While Australia officially declared war on Germany on 4 August, 1914, her politicians and members of the Australian Defence Forces were already planning for this event behind the scenes. Among the first of these official acts by the Australian Government occurred the day before war was declared. This was the placing of Australian wireless stations under control of the Naval Board, to make sure the Navy and Australian Government controlled the delivery and censorship of all messages.

The story of the establishment of a national telegraphic and wireless program had been formally initiated by the newly formed Commonwealth at a conference held at Melbourne in December, 1909. Here representatives of the military, navy as well as New Zealand and Fiji passed a number of resolutions, including the recommendation to build high-powered stations near Sydney in Australia, Doubtless Bay in New Zealand, and Suva in Fiji, besides less powerful stations at Ocean Island, Tulagi in the Solomons, and Vila in the New Hebrides. All the stations should be under Government control, those in the islands of the western Pacific being managed by the High Commissioner at Fiji.Unfortunately the Commonwealth Post Office had, however, already been considering a proposal made by the German Telefunken Company to erect stations at Sydney and Fremantle, and had gone so far as to accept its tenders and to ask the advice of the Defence Department about sites. The conference delayed this process, and eventually led to the cancellation of the Telefunken contract as it favoured totally Imperial wireless system.The new Australian destroyers ‘Parramatta’ and ‘Yarra’, which reached Australia in December of 1910, were fitted with Marconi systems, and a third was purchased for the ‘Warrego’. The larger ships the Australia, Melbourne, and Sydney were also supplied with Marconi wirelesses. But this meant that the ships of the Australian Squadron could talk to each other, but not with land stations, since none existed.
Admiral Henderson’s report laid great stress on the urgent need of stations, and included a scheme for their organisation. But the Post Office maintained its right to sole control of the business, and refused to do anything until the arrival of an expert whom it had engaged. When this expert, John Graeme Balsillie, reached Melbourne, work was hurriedly begun on constructing a new system part of which apparently was patented to Balsallie himself. According to Jose this was done without either the naval or the military authorities being consulted, even Marconi appears to have been unhappy thinking the new system may have infringed its patents and took the case to the High Court. Even more confusingly the Brisbane Courier when reporting the case in 1912 stated the Pennant Hills wireless was not based on Balsillie’s system but was instead still a Telefunken system.

The Colonial Office in August, 1912, suggested that the Commonwealth Government should give due weight to considerations of defence when choosing station-sites, but the Post Office insisted that defence of the stations was not part of its current mandate and matters went on as before. However in 1911 the Naval Board had on its own account erected a station at Williamstown, Melbourne, for instruction, and also at the Navy Office for communication with the ships of the squadron. Attempts to plant a station at Thursday Island and at Port Moresby in New Guinea, for defence purposes only, were blocked by trouble with the Marconi Company, which considered that its rights were being infringed (the naval stations, afloat and ashore, were covered by a special payment made to the company).

In April, 1913, the Prime Minister (Andrew Fisher) enforced a decision to ensure all departments should co-operate in wireless matters. As a result a conference was held between representatives of the Navy (Captain Hughes-Onslow, the Second Naval Member, and Lieutenant Cresswell, the naval radio-telegraphic expert), the Army (Major White), and the Post Office (J. G. Balsillie). The immediate question before this conference, which was taken as typical of the problem. was the site of a high-powered station to be erected near Port Darwin. The Council of Defence, which represented both naval and military authorities, had insisted that this station should be at least fifty miles inland, whereas, in spite of the Council’s insistence, the postal authorities had chosen a site-admittedly better suited for commercial purposes-only ten miles from the coast. To anyone now reading the record of these negotiations it seems clear that the Post Office could not then bring itself to believe that war was possible, and therefore discarded war risks from its calculations The conference, however, concerning this insensibility to danger, decided that (a) the Darwin site should be reconsidered, (b) in the selection of all future sites the opinion of the Defence Department should be taken, and in the event of disagreement the Council of Defence should have the final word.

The outbreak of war found Australia with no really high powered wireless stations, those at Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne being but medium-powered and far behind modern naval requirements. Messages had consequently to be relayed through a series of low-powered coastal stations at Brisbane, Townsville, Cooktown, Thursday Island, and Port Moresby a condition that gravely hampered the Australian fleet. In the Defence Department itself (which then included the Navy Office) it was clearly understood that in wireless matters naval interests were predominant, since no other means existed of maintaining communication with warships at sea. As soon, therefore, as war was seen to be imminent, all wireless stations in the Commonwealth were by an order-in-council of the 3rd of August 1914 placed under the control of the Naval Board, and a wireless censorship was established at 11 p.m. on that day.

Australian wireless stations most useful task proved to be the interception of outside messages. and in 1914 it was messages from the enemy squadron in the Pacific that were most eagerly listened for. Perhaps the most significant contribution in the early part of the war was the capture of one of the German secret codes which allowed the Commonwealth to provide London with intercepted information of exceptional value. This was particularly the case since the Germans never suspected that their cyphers had been discovered, and therefore transmitted by wireless all over the world all manner of confidential news about their movements and their diplomaticefforts. The codes were in part responsible for the decoding of the 1917 Zimmermann Telegram, which revealed Germany’s plan to restart unrestricted submarine warfare and an offer to Mexico of territory if they declared war on the United States. This event outraged the American public and was a major component in their decision to become involved in the war.

From February, 1918, onwards the high-powered station at Honolulu was distributing a general news service of an official character, and the Consul-Generalfor the United States asked that Australian stations couldpick up this news for transmission to the Australian press.It was agreed that these messages, after passing the navalcensorship (since Australian rules differed in several pointsfrom those of the United States), should be handed to theConsul-General, who could do what he liked with them.

The Sydney station, the most important in the Commonwealth, being otherwise occupied, it was arranged to usethe Melbourne station for interception and to forward the messages to the consul at Melbourne. In July, however.the Consul-General, who was established in Sydney, forwardeda request from the authorities at Washington that the Castle Hill station should be used, and the messages sent directto him. This occurred from 8 August 1918.

During a great part of the war the export of wireless gear from GreatBritain to Australia was necessarily suspended, and the Australia was forced to rely entirely upon localfactories for the provision of these delicate instruments. The Williamstown workshops, established in 1912, proved inadequate,but the gap was very satisfactorily filled by Father Shaw’s wireless telegraphy workshops at Randwicknear Sydney. The value of this service on the part of an institution which was already involved in great financial difficulties can hardly be exaggerated ; the number of ships and lives saved by its means will never be known.

The Naval Board in August, 1916, took over Father Shaw’s workshops, utilising them not only for the manufacture and repair of wireless apparatus and machinery, but for making, for other Commonwealth departments,dynamo-electric machinery, electrical apparatus, etc.,of which supplies were then almost unobtainable.  Installations were manufactured for the three later destroyers (Huon, Torres, and Swan) and for many smaller craft.

Fifteen harbour defence sets were made for the Examination Service; three sets were sent to the Indian Government for their minesweepers; the Commonwealth’s Defence Department was supplied with six military “pack” sets; the radio stations at Woodlark Island and Samarai in New Guinea were completely fitted out; and twenty-four transports and three cargo vessels of the Government line were given long-wave receivers specially designed for the reception of war-warnings transmitted from AdmiraIty stations.

The Royal Australian Navy, Arthur W Jose, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1935

by-saGeoff Barker, Coordinator Collections and Research Services, Parramatta City Council Heritage Centre, 2014