the history of ran communications and information system school


Prior to federation and the formation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland each had their own state Navy, whilst a British squadron stationed in Sydney provided New South Wale’s defence.

In 1870 the Victorian Navy established Williamstown Naval Depot, which consisted of a Naval Base and general training establishment at Williamstown. It was here that the Communications and Information Systems School had its beginnings in 1900 when Signals training was formally introduced. In 1911 the Royal Australian Navy was established by Royal Decree and the RAN Communications Branch came into being the same year. With the creation of the RAN came the requirement to establish a number of permanent bases and it was decided that naval depots were to be established in;

Sydney – consisting of a Naval Depot, Gunnery, Signal, Wireless Telegraphy, and Cookery Schools;

Western Port – consisting of a Naval Depot and Torpedo School.

However, the intervention of World War I resulted in only part of the programme materialising with post-war financial stringency, naval limitations, Admiral Jellicoe’s advice and political difficulties all, in one way or another, causing fundamental changes in the original plan. Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson KCB had been requested to state “the best position for a central naval base” and he wrote, “Port Western is a very good harbour where ships should be able to replenish with coal or oil fuel”.

A suitable site on Hahn’s Inlet was identified and the property, originally owned by Mr. Hahn (after whom the inlet was named) and, finally, by Mr. Stacey, was purchased in 1911 and named Flinders Naval Base. Construction commenced the following year with the first sod being turned on 12 February. This historic spot is on the roadway a little to the north of the Power House. The overall construction of Flinders Naval Base took seven years to complete and it was officially opened on 1 September 1920 under the Command of Commander FC Darley, RAN. In 1921 it was decided to make the base a Training Establishment and with this decision came the change of name to Flinders Naval Depot. It was during this time that the training functions of Williamstown Naval Depot were finally transferred to Flinders and the new base named HMAS CERBERUS.

One of the first buildings to be constructed was the Signals School, which was commenced in 1913. This was a “U” shaped weatherboard building which was described in a 1981 Commonwealth Department of Housing and Construction Heritage survey as “a significant representative example of early school construction at the base, which appears to have been used as a model for other buildings at Cerberus”. The survey also noted the school’s role of introducing new technology into the Navy as significant.

It was also during 1913 that the first Naval wireless station in Australia was established, when a wireless mast and station were erected at Williamstown Naval Depot (then called HMAS CERBERUS) on the site of the present Williamstown dockyard. The RAN Signals School was formally established at this time and the Royal Navy provided the school’s first instructors with the training system being based on the RN system with two streams of personnel, Telegraphists and Signallers. From the first class of eight men the branch has grown over the intervening years to become the present day Communications and Information Systems (CIS) Branch.


The Signals School was the first school established at the new Flinders Naval Base and it opened in late 1920 under the command of Lieutenant (Signals) WD Hunter RN with the arrival of the first contingent of Naval personnel from Williamstown.The original building remained until the early 1990’s when it was demolished to make way for a new purpose built building housing all the school’s requirements. Additional buildings were erected over the years forming the nucleus of the original school – the MSO building in 1935, additional classrooms in 1936 and 1944, classroom Block 3 in 1965 and the Fleet work Trainer in 1967.

In those early days, the Signal School, in addition to its training role in Wireless Telegraphy and Semaphore, was also responsible for operation of the Wireless Station. The transmitting and receiving stations, built in 1919, were located within the confines of HMAS CERBERUS at the northern and southern extremes. The receiving station, which included the MSO, from which the transmitters were remotely keyed was located behind the current gymnasium while the transmitters and 250 ft high aerial were located behind the Wardroom on the site of the AT trainer. The trainer building itself housed two transmitters, the large main one and a smaller emergency one. The transmitting station was later converted to an EW practical training center for a number of years before becoming the AT trainer.


In addition to the buildings the school also had four masts of which the east and west masts, located within the Signals School, were fitted out for visual signaling and VHF Bridge to Bridge voice communications. Further visual signal training was conducted using the north and south masts situated on the playing fields outside the present Gunroom and ‘A’ block respectively. These masts were identical to the present Ensign mast and were demolished in the late 70’s.

