- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Harman (base)
- December 2015 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By MIDN M. S. SCHIMMEL, RAN – WINNER OF THE NAVAL HISTORICAL SOCIETY PRIZE
Midshipman Mariella Savanna van der Riet Schimmel hails from Perth where she commenced a science degree at the University of Western Australia. On being offered a place in the RAN she deferred her studies after her first year and earlier in 2015 joined the New Entry Officer Course No. 52. Mariella represented her state in women’s AFL and hopes to continue with this sport in Defence. Following admission to the Defence Academy she is looking forward to specialising in Marine Engineering and enjoying the endless learning, fitness and travelling opportunities offered within the RAN.
‘The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality’ (Stanton 1848). Gender equality is more than a goal. It is a precondition for meeting the challenges of promoting sustainable development. The movement towards obtaining and preserving equal rights for woman has a long history. One such struggle was within the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) which was established in 1913.The RAN was an organisation of unequal opportunities, imbalance and lacked diversity (Defence Publishing Services 2013).
This paper will explore the journey of women achieving equality within the RAN. It will discuss the evolution of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS), the difficulties WRANS encountered, the significant contributions made by WRANS during the Second World War and those women who achieved this.
The purpose of this essay is to determine if the RAN has achieved gender equality and why it is vital that we close the gender gap. Research has shown that the ‘larger the female component of a crowd, the greater its collective intelligence’ (Haring 2013, p.1). This is due to a trait called social sensitivity; the ability to perceive and sense emotional changes leads to more collaborative patterns of group behaviour. (Haring 2013).Achieving equality within the RAN will be important and critical for the Navy’s development and will assist to shape the RAN into becoming an equal, diverse, more efficient and fair workplace.
The Journey: Mascot 00001
It all began in 1920 with number 00001 – the first female sailor in the RAN. Her name was Nancy Bentley and her rating was Mascot. Nancy was just six years old and lived in Port Arthur, Tasmania with her family. Often there were RAN ships docked in the Port and it was fortunate enough that on 15 November 1920 HMAS Sydney was in port after conducting exercises off Tasmania’s East Coast. Nancy and her older brothers were playing outside in the long grass when Mrs Bentley called the children up to the house. It was soon after that a horrific accident took place. Nancy could not keep up with her brothers; she tripped and landed on a snake. The nearestdoctor was located in Sorrel a few miles away from Port Arthur. Mr Bentley had no other choice but to approach the Captain onboard Sydney. Mr Bentley was aware of the strict Naval Regulations—under the Kings Regulations and Admiralty Instructions all females were prohibited on board. This was a life or death situation and as a result Nancy was exempted and rushed onboard (Huie 2000).
Nancy was treated for snake bite poisoning and was under strict orders not to be moved for several days. As a result Nancy had to enlist into the RAN. The sailors treated her well, they made her a sailors dress, scarf and cap and she sailed with the crew to Hobart. On 20 November 1920 Nancy was awarded a ‘Good Conduct Badge’ and was discharged on 23 November 1920. Nancy was remembered at the Navy’s 75th Anniversary celebrations where she was made a life member of the Sydney Association. Sympathy and rational thinking led to the first female member being enlisted into the RAN. Unfortunately this small incident did not allow the enlistment of women into the RAN. Women who aspired to be part of the RAN were overlooked and as a result these women established their own organisation; the WRANS (Huie 2000).
Florence McKenzie was born in 1891. She was a highly educated and motivated young woman. McKenzie received a scholarship to Sydney Girls High School and graduated.McKenzie was determined to have a career in Electrical Engineering but was disallowed due to her gender. Women were not permitted to apply for these courses. Undeterred, McKenzie commenced a science degree until her family ran out of money and could no longer fund her (Huie 2000). McKenzie applied to the Sydney Technical College in another attempt to pursue her chosen career of electrical engineering but found herself limited on onerous conditions. One prerequisite was that trainees had to be employed by a firm, and no firm would risk employing women. This prompted McKenzie to open her own electrical supplies store in the Royal Arcade in Sydney and she apprenticed herself. She gained her diploma in 1922, the first woman Electrical Engineer in Australia. In 1930 she formed the Electrical Association for Women; a non profit organisation (Otter 1975). McKenzie would soon go on to become the ‘Mother’ of the WRANS.
McKenzie applied to join the RAN but was denied entrance because of her gender. Unable to join the RAN, McKenzie formed the ‘Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps’ which trained men in wireless telegraphy, who then enlisted in the RAN. These women gave all their knowledge and skills to the men anddemonstrated characteristics of selflessness and benevolence. The ‘Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps’ was a major milestone as it allowed McKenzie and her highly motivated and knowledgably team to train the future enlistee men in the area of wireless telegraphy (Huie 2000).
The beginning of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service
In 1940 Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) J.A.S Brame, RAN suggested that the ‘Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps’ be incorporated into the RAN. Both LCDR Brame and McKenzie wrote letters to former Prime Minister, the Honourable W.M Hughes requesting that these women join as telegraphists. In 1941 because of the war these principles were agreed to and women were permitted to join the Navyas WRANS. Men were deployed and women were used to fill their positions. On 28 April 1941 twelve telegraphists and two cooks joined. On arrival, at what was then known as the Belconnen Transmitting Station and Harman Receiving Station, they were addressed by the Commanding Officer CMDR J.B. Newman, RAN: ‘I am told there are two kinds of women doing war work – ones that sit around and drink tea and the others that work. I hope you are the latter’. (Huie 2000, p.45). The future of the WRANS was in the hands of McKenzie and her team. They did everything that was asked of them. The WRANS were successful (Huie 2000).
