- Reed, R.A. (Bill)
- Naval Intelligence, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Harman (base)
- June 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This Brief History was especially written for, and published in the form of, a souvenir booklet for attendees of the RAN Radio Mechanics Third National Reunion held in Canberra in November 1996. This marked the Fiftieth Anniversary of the formation of the Radio Mechanics Branch. Many attendees served at the Canberra-based Belconnen Naval Wireless Station and HMAS Harman at some stage of their Navy careers.
Acknowledgement for data on early “Defence thinking” and WRANS history is made to a booklet HMAS Harman 1943-1993: A history of HMAS Harman and its (sic) people by Lt. Annette Nelson (RAN) and Friends.
The Canberra connection in the saga of HMAS Harman and Belconnen Naval Wireless Station has its genesis back in 1924. A (British) Imperial Defence Committee recommendation of that date advocated the modernisation of coastal radio stations at Perth, Darwin, Townsville, and Rabaul to provide suitable Naval wireless facilities in the Pacific. In 1925, the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) recommended the establishment of “strategic wireless stations” at Canberra and Darwin. Annette Nelson records that Canberra was chosen because of the need for security of the communications services – 75 miles from the coast being considered in those days, reasonable security “…from possible air raids launched from enemy aircraft in the Pacific or direct from overseas territories”.
According to a Minister for Defence Minute, British strategic defence thinking by 1935 was along these lines: the medium high power station at Canberra was considered necessary to carry out the duties of the British Rugby (UK) station on the Australian Naval Station area and the major part of the Western Pacific. In conjunction with Rugby, Canberra would make it possible to communicate with British merchant or Fleet shipping in any part of the world. Further (and quite fortuitously), Nelson notes that “…in the event of serious destruction of the W/T (Wireless Telegraphy) station at Singapore or Hong Kong, or the submarine cables in the Far East, the responsibility for the maintenance of communications with HM Fleet operating in the Pacific and Indian Oceans would devolve upon Australia”.
In 1937, the Commonwealth Government decided to erect receiving and transmitting stations in Canberra and testing of various sites was undertaken. November 1938 saw the commencement of technical construction at Belconnen by Standard Telephones Ltd (later STC), with the aid of the Department of the Interior. Technical construction by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) of Harman – adjoining Queanbeyan – was started in early 1939.
The War Years
The Canberra Times (Saturday, 27 April 1939) reported: “The first batch of 30 Naval officers and ratings will arrive next Monday to operate and guard the powerful short wave (sic) naval radio base at Canberra. They will form the advance guard of 200 men to occupy the two naval villages being established on either side of Canberra, 11 miles apart. The base will be the most powerful naval wireless station in the British Empire, and the largest naval or commercial station in the Southern Hemisphere”.
Belconnen was named for the district. Interestingly, the name Harman was egotistic – and why not? – contraction of the names of two commanders: Harvey (RN) and Newman (RAN), then respectively Director and Assistant Director of Signals. They both chose this name – “a chance too good to miss”, said Newman – after the ACNB had lost an earlier interest in the reasons for proposed names for other bases in NT and WA.
At a total cost of £164,248 ($328,496), (sic) construction of both transmitting and receiving stations (initially totalling 61 buildings including 47 cottages for accommodation) was completed in December 1939 – barely in time for the onslaught of World War II.
Belconnen Transmitting Station, known throughout the Australian Fleet simply as “Bels”, (sic) principally contained the very powerful 200 kiloWatt transmitter operating at the quite low-frequency (Long-Wave) of 44kc/s (44,000Hertz) – strong enough to crash through the static (noise) problems of those days and to be received by submerged submarines. This necessitated the three impressive, 600-ft high masts set a quarter-mile apart to support the massive radiating aerial sited east-west to maximise transmissions far into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The great advantage of long-wave transmissions is that the radio wave follows the earth’s curvature, whereas short-wave was less reliable – bouncing-off the ionosphere causing `gaps’ in reception areas.