WOMEN'S EMERGENCY SIGNALLING CORPS
IN AUSTRALIA DURING WWII

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visits since 18 January 2009

In 1939 Florence Violet McKenzie (nee Wallace) established and directed the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC), which was a civilian voluntary organisation which offered free training in telegraphic and visual signalling to recruits wishing to enter the defence forces and the Merchant Navy. The trainers were fully trained female telegraphists. The first 14 women in the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) came from the ranks of the WESC.

WESC Cloth Badge

Florence Violet McKenzie (nee Wallace) was affectionately referred to as "Mrs Mac" and she is often referred to as the "Mother of the WRANS". She had a keen interest in electrical things and exchanged letters with her good friend Albert Einstein about electrical matters. Florence and three others started the magazine called "Wireless Weekly" which was later bought out and merged with "Electronics Australia". She was also the first female licensed ham radio operator in Australia with the call sign "2GA" which later changed to "VK2FV".

Florence married electrical draftsman Cecil R. McKenzie who worked with the Sydney County Council Electricity Department. Cecil was in charge of education at the Naval Patrol Auxiliary and was a skipper in the Naval Patrol Auxiliary Squadron. He was also Education Officer for the Australian Air League. In July 1938 Florence McKenzie joined the Australian Women's Flying Club in Sydney, and became an instructor in Morse code.

In late 1940 Commander J. A. S. Brame, Assistant Director of Signals and Communications and Commander Jack Bolton Newman (RAN) suggested that women trained in the WESC in radio telegraphy should be admitted to the Royal Australian Navy, similar to the women who served in the WRNS in the Royal Navy in the UK. "Mrs Mac" was also lobbying various influential people including cabinet ministers, the Minister for the Navy the Honorable William Morris Hughes, Honorable Norman Makin and the Chairman of the Naval Board.

In early January 1941, Commander Jack Bolton Newman (RAN) visited the WESC school and tested a number of the girls in W/T and visual signalling methods. He was pleasantly surprised at their high level of competence and recommended that the girls in the Visual Signalling section should be employed by the Royal Australian Navy at Port War Signal Stations and other Navy shore stations. This recommendation was also endorsed by Commander Gerard Charles Muirhead-Gould, CIC Sydney.

Due to overcrowding at their original premises, the WESC relocated to 9 Clarence Street, Sydney in an old wool store up two flights of stairs.

"Mrs Mac" soon realised that women had a natural aptitude for learning Morse Code and other forms of signaling and hence made good instructors. The Australian Army, RAAF, RAN, Royal Indian Navy and Police sent many male recruits to the classes run by the WESC. Merchant Navy men sitting for their Second Mates, First Mates and Masters Certificates used the "Visual Signalling" section as part of their training. Some US military personnel including US Navy were also trained by the WESC.

The Civil Aviation Department installed Bendix aircraft equipment, transmitters, receivers and radio equipment at their premises and provided an instructor, Mr. A. Copeland.

The WESC girls contributed one shilling per week towards the rent for their premises.

The RAAF appreciated the work carried out my WESC and "Mrs Macs girls" in training women for the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF), and in May 1941, the RAAF appointed Mrs McKenzie as an honorary Flight Officer in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF).

"Mrs Mac" wrote again to the Minister for the Navy, the Honorable William Morris Hughes recommending that women trained by her Morse Code and Visual Signalling sections should be allowed to join the Royal Australian Navy as telegraphists. Again Billy Hughes came back with a resounding "No". Some time later "Mrs Mac" was asked to bring six telegraphists down to the Navy offices in Melbourne for more testing. They were provided with 3rd class rail tickets for their long journey to Melbourne.

Members of the Naval Board reluctantly acknowledged the competence of "Mrs Macs" girls but still had major concerns with women serving in the Navy. "Mrs. Mac" threatened to take her girls to the Army or the RAAF if the Navy continued to ignore her requests. Faced with severe shortages with shore-based resources, the Naval Board eventually gave in, however the Naval Board insisted that no publicity should be given to this break with Navy tradition.

The WESC uniform was a forest green colour.

The Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) was formed in April 1941. Fourteen WESC girls and "Mrs Mac" were the first intakes into the WRANS. They left Sydney on 25 April 1941 headed for Canberra. The RAN required only 12 telegraphists for the W/T Station so two of the girls volunteered to work as cooks or general service personnel.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

Ships Belles - The Story of the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service in War and Peace 1941 - 1985
by Shirley Fenton Huie

 

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This page first produced 18 January 2009

This page last updated 18 January 2009