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Jean Nysen (McKenzie): Women's Royal Australian Naval Service WR-87

Jean Nysen (McKenzie) was the 87th woman inducted into the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) during World War II. Born at sea aboard the TSS Jervis Bay in 1922, Jean’s life story reads like a history book about the Royal Australian Navy, the WRANS and even Australia’s involvement in aeronautics for aeroplanes and spaceflight.

Jean Nysen (McKenzie)

Jean’s father, Donald McKenzie, was a Warrant Officer in the Navy at the time of Jean’s birth. Only nine years prior, on 4 October 1913, Donald sailed into Sydney Harbour on board HMAS Australia, the first time the Royal Australian Navy fleet entered the harbour after King George V had granted the Commonwealth Naval Forces the title of ‘Royal Australian Navy’ in 1911.

He was a Leading Telegraphist on board the flagship, HMAS Australia, a battle cruiser, the only one we ever had. So he was able to enjoy the entrance into Sydney Harbour, which was a great thrill.

In November 1922 Jean’s father and mother (Ella) boarded the TSS Jervis Bay in Sydney.

My father was required to go over to England to do a course with the Royal Navy and my mother was expecting a baby at the time, but they found that there was, one of the bay liners, the new Commonwealth steamers, which was on its maiden voyage out to Australia and they heard there was a very good doctor on board, and so the shipping company then made sure that they had a nurse with midwifery experience. And they boarded the ship, I think it was the 27th of November 1922 and I was born down in the Southern Ocean on the 1st of December, before the ship reached Adelaide. My father went ashore at Adelaide and registered the birth and so my birth certificate reads Semaphore Anchorage Outer Harbour, Adelaide.

Jean and her mother Ella on board TSS Jervis Bay in 1922

Once the ship reached Fremantle Jean was taken ashore and baptised. The ship’s captain suggested they name her after the ship, so she was baptised Jean Jervis McKenzie.

Jean’s younger brother Donal was born during their two years in England and they returned to Australia on board the Jervis Bay in 1925. Jean and her family went back to England, on board the Jervis Bay, in 1927 and then returned again to Australia two years later on board the ship. Jean’s father, however, returned to Australia in 1929 on board the HMAS Canberra. It was the ship’s maiden voyage.

Jean was, to say the least, a well-travelled child. She was also fortunate to have fairly liberal parents who allowed her to participate in many activities that would have been seen as ‘adult’ activities in the 1920s and 1930s. One such event was a flight over Sydney Harbour in 1933.

My father was always an inventor, so he was known as an ideas man. And in the Navy there was a colleague of his called Lieutenant Commander Eric Kingsford-Smith, who was a brother of the famous [Sir] Charles Kingsford-Smith, who was the pilot of the Southern Cross. And he was about to do a trip to New Zealand, so his brother rang my father and said, ‘[?] is going on a trip over to New Zealand. He wants to know if you can think of some way he can drop something from the plane which will float on the water.’ In order to take their bearings or something like that. The word I remember from the age of ten was assess the drift, whatever that is.

He always liked to include me in interesting happenings and so he thought for a while and he said, ‘If you get those very thin bottles that chemists use, scientists and so forth for experiments, and fill those with aluminium powder, drop them from the plane, they should break on impact and leave a patch on the water and you should be able to get a bearing from that.’

So we went out on the Sunday afternoon and I helped them fill the bottles and then eventually we boarded the plane and went off round to sea and all around Sydney Harbour, which was fascinating because I had never been in a plane before and I had never seen Sydney Harbour from up there! And anyhow, I don’t know what went on in the front of the plane because I was in one of the only about two seats in the back anyway. Weren’t even fixed to the ground [floor], you know.

So I was fascinated because I found I could open the window and put my hand out to feel the force of the wind, which was really quite interesting. Anyway, they came back and landed after about half an hour and I found that the idea hadn’t been successful because the glass didn’t break in the flasks. So my father’s next idea was, ‘Well you will just have to get some of those little brown paper bags and put some of the aluminium powder in those, a few pieces of metal so that they will drop, and that should work.’

And as far as I know that’s the way they navigated over to New Zealand the following day.[i]

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[i] An article titled ‘Tasman Sea flight: the navigator’s log’ published in the West Australian, Monday 16 January 1933, p. 8, corroborates this story. Article can be found on Trove at: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/32565656.

