Canada’s Coded Coin

In 1943, the Canadian government issued a new 5-cent coin, a value commonly called a nickel because, in Canada and the USA, 5-cent coins had long been made of the metallic element nickel. However, this one was not made of nickel, and did not even have the silvery appearance of a traditional nickel. In 1942, ‘tombak’ (in French ‘tombac’) had been used for a 12-sided 5-cent coin, with its ‘tail’ side graced by a beaver.

Tombak is one of many alloys based on copper (in this case with 12% zinc added) which have long been used for engineering and artistic purposes, being easy to work, and having, initially at least, a deceptively golden colour. The dodecagonal shape is reminiscent of the nickel-brass British ‘thruppenny bit’, first issued in 1937, but the straight sides of the British coin make its shape more distinctive than that of the Canadian coin, as the latter had slightly curved sides.

In 1943, the beaver stood aside, to be replaced by a new design by Thomas Shingles – a flaming torch, backed by a ‘V’, standing both for ‘Victory’ and for the Roman numeral for five. The intriguing thing about this new ‘nickel’ was not its colour, nor its main design, but the fact that it carried a coded message.  Many coins have a raised rim, which helps to reduce the wear on the inscriptions, and not infrequently this rim is fringed by ‘denticles’ (aka ‘dentils’), tiny raised dots or beads. This is where the message was concealed.

Instead of a uniform series of denticles, the 1943 coin carries an apparently random series of short lines scattered amongst the beads. Random it certainly is not – the lines and beads are the dashes and dots of a Morse code message running clockwise round the coin, spelling out ‘WE WIN WHEN WE WORK WILLINGLY’.

Why was this included? In a contemporary Canadian newspaper, the Superintendent of the Canadian Mint, R.J. Edmunds explained: ‘We decided to throw in a few dashes – and it came out that way in Morse’. That seems too good to be true, but however it arose, designing a Victory coin in 1942, and issuing it in 1943 was an act of faith, given the disastrous loss of Allied merchant shipping in the North Atlantic in 1942 – over a thousand individual merchant vessels were sunk that year.

The same design was used in 1944 and 1945, but these were not struck from tombak, but from nickel-plated steel. The predictable wear at the very edge of these coins frequently broke through the plating, exposing the steel core beneath, and the ensuing rusting can make the Morse code difficult to read. In 2005, the design was re-used to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of WW2.

Canadian support for Allied transatlantic convoys was invaluable. Perhaps this little coin, with its scarcely visible message, played a tiny part in fostering the will to win.

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