AWAS operated secret wireless station at Lesmurdie
Name: Ethel Samuels
Location: Lesmurdie, WA
Following the Japanese bombings of Northern Australia in 1942, an extensive communication network was urgently needed in Western Australia.
After the attack on Broome on 3 March 1942, a Signals Sergeant Technician was sent there from Perth with the necessary equipment to establish a Wireless Station. He was joined by Signalmen wireless operators and a cipher section. Some of the operators remained in Broome, while others were sent to set up out stations in locations between Derby and Broome. Their role was to report any unusual air activity, or any suspicious or out of the ordinary movements along the coast, to the station at Broome. The messages would be decoded there and if necessary transmitted to Perth.
In the meantime, a property at 28 Wheelwright Road, Lesmurdie, in the Darling Ranges which overlook Perth, had been taken over by the Army, to be used by Area Signals - later to be known as 15 Lines of Communications (15 L. of C.) as the control station for the wireless network in the North West and Fortress Signals at Albany and Rottnest.
The property consisted of a weatherboard house, set well back from the road on a large block of land, partly untouched bush, which meant the operations of the station could be carried out away from the eyes of curious passers by. The house had been built in 1923, and in 1930 two rooms, built of stone, had been added a few metres from the back of the house. These two rooms, together with a small one in the house were used as wireless operating rooms. The male wireless operators who had been at Lesmurdie were posted to other stations when the AWAS arrived in October 1942.
Large aerials were erected well away from the back of the house and a generator installed to ensure there would be a reliable power supply for the transmission of long distance Morse Code messages 24 hours a day. The Army also erected a large rain water tank, and had a well sunk to ensure a good supply of water in the event of a break down in the local supply.
Although the formation of the Australian Women's Army Service was approved by the War Office in August 1941, it was not until May 1942 that Major-General Simpson (Australian Corps of Signals) was given permission by the AWAS Commander-in-Chief to enlist girls specifically for the Signal Corps. On 30 June 1942 the first West Australian girls chosen for training as Signalwomen travelled by train to a Signal Training Battalion at Ivanhoe Grammar School in Victoria. Some were trained as wireless telegraphists, others as clerks, cipher clerks, line operators, switchboard operators and other aspects of signalling.
In October 1942, the AWAS attached to 15 L of C Signals, were posted to the secret Wireless Station at Lesmurdie. Until the barracks was built in the bush next to the homestead, the newly posted Signalwomen were billeted in the large brick and stone home of the Sanderson family, which had also been taken over by the Army, and was only a short march along Wheelwright Road from the Wireless Station. The girls lived there until February 1943, but were then boarded at their homes in Perth for three months before finally occupying their new barracks in early May 1943.
The girls were happy when the barracks were completed and they were able to settle into their new home. This building was only a few metres away from the operating rooms - not far to walk home in the dark - not the usual long barrack building, but a nice wooden construction built a few feet off the ground and divided into fair sized rooms. A writing room was at one end - complete with stationery supplied by the "Salvo's", a small room for the cook, and the other rooms furnished for three girls to a room. There was enough space to add a fourth bed if needed.
The Signals Office, permanently set up in the out buildings, had two wireless sets which transmitted to 3 Signal outposts up North, manned entirely by male Sigs. The 13 AWAS at Lesmurdie now worked eight hour shifts around the clock, going home for three days leave each fortnight or so. A small receiver in the house itself was used as a wireless link to Marble Bar but as there were only two operators at that station the set closed down each night at 10pm.
Wireless links were maintained with Fortress Sigs at Rottnest and Albany from sets in one of the detached rooms at the back of the house. The other room housed the links to Pippingarra at Port Hedland and Liveringa at Derby.
In their free time the girls enjoyed long bush walks, particularly to Lesmurdie Falls, and the occasional hike into Kalamunda. If there was a dance in Kalamunda and no transport available, the girls would walk into the town knowing they would probably get a lift home with one of the:Service units in the area. On other nights, their free time would be spent in the guest house, resting, writing letters or listening to the gramophone one of the girls had supplied. The most popular record was Glen Miller's In the Mood it was played over and over although there were quite a few other records available.
All the messages sent and received at the station were encoded, but occasionally an operator would let slip an-unauthorised signal such as the time an operator sent a few words to say that Port Hedland was being bombed - the girl at Lesmurdie replied in plain language - at a time like that who would think of contacting the cipher section in Perth arid wait for a message to be encoded? Wireless operators were classified as Trade Group 1 and were paid more than the other girls, so when HQ heard about this episode the girl concerned lost her Trade Group pay for a few months. Another girl erred the same way be sending a Christmas cheerio in plain language - she received the same penalty.
