINT organization in Canada, the wartime Joint Discrimination Unit (JDU), which combined wireless intelligence and code breaking in one facility and was the driving force behind the creation of Canada’s wartime codebreaking body, the Examination Unit (XU).

While Drake’s SIGINT service reported extensively on German Army operations during the first half of the war, from 1942 onwards it focused on assisting the United States and Britain in providing SIGINT support to Allied operations against the Japanese Empire. Ed Travis, the Head of the UK’s Bletchley Park, described Drake’s SIGINT unit’s work on Japanese military traffic as achieving “an extremely high standard by comparison with that available from other sources.”

In recognition of his invaluable contribution to Allied SIGINT and cryptography during the Second World War, Edward Drake received the U.S. Legion of Merit (Officer) on 18 July, 1946; The award was accompanied by a citation letter from President Truman, which reads:

“Lieutenant Colonel Edward M. Drake, General Staff, Canadian Army, rendered exceptionally meritorious service for his country and the United States from January 1943 to August 1945. Colonel Drake’s exemplary spirit of international cooperation in an extremely technical and specialized field was an exceptionally meritorious contribution to the successful prosecution of the war.”

Colonel Drake was given special dispensation by HRM King George VI to wear the U.S. Medal as part of his Canadian uniform.

Allied SIGINT leaders often referred to Canada’s significant contributions throughout the Second World War, citing the work of LCol Drake and the Discrimination Unit he commanded. This in turn led to strong support for continued development of Canadian SIGINT in peacetime.

Based on these extraordinary achievements, and to no lesser degree the personal calibre of his character, Edward Drake garnered support for the creation of an independent Canadian cryptologic agency. At the end of the War, Edward Drake was tasked by Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government with building and directing Canada's first permanent cryptologic agency, the Communications Branch of the National Research Council (CBNRC), which would later be renamed the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

What made Edward Drake unique in the field of signals intelligence and communications security was his vision, a worldview that saw beyond the immediate crisis and even his own lifetime. Even in the earliest days of the Allied signals intelligence and cryptology cooperation during the Second World War, Drake had the foresight to recognize the remarkable international partnership the Five-Eyes would become. He dedicated his life to this important international partnership, and to securing Canada’s place in it as an equal and independent member. In 2019, Edward Drake became the first Canadian to be inducted into the U.S. National Security Agency’s Hall of Honor.

Edward Drake was an exceptional leader. Driven by an analytical mind and an unwavering determination to do the right thing, he earned the trust of his superiors, the respect of his peers, and the loyalty and affection of those who worked under his leadership.

When Edward Drake died on February 8, 1971, he left an enduring legacy in the intelligence community in Canada and among Canada’s allies. It is on this foundation that the present-day Communications Security Establishment (CSE) was established and continues to operate to this day.

Edward Drake

Robert S. McLaren, CSE’s first liaison officer

At the beginning of the Second World War, Canadian armed forces were already collecting raw ciphered signals from enemy military and foreign mission communications traffic. Canadian Military intercepts of enemy SIGINT were used mostly to locate enemy positions and movements, based on metadata, and sent to Britain and the USA.

With the Nazi occupation of France, Canada was encouraged by the Allies to put together a civilian office that would decrypt signals traffic content, such as messages from the Vichy Government and other military and diplomatic communications. On occasion, depending on the type of communications, some content could be analyzed by the Military Discrimination Units, but it was the civilian Examination Unit (XU) that would regularly decipher content and disseminate intelligence to Canadian Foreign Affairs as well as to the Allies.

Robert S. McLaren, known affectionately as “Mac” to his colleagues, rose to prominence in Canadian cryptography as a member of the XU. His work would typically involve deciphering communications intercepted at places like Canadian Forces Station Leitrim, which would then be provided to both Canadian and American authorities.

As a cipher analyst, he frequently worked with American counterparts throughout the war, and it was in this capacity that he met and became friends with William Friedman, one of the founding fathers of the NSA.

In February 1950, following the establishment of the CANUSA agreement for post-war signals intelligence sharing between Canada and the United States, McLaren became the very first Communications Branch Senior Liaison Officer in Washington, or CBSLO, a position he held until August 1951.

