Established by the first qualified Australian female electrical engineer Florence Violet McKenzie OBE, the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) trained women to be wireless telegraphists and signallers with the aim of releasing men from this work for war service.
McKenzie, known as Mrs Mac, campaigned tirelessly for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to accept her skilled female telegraphists into their services. The RAN was the first to do so, and in April 1941 the first 14 members of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) moved Canberra to begin work at HMAS Harman.
These women shared four cottages on the naval base, with one cottage being run by the stewards as their mess. The WRANS were expected to work a full cycle of shifts in the wireless room and to maintain their living quarters, which were out of bounds to the men. Within months these trailblazing women had proved their skill and dedication as workers, and the number of enlisted WRANS grew to 1,000. Over the course of the war, up to 3,000 WRANS served as telegraphists, coders, drivers, cooks and more. The WESC went on to train thousands of servicemen in Morse code, as well as continuing to support the development of these skills in women.
“… even when I first learnt Morse at Mrs Mac’s we never really thought the Navy or any service would take women in to do that work. We knew they would have them as nurses and probably AAMWS [the medical service], but it was beyond our wildest dreams that we would ever be doing that sort of work. Although it was proved we were just as good as the men, and did the same job, and everything worked out well for everybody concerned.”
Second Officer Marion Stevens (extract from S00547)