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Canadian woman Rita Grimshaw worked for British spy service in wartime New York

By on December 30, 2021 in Articles with 0 Comments

Rita Grimshaw – she was Rita Pyman at the time – was 18 years old and living in Toronto when she read a newspaper advertisement that promised travel and adventure. The ad’s headline: “To Work for Britain.” It read: “A department of the British government in New York City requires several young women, fully competent in secretarial work and of matriculation or better educational standing. The chief need is for expert file clerks and for typists and stenographers. … Those selected can expect to serve for the duration of the war.”

She replied to the ad without telling her parents, and the next thing she knew the RCMP were at the door. Her parents were shocked.

The Mounties were there to check out Ms. Grimshaw and her family. They all passed muster. They were a patriotic family. Her father, Walter, had been gassed at Ypres during the First World War – too old to be conscripted, he had chosen to enlist – and two of her brothers served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

There was a war on and the job she was after was with the British Security Co-ordination (BSC), the New York-based espionage and propaganda service run by William Stephenson, later made famous in the book A Man Called Intrepid.

The reason Ms. Grimshaw and other young Canadian women were hired to work for a British spy agency operating out of New York was Americans were forbidden to work for foreign governments who were at war.

Ms. Grimshaw had just finished the secretarial course at St. Joseph’s College School in Toronto when she landed the job and moved to New York, just before Christmas of 1943.

“Imagine leaving home just before Christmas. That tells you what kind of a woman she was,” Karen Grimshaw said of her mother, who died last month at the age of 96. “She shared living quarters with a girl called Penny, whose full name I can’t recall. My mother worked as a cipher clerk, rerouting codes and things. Because there was so much confidentially she didn’t talk much about it, even in the past few years. But you did get a sense of the decoding, using machines.”

The young women were treated well and lived an exciting life in wartime New York. “At first my mother lived in [a] hotel with Penny. She met the actor Peter Lorre in the lobby and developed a passion for Frank Sinatra,” Ms. Grimshaw said.

Mr. Stephenson made sure members of his staff were treated well as long as they stayed true to their oath of secrecy.

“Stephenson was immensely proud of his Canadian female staff,” said a lengthy article on him in the December, 1952, issue of Maclean’s magazine. “He took a personal interest in making sure they all got decent quarters in Manhattan. One of his instructions is they should never give the impression they were in secret work.”

The BSC was more than a spy operation, although it was involved in espionage in Canada, the United States and Latin America. It foiled a coup in Bolivia, broke up a German spy ring in the U.S. – sending 13 people to prison – and trained special agents at a secret camp in Oshawa, Ont.

Ms. Grimshaw would have seen pieces of many of those things. The BSC also engaged in propaganda, trying to influence U.S. public opinion to get the U.S. to join the war before Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Then-British prime minister Winston Churchill put Mr. Stephenson, also a Canadian businessman, in charge of leading the propaganda war. Mr. Stephenson had easy access to American columnists, such as Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson. Mr. Stephenson’s operatives even manipulated horoscope columns to make things look good for Britain and its allies and bad for Germany and Japan.

Almost all the Canadians working at the BSC’s Manhattan offices, in Rockefeller Center, were women, and they all swore an oath of secrecy. Only two women out of 1,000 or more were sent home for boasting about their secret life. For her part, Rita Grimshaw kept true to her vow throughout her life.

She gave her family little information about her wartime activities, but Ms. Grimshaw would meet with her former co-workers from the BSC and they would talk about the secret work they did.

When an artist did a portrait of her about 20 years ago, she was asked to write a short biography to go with the painting. Her daughter Karen says it was the only time she ever wrote about her experiences with the BSC.

“In 1942, as Vera Lynn sang (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover, a small gang of beautiful, brainy, and tight-lipped young women were hired by the British Security Coordination (BSC) in New York to receive and reroute secret codes from the underground in Europe and other sympathetic hot spots. I was one of those young women. Our boss was Sir William Stephenson, a.k.a. Intrepid! Those years are very memorable by their shared bond of secrecy.”

Mr. Stephenson, known as Sir William after he was knighted in January of 1945, had posed as a passport officer with the British consulate in New York.

At the end of the war, 20 copies of a report detailing the activities of the BSC were printed in Oshawa, bound in leather by a shop in Toronto, and each was placed in a locked box. That book, British Security Coordination: The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas 1940-45, was only made public in 1998. All the BSC’s records were burned in 1945.

In a review of the book, Charles Kolb wrote about the avalanche of material that arrived in the offices every day, which women such as Ms. Grimshaw would have to sort out.

“The number and length of the messages was becoming a serious issue and would reach 50,000 encrypted messages per day by 1943. The report documents the development of Telekrypton ciphering machines, Transatlantic Lines, Rockex I enciphering and deciphering, and its replacement by Rockex II beginning in March 1944,” Mr. Kolb wrote.

In a letter dated May 8, 1945, the day victory was declared in Europe, Mr. Stephenson sent a letter to Ms. Grimshaw, thanking her for her help in the secret work at Rockefeller Center.

“On this day of final victory in Europe it is both a duty and a pleasure to express my appreciations and the thanks of the organization for your valued contribution to our efforts,” began the one-page letter. Mr. Stephenson then emphasized the need for continued secrecy: “… because of the confidential and often very difficult nature of the work. I assure you that your loyalty, your discretion … are very much appreciated.”

Rita Pyman was born in Toronto on Jan. 14, 1925. Her father, Walter Pyman, was a typesetter and her mother, Sabina (née Scott) was an Irish immigrant. The family lived on Pape Avenue in the east end of Toronto. Young Rita went to a Catholic high school in downtown Toronto, where she picked up her secretarial skills.

After the excitement of her time in New York, she returned to Toronto and in the fall of 1945 went to her brother’s wedding, where she met Ross Grimshaw, an RCAF officer fresh from a tour on Lancaster bombers. They married a few months later, on Dec. 1.

When her three daughters were old enough, Ms. Grimshaw went back to work.

“I returned to the work force, taking the position of secretary treasurer of the Ontario Racing Commission and business manager of the Magistrates’ Quarterly,” Ms. Grimshaw wrote.

“Our mother worked pretty much most of our whole lives,” Ms. Grimshaw said. “She was a business manager, so she had a secretary rather than working as one. She was very interested in racing and she and my father would go to a lot of races”

When she wrote her biography for the portrait, she included a whimsical summation of her married life.

“This past December, Ross and I celebrated our 58th wedding anniversary. Time seems to have flown by: 58 years; 696 months; 21,170 days; 63,510 meals; three daughters to raise and educate; 10 prime ministers; two dogs named Tippy, one with a broken tail; one canary named Peter Pan; one accordion; one piano; summers in Port Elgin; trips to Montreal, Quebec City, British Columbia; one summer on Prince Edward Island; two years hiatus in Halifax; trips to Hawaii and Europe; four houses; 10 cars; four grandsons and one granddaughter.”

Ms. Grimshaw, who died in Toronto on Oct. 21, was predeceased by her husband and her eight older siblings. She leaves her three daughters, Karen Grimshaw, Marie Linzon and Susan Levesque; five grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .

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