The four-volume set of the US War Department’s Military Cryptanalysis manuals

During his tenure as CBSLO, McLaren so impressed his American colleagues that William Friedman, considered by many the founder of American cryptography, gifted him with a four-volume set of the US War Department’s Military Cryptanalysis manuals, which Friedman himself had written in 1938. Friedman wrote a personal inscription in each of the volumes, including:

“To my friend and associate Robert S. McLaren, with assurances that he won’t learn anything from this that he doesn’t already know!”

"To my friend and associate Robert S. McLaren, with assurances that he won’t learn anything from this that he doesn’t already know!”

ROCKEX – The Keeper of Secrets

It was 1946. The Second World War had ended but the Cold War was only just beginning. And, the task of maintaining a secure system for transmission of highly classified information was as important as ever, if not more so.

The answer to this challenge was HYDRA, a top-of-the-line, Canadian designed telecommunications relay station that was built and deployed to great effect during the war. While HYDRA was developed in Canada, operational control of the system remained in British hands.

Cooperation was the key to Canadian signals intelligence success. As outlined in a memo to Norman Robertson, then Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, a Canadian takeover of HYDRA would "contribut[e] substantially to the post-war signal intelligence effort of the Commonwealth and the U.S.A.”

The beating heart of HYDRA was the Rockex cipher machine, developed by Benjamin de Forest Bayly, an electrical engineer from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

Benjamin de Forest Bayly

The Rockex was a landmark development in the evolution of cryptography. Previous generations of cipher machines, such as the famous German ENIGMA, used mechanical rotors to scramble messages. These rotors devices could generate complex codes, but highly specialized cryptographers had already proven – again with the German ENIGMA – that such codes could be cracked.

Instead, the Rockex used teleprinter technology to shuffle two streams of data together. Based on the Vernam Cipher (a one-time tape encoding technique), it used a pair of cipher keys – one for the sender to encrypt the message, and another for the receiver to decrypt it. As the name suggests, keys were used only once. Without the key tapes, it would be impossible to read Rockex messages. What it produced was an unbreakable off-line cipher machine that could encrypt and decrypt in real time, as fast as the operator could type.

Example of the Rockex one-time-tape ciphertext.

When Bayly designed and built his cipher machine he built it to last, and it lived on to safeguard the security of communications well into the post-war period. The UK and Canada selected the Rockex as their system of choice for Top Secret diplomatic traffic. From the mid-1950s onwards, NATO members also used it for their most sensitive communications.

“Such was the success of [Bayly’s] efforts,” writes University of Calgary Historian John Ferris, “that variants of the Rockex family were still being utilised in British embassies until the 1970s.”

The last Rockex was officially decommissioned in 1983, capping off 40 years during which these incredible Canadian machines were in service at home and around the world.

This Rockex is on display at the Edward Drake Building in Ottawa, ON, as part of CSE's historical artefact collection.

How CSE got its badge (Part 2)

On 1 May 1991, CSE Chief Stewart Woolner announced in a memorandum to all employees that CSE would begin development of “a unique CSE crest or logo to appear on such items as envelopes, pins, documents and publications that will be internal to CSE, and public notices, including recruiting advertisements and conference material.” All staff were invited to submit suggestions for the design of a badge “reflecting CSE’s unique mission,” and T Group Graphics and Photography Unit (now known as Creative Services) would be asked to prepare “a professional representation of the most promising entries.”

Several employees took up the challenge and submitted ideas for badge designs. One submission was a drawing that included a maple leaf, a lightning bolt, and a skeleton key. The image of the key had been created by tracing an old key that had belonged to the grandmother of a CSE employee.

Two of the original designs for the CSE badge.

While the response to the challenge was enthusiastically taken up by some, ultimately a decision was made to go to the newly created Canadian Heraldic Authority (CHA) and Chief Herald of Canada Robert Watt and ask for their expertise in designing the badge. According to Chief Woolner, CSE “had ongoing discussions” with the Chief Herald before ultimately deciding on a final badge design.

The very first proposal had included much of what we have today: a blue circle representing the world of information, a gold bezant with a maple leaf symbolizing Canada, a pair of lightning flashes to denote communications, and a key representing the secure and sensitive nature of the information provided and protected by CSE. Atop it all was the Royal Crown, approved by the Queen for use in the badge.

Official confirmation of the Queen’s approval for the use of the Royal Crown as part of CSE’s Badge, as demonstrated by her signature on the image.

