Listening in from the ocean floor

Canadian service women excelled in Cold War surveillance


It’s likely that few farm girls on the Prairies, born in the hardscrabble 1940s, dreamt of serving their country.

But for Barbara Peacock, raised on a family farm near Tilston, southwest of Melita, the dream of flying higher than a tractor seat did become a reality.

And little did the wiry tomboy, who adored her dad, imagine just how far she would rise in the armed forces, eventually attaining the rank of captain, with a medal pinned on her chest.

But she had to cheat her way in, using money as her ticket to a uniform.

“I was really strong, because I worked on the farm, with my dad,” said Peacock, now retired and living in Killarney. “And I was always staring up at the sky when I was out driving the tractor. I was 13, and I did everything – cultivating, harrowing, seeding – and we could see the planes coming and going from the Minot base, just across the border. It was fascinating just to watch them. I wanted to be in a plane, but they weren’t taking women yet.”

Peacock was the second girl born to the family of six kids, and grew to be five foot six inches tall. She played ball, as a catcher and a shortstop, plus she curled.

At the age of 20, she decided to leave the farm, and pursue her aspiration to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

“I applied to the RCAF in Winnipeg, but they wouldn’t take me because I was too skinny,” said Peacock. “I only weighed 100 pounds, soaking wet. They said a hundred pounds was too small, and that I would lose weight during the fitness. So I went back home, and ate more, and I gained five pounds.”

A little heavier, with a trick up her sleeve, she set off again six months later to re-apply for the air force.

“I filled my pockets with change – nickels, quarters, dimes, whatever I had – and I went back to the recruitment office,” said Peacock. “I heard back straightaway that I was accepted, and I was in boot camp in a matter of weeks.”

Peacock was first posted to the RCAF base in St. Jean, Quebec, where she took nine months of basic training.

“Some of the kids did lose weight in basic training, but I didn’t,” she said. “I was fast, and I was small. I broke records in sprinting, in the chin-up, and the sit-ups.”

The air force also wanted to find out what skills their recruits might hold, she said, in order to find their best fit with the RCAF.

“They did aptitude tests, and I got accounting, because I was good with math,” said Peacock, now ranked as an AW, or Air Woman. “I learned accounting at Camp Borden, Ontario, in 1963. The RCAF accounting course was three months long, and very intense, and I found out later that it was equal to three years of business college. They were the best teachers in the world. I stood first in the class, top of the class, and so I got my choice of where I would be posted. So I chose Clinton, Ontario, because my basic training instructor was there, and she and I had become friends, plus a warrant officer was there, and he was good to me too.”

Now posted at the large Canadian Air Force Base in Clinton, Ontario, and moved up a rank to become a Leading Airwoman, Peacock found she had developed a bit of a reputation for being a high flyer when it came to brains and ability.

“They thought I walked on water, and it became a bit of a burden,” said Peacock. “I was always afraid I was going to disappoint someone.”

But it appears she continued to excel, and had the makings of officer material.

Eventually Peacock was posted briefly to Ottawa, and it was there that she was selected for commission.

“That was a huge deal,” said Peacock. “The Review Board goes through the files, to find what they are looking for. They had the files for a woman to fill that role, called a rank change, based on the evaluations that are done on you in the military.”

Officer training for Peacock took place in Chilliwack, B.C., during the cold winter of 1970. She was now 29, and a corporal.

“Jeez, it was snowy,” she said. “We had boot camp, and we had to do mountain climbing, in November and December. By now the three forces had come together to become the Canadian Armed Forces, and the Army was good at boot camp. It was very hard, and very challenging. They put the men and the women together for the first time, as a pilot course. And I stood first amongst them all. There were around 24 officer candidates.”

In those years, there was little conflict in the world impacting the Canadian service men and women.

“It was all Cold War,” said Peacock. “Except for some action in Cyprus and Bosnia.”

Now stationed back in Quebec, Peacock was assigned for English Language School, and she also took a three-month course in French to become bilingual.

And then her life changed again – following an unexpected order to catch a flight east to the coast of Nova Scotia.