A Special Unit monitored other Signals Units watching for any breaches of security. It is assumed they had reported the two girls. Strict security was necessary of course, but the girls werenÃ•t too happy about it.
In July 1943 the girls at Lesmurdie were also rostered to man the Dug Out, a hole in the ground which the Army had constructed in the grounds of Perth College, a private girls school a few miles out of the city. This building had been taken over by the Army to house their cipher personnel. The Dugout was a remote-control station, having receivers only, transmitting through the Lesmurdie station to the N.W. stations. Conditions in this rather primitive hole in the ground were particularly unpleasant during the Dog Watch shift, as it was cold and damp, with only a small stove and hurricane lamp.
In late 1943 security at Lesmurdie was tightened - windows and doors of operating rooms had to be locked after dark and a password was needed for entry. At 2.30 one morning the girl on duty heard men's voices outside. Next there was a banging on the door and a man said "It's your Commanding Officer - open the door please." The girl couldn't believe that the CO would be up and about at that hour, so obeying standing orders, she picked up the small loaded revolver from a shelf under the operating table, turned off the lights, and trying to keep her voice steady asked for the password. There was some discussion outside, then the same voice denied all knowledge of a password and again demanded that the door be opened.
The girl by this time had managed to wake the Corporal in charge by ringing him on the direct line to the men's quarters. After a short time, the Corporal spoke through the door to tell the girl that it was indeed the CO. Still following the security procedure laid down, the much relieved Sig. asked the men again for the pass word. The corporal rushed beck to his room, found where he had written down the magic word, so the door was at last opened. The visitors seemed suitably impressed with the security at the station, and next morning the CO rang to commend the Sig on her vigilance, but enquired if that was some new summer uniform she was wearing. The horrified girl realised that she had confronted the CO and other top Brass clad in a halter neck top and floral shorts and had waved a loaded revolver in their general direction. However, the CO was a very nice man and nothing more was heard of the matter.
In January 1944, all Sigs moved back to their Barracks at Lesmurdie. During this period they were sent off on several-map-reading cross-country exercises, complete with gas capes and gas masks. The local inhabitants were horrified to see these khaki apparitions darting out of the bush and charging across the-gravel roads, wearing gas masks. This gave rise to many rumours as to just what was going on!
In November and December 1944, the Sigwomen were sent to Melville Camp near Fremantle, some to go to Bonegilla in Victoria the others to take part in a Transport School at Melville. The girls posted to Bonegilla left Perth by train on 1 January 1945 across the Nullabor for an overnight stop in Melbourne, then by train to Albury on the NSW-Victoria border. On arrival the girls discovered there had been yet another S.N.A.F.U with their kit bags left behind in Melbourne and no transport arranged for their transfer to Bonegilla.
The girls worked hard for the next two months on a very difficult course before being posted to Balcombe in southern Victoria. There they were reunited with the girls who had completed the transport course in Melville, most of whom had been accepted into a contingent going to Lae in New Guinea.
Naturally the Bonegilla girls were disappointed they had not been given the chance to volunteer for this Unit but then found out they were to go to Darwin, which was some consolation. The journey there was long but interesting,
They travelled by train to Adelaide and then through South Australia with the last section on the Ghan to Alice Springs. After a short stay there, they spent the next three days travelling through the Red Centre in a convoy of Army lorries to Larrimah where they boarded a small train. This took them overnight to the outskirts of Darwin before they transferred to lorries again for the final leg to Larrakeyan Barracks in Darwin. There they joined up with some of the other AWAS from Fortress Signals at Rottness and Fremantle and formed 16 Operating Signals Unit 17 L of C Signals.
Meanwhile, the girls heading for Lae were given one week's pre-embarkation leave, which meant another hurried trip across the Nullabor with very little time at home. Their return journey took them to Brisbane where they spent six weeks on an acclimatisation course at Indooroopilly Camp under canvas.
On 2 May 1945 they embarked on the SS Duntroon (known to the troops as the Dunny) along with a contingent of jungle-green clad troops. At Lae they were attached to the 19 L of C Signals 1st Australian Army AIF.
Original material for this article was written by Mrs Ethel Samuels and provided by the Kalamunda & District Historical Society