This design, however, also included a large red maple leaf in the background, and field of small gold billets (rectangles) on top of the blue field. These were meant to represent “chips or bits of information,” and be symbolic of the complexity of the world of information. This design also included the motto, “UT ORATIO SIT LIBERA ET NUNTIUS SECURUS,” meaning “so that speech may be free and information secure.” This first design was proposed by Chief Herald Robert Watt, and drawn by artist David Farrar. It was officially presented by the Chief Herald to Chief Woolner on 24 September, 1993.

The design then underwent revisions, settling on a final design that included removing the larger maple leaf and the gold billets, and changing the motto to “NUNTIUM COMPARAT ET CUSTODIT,” meaning “To Provide and Protect Information.”

On 19 October, 1994, at a large all-staff gathering at the Federal Study Centre on Heron Road, the Chief Herald of Canada, on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, presented the Letters Patent for the CSE Badge to Chief Woolner. When asked in September 2019 about the event, Woolner said it was “a uniquely impressive and moving ceremony […] that gave to our employees a wonderful sense of pride and accomplishment.”

Official ceremony outside the Sir Leonard Tilley building, CSE Chief Stew Woolner with Commissionaires, raising the first Pennant displaying the Badge. 6 June, 1996

Almost two years later as part of CSE’s 50th anniversary celebration on 6 June, 1996, an official ceremony was held outside the Sir Leonard Tilley building (CSE’s past headquarters on Heron Road). There the pennant with the new CSE Badge was raised for the first time on a flagpole beneath the Canadian flag. According to Woolner in 2019: “I get a thrill to this day when I see our pennant displayed so prominently and flying so proudly, representing our organization and the thousands of men and women who worked in CBNRC/CSE and who have made such a contribution to the wellbeing of our country.”

“I get a thrill to this day when I see our pennant displayed so prominently and flying so proudly...” –Stew Woolner (2019)

How CSE got its badge (Part 1)

“Queen affirms importance of Canadian symbols” was the banner headline on a Government of Canada press release issued May 30th, 1988. In the release, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Secretary of State, Lucien Bouchard, announced that on June 4th of that year His Royal Highness Prince Edward would present “Letters Patent” to Governor General Jeanne Sauvé, creating a Canadian office to grant coats-of-arms and generally advance the use of Canadian symbols.

In other words, Canada would be getting a Chief Herald, becoming the first Commonwealth nation to be empowered by the Queen to authorize official coats-of-arms. It didn’t take long for employees at CSE to take note of this change, as efforts had already been underway for almost a decade to have a unique crest created for the organization.

Earlier, in 1981, interest in creating a CSE badge can be found in an exchange of notes between the then-Director of U Group (SIGINT), Ron Ireland, and the Director General of Administration, Paul Gratton. Mr. Ireland had been investigating the possibility of adopting a CSE badge and had discussed it with officials at the Federal Identity Program (FIP) at Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS). At the time, Mr. Ireland concluded that TBS was unlikely to grant an exception to the FIP to allow for CSE to have and display its own badge. Further, TBS argued that “the effort could be inconsistent with, if not counter-productive to, [CSE’s] general objective of maintaining a low profile within the federal government.”

Nine years later in 1990, correspondence between Shane Roberts, a member of the Executive Staff at CSE, and a senior policy official at TBS about the possibility of developing a CSE Badge and an exemption to the FIP indicates ongoing resistance to the idea. TBS noted that it could not grant an exemption to the FIP without a letter of support directly from the Minister of Defence submitted to the Treasury Board (a Cabinet-level committee). Further, TBS indicates that it “would not appreciate” receiving such a letter as they felt it “could well raise questions as to what CSE is and does” that would warrant such an exemption.

The door wasn’t completely closed, however. Further discussion with TBS over the following year, including interventions by then-Chief Stewart Woolner, led to a compromise. An internal message written by Shane Roberts, dated September 6, 1990, indicates that TBS’ position was that “CSE may be entitled to have a special symbol which could be used on envelopes, in advertising or promotions, or on conference material and some other similar media, BUT it could not be used on letterhead.” Mr. Roberts adds that the distinction between these things is “a fine line […] but the high priests at TBS offer guidance on the distinction.”

The saga was not yet over, but after many years of effort the path was finally clear to CSE getting its own badge.



Discover CSE's impactful mission



Join our team and help keep Canadians safe



Read how we are held accountable to Canadians

Report a problem on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, please contact us.

Date modified: