Women's Royal Australian Naval Service
The Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) was the women's branch of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). In 1941, fourteen members of the civilian Women's Emergency Signals Corps (WESC) were recruited for wireless telegraphy work at the Royal Australian Navy Wireless/Transmitting Station Canberra, as part of a trial to free up men for service aboard ships. Although the RAN and the Australian government were initially reluctant to support the idea, the demand for seagoing personnel imposed by the Pacific War saw the WRANS formally established as a women's auxiliary service in 1942. The surge in recruitment led to the development of an internal officer corps. Over the course of World War II, over 3,000 women served in the WRANS.
The organisation was disbanded in 1947, but was reestablished in 1951 in response to the manpower demand caused by Cold War commitments. In 1959, the WRANS was designated a permanent part of the Australian military. The WRANS continued to operate until 1985, when female personnel were integrated into the RAN.
In March 1939, Florence Violet McKenzie set up the Women's Emergency Signals Corps (WESC) as wireless telegraphy organisation for female volunteers. McKenzie established the WESC because of the threat of war, and her belief that training women in wireless telegraphy, morse code, and related skills meant they could free up men for military service. McKenzie and a small group of women trained themselves, but as demand for the training increased, a school was set up; initially at McKenzie's electronics shop at the Royal Arcade, Sydney, then moving into a nearby former woolstore. By August 1940, there was a waiting list of 600 women for the small school, and WESC-trained telegraphists were teaching men from the armed forces and merchant navy. The WESC school expanded to include visual signalling (such the use of signal lamps and flag signals) for merchant navy personnel, and pre-exam training for the Civil Aviation Authority qualification exam. Over 10,000 people were trained by the WESC school during its operation.
Inspired by an article on the Women's Royal Naval Service, McKenzie contacted the RAN on several occasions to suggest that her telegraphists be employed by the RAN. Although initial letters were unanswered, she was contacted by the Director of Signals and Communications, who proposed an experimental trial. There was opposition from both the government and the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board, who only agreed to the trial if there was no publicity attached to the recruitment. Fourteen women from the WESC (12 telegraphists and 2 cooks) were accepted for naval service on 28 April 1941 and employed at the Royal Australian Navy Wireless/Transmitting Station Canberra. Six months later, another nine women were recruited. Although treated as naval personnel, the women were technically civilian employees of the RAN. Despite the formation of women's auxiliaries in the Army and Air Force, the RAN remained reluctant to formally enlist the telegraphists.
The increasing demand for manpower in the Pacific War resulted in a change of opinion in the RAN; approval to form a Women's Royal Australian Naval Service of 580 personnel (280 telegraphists plus 300 other duties) was granted on 24 July 1942, and the initial WESC telegraphists were offered enlistment on 1 October 1942. The scale of the response to recruitment campaigns during late 1942 prompted the RAN to establish an officer corps within the WRANS, with the first training course for female officers beginning at Flinders Naval Depot on 18 January 1943.
World War II
Women recruited into the WRANS were not permitted to serve at sea, but were able to fill most shore-based positions. WRANS performed a variety of duties, working as telegraphists, coders and clerks; but also as drivers, education officers, mechanics, harbour messengers, cooks and sickberth attendants. Some WRANS worked for the Allied Intelligence Bureau, the Censorship Office, and the Allied Translation Section of General Douglas MacArthur's Order of Battle unit. WRANS personnel also served as domestic staff at Government House, Yarralumla, staffed the Honours section of the Governor-General's Office, ran a choir for charity performances and radio broadcasts, and published Harmania, a newspaper.
Ruby Boye, the only woman to serve in the Coastwatchers organisation, was commissioned as an honorary WRANS officer. It was hoped that this commissioning (along with the WRANS uniform air-dropped to her) would see the Japanese treat her as a member of the armed forces if she was captured.
Over 3,000 women enlisted in the WRANS during World War II, with over 2,500 active at the war's end: 10% of the overall RAN strength, but significantly fewer than the 18,000 each in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force and Australian Women's Army Service. The WRANS was disbanded in 1947, with all personnel discharged by 1948.
In 1950, pressure on naval manpower from Cold War commitments prompted the RAN to reestablish the WRANS. The decision was announced on 18 June 1950, with formal inauguration at the start of 1951. Wartime WRANS could re-enlist, but their previous service was not recognised for pay or advancement. Women could only occupy specifically designated shore posts, and would be discharged if they married or became pregnant. Despite these restrictions, there were 1,500 applications for the initial 250 positions.
The WRANS operated on a policy of taking over shore duties to free up RAN personnel for at-sea service: a policy described as "a Wran in, a man out".
The WRANS' senior officers campaigned to expand the service and remove restrictions that hampered recruitment and retention. In 1969, the restriction on married women was removed, and the automatic discharge of pregnant women was dropped in 1974. In 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced the intention to investigate the posting of women to ships on non-combat deployments. By 1978, WRANS personnel were receiving equal pay to their RAN counterparts.
In 1985, the regulations relating to the WRANS were repealed, and female personnel were integrated into the RAN.
Ranks and uniforms
For the first six months, WRANS used the green WESC uniform set up by McKenzie. Naval tailors copied the Women's Royal Naval Service uniform, and clothing was available by July 1941, but without shoes. The uniform was a winter outfit with a jacket with two rows of three buttons, a skirt, blouse, hat, tie and underwear. Later a summer uniform with a dress, belt and socks was issued. The dress had a wide white collar and buttons down the front.
|WRANS rank||Equivalent RAN rank|
|First Officer||Lieutenant Commander|
|Chief Petty Officer||Chief Petty Officer|
|Petty Officer||Petty Officer|
|Leading Wran||Leading Seaman|
- Women in the Australian military
- Women's Royal Naval Service, the equivalent British service
- Royal Australian Naval Nursing Service, another all-female branch of the RAN
- Female roles in the World Wars
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 67
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 67-8
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 68
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 71
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 69
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 74
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 76
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 70
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 78
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 79
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 80
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 80-1
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 81
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, pgs. 82, 85
- Christopherson, in Mitchell, Australian Maritime Issues 2010, p. 82
- Christopherson, Kelly (2011). "The Women's Royal Australian Naval Service". In Mitchell, Rhett. Australian Maritime Issues 2010. Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs 35. Sea Power Centre - Australia. pp. 67–88. ISBN 978-0-642-29757-0. ISSN 1327-5658. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
- Nelson, Annette (1993). A History of HMAS Harman and its people: 1943–1993. Canberra: DC-C Publications.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Women's Royal Australian Naval Service.|
- HMAS Harman (official page)
- Overview of the WRANS (Australian War Memorial page)
- 2003 RAN News article: HMAS Harman's 60th Anniversary
- History of the WRANS (with photographs)