- Southcombe (Cornwallis), Gwenda
- RAN operations, Naval technology
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1988 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
IT ALL BEGAN, FOR ME, up a long flight of steep steps at No. 10 Clarence Street, Sydney. I was just one of the very many men and women of all nationalities to pass through the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps during the troubled years of World War II, with one ambition – to become a Wireless Telegraphist; and, but for my overwhelming impatience to ‘get in’, this is what I would have been. However, fate intervened when Mrs. Mac had a request for two trained Visual Signallers.
To cut a long story a bit shorter, two of us had one week to cram all the International Code flags and learn semaphore and attain a speed of so many words a minute (I can’t recall just how many). The switch from wireless to Morse by light was comparatively easy for it must of necessity be slower. Somehow, spurred on by Mrs. Mac’s determined efforts and encouragement, we made the grade and off we went to Penguin to receive basic training.
It still seems incongruous when I look back and compare that frantic week prior to our entry into the WRANS with the weeks immediately after, which, when we weren’t marching around the parade ground, were spent endeavouring to look as inconspicuous as possible. No one seemed to want us, we who had been summoned so urgently; we would have to bide our time till the Signal School at Kuttabul was ready to train us further. My old oppo. of that time would doubtless recall those hours we spent by the swimming pool sending semaphore to each other. I believe we were more familiar at that time with the grounds of Penguin than anyone; we had covered every inch of territory in our bid to fill our time, for one can practice just so much semaphore in an eight-hour stretch. A very frustrating period, a wasteful non-utilisation of our would-be war effort, we thought. Had they forgotten us? But, NO. Eventually the Big Day came and we were told to report forthwith to the Signal School at Potts Point. Action at last!
It was a very brief course; with only two students, the tuition was individual to say the least and we soon passed out, entitled to wear our crossed flags at last!
Most visual signallers ended up at the various Port War Signal Stations around the coastline of Australia. I believe there was a Degaussing Range at Magnetic Island and there may possibly have been several others, but as far as Sydney was concerned, I was the only WRAN V/S to spend the whole time on a Degaussing Range, so that I cannot speak with any first-hand knowledge of the life of a signaller at a Port War Signal Station. That is another story.
The Degaussing Range (commonly known as the DG Range), attached to HMAS Kuttabul, was a two-storeyed timber building smothered in camouflage, which made it stand out like a beacon (I thought), and situated over the water’s edge at Bradley’s Head. The war often seemed unbelievably unreal in such peaceful and picturesque surroundings. Had we tried to find an ideal piece of real estate on which to build a holiday home, then this spot would surely be unsurpassed. At the war’s end, how we wished the building could remain as a ‘Rest Retreat for Ageing Wrans’!
Picture a tree-lined bush track (we had a choice of three of them) with ferns and wildflowers abounding, rabbits scurrying about in the early morning and at twilight, wild parakeets and other birds of all descriptions screeching and twittering among themselves in the trees and a continuous view of the harbour. This, then, was our land approach to the Degaussing Range. Alternatively, we could hitch a pleasant ride by boat. It was as isolated as one could get in a big city and yet only minutes from the heart of it.
There was a long jetty to allow boats to come alongside in the very lowest of tides. Out from the jetty in a line to the direct east of our building, there were two testing ranges, marked by a fixed flashing dolphin and two buoys, the smaller range taking anything up to and including a corvette and the larger one testing everything else. A high barbed-wire-topped fence enclosed the building, the generator room and a small area of land on three sides of the installation. The front overhung the water, so that out on the signal deck with its mast, flag locker, twelve- inch projector and telescope, and a bit of imagination, the similarity to a ship’s bridge was quite strong. Even stronger on a cold windy wet day clad in oilskins with the waves pounding our foundations. Incidentally, we had an Aldis lamp as well but we mostly confined the use of this form of communication and that of the semaphore flags to the occasions when a convoy arrived and everything and everybody was thrown into action.
The United States Navy had established the DG Range and manned it for a short period, while at the same time training Australian Naval personnel to take over its operation. The first Wrans arrived there on 9th December, 1942, and together with four Electrical Engineer Officers and one male V/S rating, the Range operated on a daytime-only basis until we two Wran Visual Signallers arrived on the scene some months later. Then it came into continuous operation until it closed down. The whole installation, fully equipped with US Navy gear – furniture, bedding, a modern galley complete with all necessary utensils, the lot – was handed over to the RAN under a lend-lease agreement.
We were padlocked inside our little fortress, a Naval Dockyard Policeman coming on duty each evening and remaining until 7 a.m. At first, I fondly imagined he was there to protect the three duty Wrans from spies, saboteurs and perhaps ‘a fate worse than death’ but discovered later that the thousands of dollars worth of recording instruments were the objects of his safekeeping, although I guess we were automatically being guarded too.
Life on our DG Range was very different, I should imagine, from any other Naval shore establishment. We were not a very ‘pusser’ crew. We kept on our kind of ‘watches’, these being twenty-four hours on, twenty-four hours off, with forty-eights on and off through the weekends. There were three ‘day-duty only’ ratings – two Wran writers, who coped with the secretarial and clerical duties, and one male rating who used to fall in for all the miscellaneous odd jobs – and in times of convoys arriving in port, it was a case of all hands on deck.
We were a fairly versatile crew. The signallers taught the instrument panel operators to signal and they in turn taught us to handle the instruments, so that our co-operative efforts made for a very smooth-running organization and the total involvement in the Range’s function, including the cooking and other domestic work that our ‘living-in’ entailed, made our lives in the service of our country not only interesting but enjoyable. Yes, enjoyable! I, for one, loved it and I was not alone.
I expect everyone knows the principle of the magnetic mine, detonation being effected by the magnetic attraction of a ship’s hull. Degaussing is a process of changing that magnetism. Coils were placed right around a ship, inside a casing, and the magnetism altered by means of varying degrees of electric current. The function of the Range was to ascertain initially what coil settings (or degrees of current) were necessary to bring about the altered magnetism. There were twelve coils around a ship and twelve corresponding instruments at the Range to test the coils’ workability on their specified current settings. Our Electrical Engineer Officers would go aboard a ship when she docked and organise the necessary work. The result would be checked out by the ship making three or four runs over the range. An Engineer Officer and a Signaller would go aboard for these test runs. We had to hoist a warning flag on the mast of the old Sydney on the point on these occasions to warn other shipping and Manly ferries to keep clear. The Engineers also had to calculate different coil settings, according to the waters through which the ship would pass, as well as for the area in which she would eventually be operating. The Wran Recorders then prepared charts for each of these areas and these were delivered on board before she sailed.