Researching the Royal Australian Navy at the museums in Sydney

After my interview with Jean Nysen I spent the rest of the weekend exploring WWII naval history at the museums in Sydney.

The Australian National Maritime Museum (www.anmm.gov.au/) at Darling Harbour had an exhibit that reviewed the creation of the Royal Australian Navy.

Up until Federation, each of the colonies had their own separate naval force. After Federation in 1901 the separate forces were joined to form the Commonwealth Naval Forces.

The Royal Australian Navy was later formed in 1911 when King George V granted the title of ‘Royal’ on the Permanent Commonwealth Naval Forces and designated Australian warships as His Majesty’s Australian Ships (HMAS).

The first battle cruiser built for the Royal Australian Navy Fleet, the HMAS Australia, arrived in Sydney Harbour on 4 October 1913. Jean’s father was aboard this ship and she had a wonderful collection of memorabilia from the day, including the official certificate commemorating the arrival of the Australian Fleet.

HMAS Vampire

WWII WRANS clothing

Bell from the HMAS Otway

The Navy Heritage Centre (www.navy.gov.au/history/museums/ran-heritage-centre), located at the Garden Island Public Access Precinct, is accessible only by Sydney Ferry. The museum is free of charge and contained an incredible display of Royal Australian Navy exhibits, including one specifically about the WRANS. I was able to locate the two Navy Bells that Jean had donated to the museum. The platform at the top of the ex-Main Signal Building gives a 360 degree view of Sydney Harbour!

View from the ex-Main Signal Building on Garden Island. Click on the photo to make it larger.

Interview with Jean Nysen the ex-WRANS

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I flew to Sydney to interview Jean Nysen today. Jean Nysen (McKenzie), the 87th woman inducted into the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS), was born at sea aboard the TSS Jervis Bay in 1922. Both her father and her brother were in the Royal Australian Navy and, hearing of the sinking of the HMS Jervis Bay and then the disappearance of the HMAS Sydney, she decided to join the war effort.

One of the most fascinating stories Jean told was about the time, as a child, she flew aboard the Southern Cross with Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. Her father was on board testing a method of allowing the pilot and co-pilot to ascertain bearings during their upcoming flight across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in 1933. During my interview Jean went into another room and came back with a piece of the aeroplane’s wing, removed for repairs, which had been kept by her father as a memento of the occasion.

I’ll post the introduction to the chapter on Jean Nysen here on my blog in the coming weeks.

Jean Nysen in her WRANS uniform during WWII

Jean Nysen in her WRANS uniform during WWII

A piece from the wing of the Southern Cross. Click on the photo to make it larger.

Exploring Geelong

Today I found some interesting books at a bookshop in Geelong called Barwon Booksellers (www.barwonbooksellers.com.au). The staff were extremely helpful in searching for books and I bought The Snowy: the people behind the power by Siobhan McHugh and Redgum & paddlewheels: Australia’s inland river trade by P.J. Phillips. The second book has a cracker of a photo of a camel train crossing a bridge in Wilcannia with a paddlewheel puffing down the Darling River under the bridge. Located 200 kilometres east of Broken Hill, Wilcannia was the third largest port in New South Wales in 1890.

Barwon Booksellers

 I also visited the Geelong Naval and Maritime Museum (www.mhhv.org.au/?p=2315) and the National Wool Museum (www.geelongaustralia.com.au/nwm). Both museums were quite interesting but I think the most exciting thing for me is that I am beginning to see at the museums I visit ships, aeroplanes, places and things related to each of the people I am interviewing. For instance, at the Maritime Museum I saw paintings of several of the ships Don Garnham sailed on and a radio much like the type Jean Nysen used during WWII. 

Door from the Courier, a steamship (now scuttled at the Ships' Graveyard off Port Phillip Heads), at the Geelong Naval and Maritime Museum

Wool being used to make a wool rug at the National Wool Museum

ex-WRANS

I received a phone call today in response to my advertisement in the ex-WRANS Association of NSW newsletter. The ex-WRANS served in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service and were initially inducted as telegraphists, learning morse code in order to communicate with navy ships during WWII. Jean Nysen (McKenzie), the 87th woman inducted into WRANS, has agreed to be interviewed. From a navy family, Ms. Nysen’s father was aboard HMAS Australia when the Royal Australian Navy fleet first arrived in 1913. Her brother was a survivor of the HMAS Canberra. The interview is scheduled for April.

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