“They sent me as a communications officer, to the Land Navy Base at Shelburne, Nova Scotia,” said Peacock. “It was kind of secretive. There was a crew of 10 women on the plane that I didn’t know. They were Navy, and I was Air Force. And I wasn’t a communications officer. My training was in accounting.”

The women arrived in Shelburne, and Peacock wondered what was in store for her next.

“I was only there one day,” she said. “The executive officer took me on a tour of the operations building. I knew when I looked at it that it was a whole new world. It was something different. The next day we were flown, all 11 of us, down to Key West, Florida, for a course. Most of them were young women in their twenties. We were bused to Halifax, and got a commercial flight from there.”

Peacock said that when you are instructed to do things in the services, you didn’t ask a lot of questions.

“In the military, you do what you are told, and you keep your mouth shut,” she said. “You have to have order. I was in the dark about what kind of training it was going to be. But I was excited. I knew something was up. And I knew what they had told me was a cover-up. I wasn’t going to be a communications officer. That wasn’t my training. It turned out to be oceanographic, which is mechanical and mathematical, and that was right up my alley. The training was in the use of supersonic echo-ranging equipment. I became an Oceans Systems Technician Operator. The course was two months, and I stood first. I was back home in Shelburne just before Christmas of 1972. I thought, ‘Now I’m going to start working with this stuff.’”

Peacock soon discovered that the Shelburne Naval Base was one of a series of bases perched along the North American coast, and equipped with a new system of surveillance, known as SOSUS – or SOund SUrveillance System.

This listening system had been developed because the end of World War II had soon led to a new threat – a Cold War with the Russians.

By early 1950, the U.S. Navy had realized that the Soviet submarines, based on the best of German WWII technology, posed a serious threat to American security.

Secret technical meetings were held to discuss the threat, and what could be done to control it.

Scientists had discovered near the end of the Second World War that a sound channel existed in the ocean that allowed low-frequency sound to travel great distances.

They told the U.S. Navy that they could use a channel, known as the SOFAR (SOund Fixing and Ranging) channel, to detect submarines hundreds of miles away, by listening to the noises they generated.

This channel had already been used in the war as a lifesaving tool, helping to locate downed aircraft or sinking ships, after the crew dropped a small explosive charge into the ocean sound channel.

Late in 1950, and under a ‘cloak of great secrecy,’ the Office of Naval Research worked in tandem with AT&T and Western Electric to develop an undersea surveillance system.

It was created to detect and track Soviet submarines using the SOFAR channel.

In an amazing feat of engineering, arrays of ‘hydrophones’ were placed on the ocean bottom, and these were connected by underwater cables to processing centres located on shore, called Naval Facilities.

And one of them is where a Manitoba farm girl found herself, years later, in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

“It was the American Navy who built these bases, one in Shelburne, and one in Argentia, Newfoundland, but Canadians manned them,” she said. “And it was women who became the Ocean Systems Technician Operators. They had discovered that women were exceptional in detecting and interpreting sound.”

The operations building that Peacock had seen back on her one-day visit to Shelburne was manned 24 hours a day, with shifts of six to eight women and men changing every eight hours.

“I became the female officer in charge of my own crew of women,” said Peacock. “If they had problems, they could come to me. I was also responsible for their welfare. Some of the women were the rugged ones; they were always in trouble. There was drinking, and disorderly behaviour. One of them, she had this horse. She lived off base, and she got her horse drunk on a bucket of wine. And she was riding the drunk horse down the main street of Shelburne in the middle of the night. These women, they were kids. They didn’t follow the rules. They were all really smart, but they were young and silly. But they eventually snapped out of it.”

Working at the secret base proved to be a filthy occupation, said Peacock, and it affected morale.

“It was a very dirty job, with carbon floating in the air from the machines,” she said. “Your clothes would be black and dirty by the end of the shift. The crew would come in looking like they had slept in their clothes, and I was firm enough and told them they had to come in looking pressed and clean. Your uniform represents your country. I hate wrinkles.”

