100-year-old Second World War veteran honoured for her contributions to the Canadian Navy
Elsa Lessard was specially trained in morse code — a skill she had already learned from her older brother — to listen for encrypted messages from German U-boats.
Liam Fox, Special to the Citizen
Published Mar 09, 2023
Elsa Lessard, a 100-year-old Second World War veteran, was honoured for her contributions to the Canadian Navy as a morse code operator on Tuesday at the Rideau Club.
The short, but spry veteran beamed as she was presented the Robert I. Hendy Award, which is awarded by the Navy League’s National Board of Directors to individuals who accomplished feats of national or international significance in maritime affairs.
“Ms. Elsa Lessard, in her 101st year, is a true national treasure,” said retired Vice-Admiral Ron Buck, the former National President of the Navy League of Canada.
Lessard was 17 years old when she joined the Canadian Navy and later enlisted in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), otherwise referred to as “Wrens”, in 1943. She was specially trained in morse code — a skill she had already learned from her older brother — and was stationed near Moncton, N.B.
Lessard was one of the approximately 7,000 Wrens serving in the Navy during the Second World War. She was also part of a group of women called the “listeners,” whose roles were to intercept and transcribe classified German radio messages.
From a tower hidden by a hill and a farm close to Gunningsville N.B., Lessard listened for encrypted messages from German U-boats. When she intercepted those German messages, she sent them to Bletchley Park — England’s once-top secret home for codebreakers — where they were used to break the German Enigma code and gather military intelligence.
Lessard wore her shiny gold Bletchley Park Commemorative Badge to the award ceremony with two other medals.
Following her wartime service, Lessard has been a passionate advocate for women’s contributions during the Second World War and a lifelong representative of WRCNS, the Canadian Navy and the veteran community.
But it was not until 1975 that Lessard’s service was acknowledged, she said, as non-combat veterans serving in Canada were rarely recognized for their military contributions up to that point. Since then, Lessard has been a guest speaker at schools, clubs, museums and CSIS events. In 2012, she participated alongside former Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the unveiling of the Royal Canadian Naval Monument. She also walked hand-in-hand with Queen Maxima of the Netherlands during the royal’s visit to Ottawa in 2015.
Lessard is the 23rd recipient of the Robert I. Hendy Award, named after the late naval officer who served in the Second World War and was the National President of the Navy League of Canada from 1976 to 1978.
She said it was incredible to receive the award in front of her nephew, Richard Lessard, who helps take care of her now, as well as other friends and prominent Canadian Navy members.
“I plan to be here for the next (award ceremony),” she said.