- Reed, R.A. (Bill)
- Ship histories and stories, Naval Intelligence
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Harman (base)
- June 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Navy’s Debt to Women
Harman is important in the history of the WRANS because it was the first establishment where women served as part of the RAN. The founder of the Women’s RAN Service, Mrs Florence McKenzie (affectionately known as “Mrs Mac”) was a Sydney electrical engineer and a pre-war ham (amateur) radio operator. She and a small band of women – realising that one of the areas where women could replace men would be in communications – began training in telegraphy, and subsequently formed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. The WESC later became vital in training some 10,000 RAAF, Army, RAN, and Merchant Navy personnel.
One of her “girls”, Frances Proven (later WRAN No. 1), read an English magazine article about the Women’s Royal Navy Service. And she with other girls soon became fired with the ambition of becoming WRAN – if only an obstinate Minister for the Navy (Billy Hughes) could be so convinced. It took Mrs Mac six months to convince the Navy, and April 1941 saw the entry of 14 women into the WRAN Service – mostly as trained telegraphists. After Pearl Harbour their value was fully recognised and numbers increased dramatically. Other enlisters were trained as teleprinter operators, coders, writers (clerks), sick-berth attendants, cooks, stores-assistants, etc. Nelson notes that Mrs Mac “ultimately supplied 500 fully trained girls for the Navy”.
With the increase in war-time activities, an Auxiliary Receiving Station – named Molonglo – was situated at Fyshwick. Its high-speed teletype machines were linked by landline to Harman, and remained operational until 1946. In the early 1950s a new Receiving Station, adjacent to Harman, was erected on the site of Bonshaw. This played an important role during the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, receiving the results on landline and passing them to Belconnen for transmission to the world.
The Post-War Navy in Canberra
The end of the heroic days of WWII saw demobilisation of the WRANS – the last being discharged mid 1948. However, by July 1950, the Government reintroduced Women’s Services in the RAN, Army and RAAF. Until the late 1970s the WRANS was administered separately from the sailors. Over time their employment and service conditions gradually intertwined, and by 1980 the divisions had been integrated. Then in 1985 the momentous decision was made to allow women to serve at sea and the WRANS was disbanded.
Pre- and Post-War, the stations needed to be manned 24 hours per day, 365 days of the year. This meant tedious ‘watch-keeping’ conducted on the sea-going system of four-hour watches – very difficult to keep track of. You were forever going on-watch, coming off-watch, trying to get some sort of meal, or trying to snatch a bit of sleep before your next watch.
All absolutely guaranteed to shorten your life by many years, and totally ruin your social life. This crazy system meant that you worked from around 70 hours one week but only 20 hours the following week. That, surely, sounds like a nice light week but it didn’t gain you much because you were simply too worn out from the previous week. In any case, you were still doing the ‘four-on, four-off routine’ several days of the week. That idiotic schedule soon wore you to a frazzle. You felt forever tired, and it wasn’t until around the mid-1950s that common sense prevailed and the far more intelligent eight-hour watches were instigated. Back in those early days, when motor cars were about as scarce as rocking-horse excreta, it was never much fun – in the middle of night, in a Canberra winter – walking the half-mile between the stations and your off-duty quarters.
By the mid-1950s, some ten years after the war ended, much of Belconnen’s equipment was 15 years old and quite difficult to maintain in continuous operation, and a modernisation upgrade became necessary. Over a lengthy period of years, several new 40kW H/F (aircooled) and dozens of 10kW transmitters were installed, together with an air-conditioned control room. These new transmitters employed SSB (single-side-band) transmissions techniques – designed to occupy less space in the over-crowded R/F (radio frequency) spectrum.
The big 200kW LF was also converted to air-cooling, and to the new `digital tone’ high-speed operation. Dedicated landlines gave way to sophisticated multi-channel VHF-bearer equipment. A new aerial connection room meant that virtually any aerial could be used on any transmitter and even a `steerable rhombic’ became available.