Indigenous languages used as code in Second World War

Left: Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins at age 85 in 2003. He was one of the few known Cree Code Talkers who used the Cree language to create a secret code that may very well have turned the tide of the Second World War in favour of the Allies. Photo courtesy of Adele Laderoute. Right: Corporal (Retired) Charles (Checker) Tomkins during the Second World War, circa 1940. He was part of a group of Indigenous Canadian soldiers who created a secret code using their own language that the enemy had no way to break.  Photo courtesy Alex Lazarowich

Left: Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins at age 85 in 2003. He was one of the few known Cree Code Talkers who used the Cree language to create a secret code that may very well have turned the tide of the Second World War in favour of the Allies. Photo courtesy of Adele Laderoute. Right: Corporal (Retired) Charles (Checker) Tomkins during the Second World War, circa 1940. He was part of a group of Indigenous Canadian soldiers who created a secret code using their own language that the enemy had no way to break. Photo courtesy Alex Lazarowich

Lynn Capuano with files from Shannon Morrow, Army Public Affairs ~

Secrecy in communication during the Second World War was as important as it was difficult. What better way to create an unbreakable secret code than to use a little-known language as its base?

Messages, whether in plain language or in code, were constantly being intercepted, stolen, overheard or deciphered. It was vital that Canada and its Allies find a way to send secret messages the enemy could not decrypt.

They finally succeeded towards the end of the war. Termed “Code Talking,” it cleverly used Indigenous languages to create an unbreakable spoken code.

The job was simple but ingenious in its application. The Code Talkers would translate a secret message into words from an Indigenous language, speak it over the radio and another Indigenous soldier would translate it back into English at the other end.

One of the languages used was that spoken by the Cree First Nation people in Alberta and Saskatchewan. There were many patriotic Cree men and women who served during the Second World War and, since Cree was little-known and only spoken in Canada, its use as a code baffled enemy forces.

One of the few known Code Talkers

Because they were sworn to secrecy during and following the war, few Cree Code Talkers are known by name. However, one was Corporal (Retired) Charles (Checker) Tomkins.

Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins was born Jan. 8, 1918, in Grouard, Alberta, about 170 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie. A Métis of Cree and European ancestry, he joined the Canadian Army’s Second Armoured Brigade in 1940.

Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins’ family was unaware he had served as a Code Talker until two months before his death in August 2003 at age 85. As he had vowed to remain silent, the family only found out when two Smithsonian Institute interviewers arrived at his home in 2003 once the files had become declassified.

The interviewers asked him questions for an exhibit the museum was preparing on Code Talkers.

Navajo was the primary language American Code Talkers used as code for American Pacific defence, a language that does not have a written form. This made it virtually impossible to break. The Cree-based secret code also used spoken Cree, although it has a written form. Varying dialects among the speakers made it even more cryptic.

During his interview with the Smithsonian researchers, Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins discussed few details, but he did name some of his deceased comrades, most of whom he helped recruit for the Code Talker program: his brother Peter Tomkins, his half-brother John Smith, Louie Norwest, Walter McDermott and Archie Plante.

These men served in Charles’ immediate circle and are some of the only known Cree Code Talkers. The six survived the war but all have since passed away.

Secret recruitment of Code Talkers

Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins was called to Canadian Military Headquarters in London on Aug. 22, 1942, along with a number of other Indigenous soldiers, for a mysterious mission. Soon enough, they learned they were about to become a secret weapon.

Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins estimated 100 men were in the room with him the day of his recruitment as a Code Talker. Cree speakers as well as Indigenous soldiers from Ojibwe and other First Nations were tested. Cree speakers were valuable as they were often fluent in other languages such as French and English, especially if they were Métis like Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins.

The Americans were first to recruit Indigenous people for this task. The American Code Talkers and their role in the Pacific theatre of war was told in the 2002 movie Windtalkers. As a result, the American story is more well-known than the Canadian one.

Like the Cree code, the Navajo code was never broken.

Code Talking begins

Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins was assigned, along with other Cree speakers, to the 8th U.S. Air Force and 9th Bomber Command in England. He began translation immediately and described orders over the radio for aircraft that were carrying out bombing orders from England, as well as orders for troop movement and supply missions.

Cree Code Talkers were improvisers. Because the traditional Cree language didn’t have words for “tank”, “bomb” or “machine gun”, they began inventing new terminology.

For example, Cree Code Talkers would use the Cree word meaning “fire” as code for a Spitfire plane, and the Cree words for “wild horse” to identify a Mustang aircraft. The Cree words for “bee” and the number 17 indicated a B17 bomber.

Following their time as Code Talkers, Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins and the others returned to their Canadian units to prepare for the D-Day invasion. He was a motorcycle dispatch rider with the Second Armoured Brigade, landing in France six days after D-Day. He also served in Germany and Holland.

When the war ended, Cpl (Ret’d) Tomkins returned home to Canada and re-enlisted in the Canadian Army. He served 25 years with a number of different regiments, including Les Fusiliers de Sherbrooke, the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

Filed Under: Top Stories

About the Author: The Lookout Newspaper can trace its history back to April 1943 when CFB Esquimalt’s first newspaper was published. Since then, Lookout has grown into the award winning source for Pacific Navy News. Leading the way towards interactive social media reach, we are a community resource newspaper growing a world wide audience.

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