The hydrophones were listening devices, or receivers, said Peacock, connected to big rubber cables that snaked out into the Atlantic.

“The cables came into the building, and connected to a machine, maybe 10 of them,” she said. “The cables were laid out in the water. They picked up sound energy, and changed it to electrical energy, and on the machine it printed an image of each cylinder of a boat engine as it fired. You could have an eight cylinder, a six cylinder, a 16, or a slant 16 engine. And then there was the nuclear ones. Plus our electricity in North America is 60 hertz, while overseas it is 50 hertz. If you saw a 50 hertz signal, you knew the vessel was possibly Russian.”

This information was displayed graphically on paper, she said.

“Paper moved through the machine over the day, like an adding machine, but wider,” she said. “The stylus burned an image onto the carbon paper. Every military ship in the world has their own configuration of their engines, anything running or making a noise. You could get an image of a ship coming out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic. You could recognize any submarine, whose it was, and what class it was.”

The vessels they watched most carefully for, of course, were the Russian ones, she said.

“Mostly we were watching for the Russians, because they made a 60-day cycle coming from Russia to Cuba, and back,” she said. “This was all the result of the Cuban Crisis. It was all cat-and-mouse. We just made sure to watch where they went. Everyone who saw any submarine from any country, it gave them a chance to see what kind of equipment they had. If you have a similar size of a country, like Russia and America, and you have a similar size of military capability, you are always afraid of the one who is like you. ”

And it wasn’t just the Canadians and Americans that were surveilling she added.

“Everyone knew that everyone was watching each other,” said Peacock. “The Americans, the Canadians, the Russians. They watched to see if any vessel deviated from its course. Fishing boats were noisy, because they didn’t care, but military ones are very quiet. And these ladies could pick out the sounds. There were spy ships who pretended to be fishing boats – Russian ones. You had to have so much knowledge in your head. If you saw a Russian sub, you had to send a flash message to HQ in Norfolk, Virginia.”

Peacock, who was eventually promoted from lieutenant to captain in the RCAF, said she carried out eight years of observation, tracking the movements of ocean vessels.

The surveillance capability of her crew extended from North Wales in the U.K. and down to Bermuda in the south, she said.

“We worked for the love of what we were doing,” said Peacock. “The money, which wasn’t great, had nothing to do with what I did. We felt we were making a difference. It was probably the most interesting work you could want. It was just phenomenal what I learned about mechanics. It’s the people that I met, and the things I learned; to be part of something like that was rewarding. There were no battles, but we were still doing very, very important work.”

To this day, Peacock says she remains surprised by the incredible life she led, and continually gives thanks to the people who urged her forward along the way.

“What awes me is I was a skinny little kid from a dirt farm, with no money,” she said. “To end up doing and seeing what I did over my lifetime, I find that amazing. I was never still. I never missed the opportunity to do something different.”

Captain Barbara Peacock was awarded a Good Conduct Medal for her service, and retired after 18 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force at age 40.

She became an accountant for the town of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, and later moved to Killarney, where she remains incredibly active and creative to this day – still learning new things.

Thank you for your service, Barb.

SHE STOOD FIRST – Barbara Peacock, who achieved the prestigious rank of Captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force, repeatedly ‘stood first’ amongst her comrades. Peacock joined up in 1962, when she was 20 years old, and rose to become one of the country’s top-secret Ocean Systems Technician Operators during the Cold War.


AIR WOMAN PEACOCK – Barbara Peacock, RCAF Air Woman, age 23, during the time she was based at the Royal Canadian Air Force Base in Clinton, Ontario, and worked in accounting.


TOP SECRET SURVEILLANCE AT SHELBURNE, NOVA SCOTIA – This is the naval base at Shelburne, Nova Scotia, where Captain Peacock, in charge of a team of other women, worked behind the scenes, in the top-secret operations building on the left, during the ‘cat-and-mouse’ years of the Cold War. Processing information from hydrophones – attached to cables arrayed out onto the Atlantic Ocean floor, and connected to the ops building – they identified vessels by their individual engine noises, including nuclear submarines belonging to Russia.