A year later, in 1942, applications opened for other females to join the WRANS. More positions were opened such as: motor transport drivers, clerical assistants, store keepers and office orderlies. There was to be a maximum of 600 WRANS and 280 of these were to be telegraphists. In 1943 they opened an Officer Course for WRANS and 124 officers were appointed (Otter 1975). More and more jobs became available to women as theyexcelled in their roles. McKenzie and her team went on to play vital communication roles during the sinking of Sydneyand throughout the war againstJapan. Both of these events were significant in the history of the RAN.
Sinking of Sydney
On the night of 19 November 1941 Sydneywas lost (Otter 1975). There were three WRAN and two RAN telegraphists on watch at Harman during this time. These telegraphists were unaware that Sydney was missing and continued to try and make contact. Three nights later the same telegraphists were on duty and were ordered to call Sydney continuously. The WRAN operators used the ‘I Method’ which was the only way to communicate from shore to ship. The operators listened for the response but none arrived (Huie 2000). That night a senior officer from the Defence Department stormed into the room and said ‘The Sydney’s lost. I hope one of those damned women hasn’t missed a message’ (Huie 2000, p.51). This comment was demoralising for the WRANS. It undermined their ability and suggests that the senior officer did not have faith in these women. It reflects a degree of misogyny and unprofessionalism on the part of the male officer. Harman was highly dependent on the WRANS communication skills. It was later discovered that none of the 645 crew members survived. The sinking of Sydney took a huge toll on the Australian people (Australian War Memorial n.d.).
War with Japan
In the ensuing years Harman became more important than ever. Thecommunications between bases were vital whilst at war with Japan. The women were given more responsibilities; one such responsibility was to camouflage the base. Long sections of wire and hessian dragged through mud baths were used. Outside of Harman the Dutch East Indies capital Batavia was also worked by WRAN operators up until the Japanese invaded. These WRANS worked extra hours to transmit messages. This reflected the WRANS commitment to their country and the pride to serve Australia. As Japanese threats increased the Batavia telegraphists were forced to destroy all codes expect one. They gave everything to Harman. Harman received the message: ‘The yellow bellies have arrived. Closing down. Keep smiling’ (Huie 2000, p.56). The WRANS thought the Batavia crew were lost. Harman did not give up. Later they received a transmission which they suspected was the Japanese. However, the WRANS discovered it was the Batavia crew now transmitting messages from a Navy base in Ceylon having safely escaped (Huie 2000). The WRANS played a vital role in relaying messages between Harman and those on the frontline during the war.
There were occasions where the WRANS volunteered to help those in desperate times. The WRANS sent thousands of food parcels to families of the Royal Navy (RN) personnel in the UK who had been bombed by the air raids. They also sent homemade garments and toys (Otter 1975). Although not directly on the front line, it was evident that the WRANS made a significant contribution to the war effort. The WRANS went above and beyond what everyone expected from them. Vice Admiral T.B Drew states: ‘The WRANS have never let me down… WRANS are to be congratulated on the pioneering work they did in the Naval service… You have undoubtedly done more to raise the status of women…’ (Huie 2000, p.27).
It was not until 1959 that women gained permanent employment in the WRANS. Until this major achievement there were many initial conditions of service which had to be adhered to. These included: a maximum four year commission, married women were ineligible to enlist, women were discharged on pregnancy, women were ineligible to contribute to the Defence Forces Retirement Benefit Fund and women were to be paid two thirds of the corresponding male rates (Huie 2000). In 1968 women slowly started receiving equal standards to the existing Defence Members. They received uniform allowances, the counting of previous service, retention after marriage, eligible to contribution to the Defence Force Retirement Benefit Fund, eligible for home loans, eligible for Relief Trust Fund and the Warrant Officer rank was introduced (Defence Publishing Services 2013). By 1978, the WRANS were receiving equal pay to their existing RAN counterparts (Stewart 2014).
In 1985 women officially become part of the RAN in line with the worldwide trend towards equality (1985 World Conference on Women n.d.). This was due to the third World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of Women which took place. The strategies were for: the advancement of women, achieving gender equality at a national level and promoting women’s participation in peace and development efforts. Women were now able to achieve these strategies within the RAN. Additionally, in 1991, options for women to serve at sea expanded (Defence Publishing Services 2013). There were no longer tacit assumptions about how things were supposed to be.
Women now make up 15.1 per cent of the RAN. This adds up to a total of 8482 permanent positions (Department of Defence’s Annual Manual Report 2013-2014). Before 2013 women were not employed in ‘direct combat duties’, which included Clearance Diving (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group [FADT] 2000). However, on 01 January 2013 the Mine Warfare and Clearance Diving Officer Specialisation and the Navy Clearance Diving Category was opened for all people, regardless of gender. The first Clearance Diving Course open to all genders was held in November 2013 (Department of Defence 2013). Women are no longer excluded from categories of employment. The RAN has achieved gender equality.
In areas outside the Profession of Arms, just over 15 per cent of leadership positions are held by women in the world (Haring 2013). Although it has taken the RAN many decades to achieve gender equality, the RAN has shown initiative and taken action. The RAN should now aim to achieve gender equality within the greater community. If we have learnt anything from the fight for gender equality, it is that both men and women are valuable to society. Virtue can only flourish amongst equals. ‘No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men’. (Jinnah 1947).
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