The station conducted the first direct “fixed service” Morse code transmission in 1920/21 to the United Kingdom thereby linking the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board with the Admiralty in London. The wireless station remained operational as a broadcast station and link with overseas authorities until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when it was moved to HMAS HARMAN in Canberra. The radio mast erected in 1919 for the Wireless Station survived until 1970 when it was demolished.

By April of 1941 it is believed that there were approximately 14 privately trained female Telegraphists who were subsequently recruited for Naval Service although it is unknown who trained them or when. It is thought that these women and approximately 1000 others who were in Cerberus by August of 1941 formed the nucleus of what was to become the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service or WRANS. At this point these women carried a civilian status, however in October 1942 the civilian status was removed and of these personnel, 200 were Telegraphists who continued to serve until the disbandment of the WRANS in 1948. In 1951 the WRANS were re-established and women have been a part of the CIS branch since.

Prior to the commencement of World War II, Telegraphists were responsible for the maintenance of their own equipment as well as its operation and they were trained at the Signal School in the necessary techniques to ensure that their equipment was kept serviceable. With the pressure of signal traffic, especially in shore wireless stations, generated by the war, Telegraphists didn’t have the time to operate and maintain their equipment and the maintenance task passed to the embryo Electrical Branch. University and College trained Officers and Sailors were recruited for this task and carried out their initial training at the Signal School with some later moving off to form the nucleus of the Weapons Electrical Engineering Branch.


The large increase in trainees, again brought about by World War II resulted in additional classrooms being built in 1936 and again in 1944. These classrooms remained in service until their demolition in 1990 to make way for the new Communications School.

With the extremely rapid technological advances in Communications made during and post World War II some prodigious changes to the Communications Branch occurred and it became necessary to introduce skills previously not required by a wireless operator. The ability to touch type became an integral part of a trainee’s prerequisites prior to passing out as a fully qualified operator. The speed required was between 35 and 40 words per minute (wpm) and this remained the standard until 1998 when it was reduced to 35wpm as a result of the increasing use of personal computers.

To assist in the attainment of these standards the Keyboard Training Section was established in 1945 with a Miss Petty as the first instructor. The subsequent instructors have taught trainees to type on all types of machines from manual to electric typewriters, teletypewriters to the computer keyboards of today. This section, in addition to training Communications personnel, undertook the typing training of Supply branch personnel and other RAN members who are employed in office duties such as Technical Office Writers. The Keyboard Training Section still carries out these roles today although computers have replaced the electric typewriters and a typing tutor program now leads trainees through the process of learning to touch type. In 1997 the section also assumed responsibility for desktop applications training.

The next quantum leap by branch occurred around 1956 when Automatic Telegraphy was introduced into ships and establishments around the country thus leading to the subsequent introduction of new equipment and training techniques into the ever increasing curricula of the Communications School. In the period between 1956 and 1965 the Vault section of the school was constructed providing a secure stowage facility for the highly classified books and equipment which the average “Radio Operator” was, by this time, using every day.

In 1965 construction was commenced on more additional buildings for the Communications School these consisted of classroom block 3 which was completed by 1969. In 1968 a proposal was put forward to build a new Communications School and the concept was accepted by the Naval Board in 1971. Despite accepting the proposals and agreeing to the need for a new school the Board did however consider the proposal somewhat lavish and the 1968 version was pruned, modified and duly re-submitted in 1973. This modified version remained in a state of limbo until the project was rejuvenated in March 1976 when yet another proposal was forwarded.


This proposal listed a number of options of which one was to relocate the school to another site however, studies carried out in 1981/82 indicated that there were cost advantages in retaining the school at CERBERUS. The current location also provided the best electromagnetic environment containing the lowest levels of ambient noise. As there was adequate land available for the schools requirements with the vault and fleetwork trainer being considered reusable assets the decision was made to retain the school at CERBERUS.

The 1983/84 five year defence programme included an item for a new Communications School and a new functional requirements brief was prepared by the then Communications School Staff. In 1984 an option was considered to convert the then Recruit School into a Communications School with the Recruit School being moved to HMAS LEEUWIN in Western Australia to justify retaining that establishment. This option was later rejected and in 1987 the Communications School plan was re-examined with the project being scaled down and the proposed staged construction plan scrapped. The selected option at 1987 prices was expected to cost an estimated A$9.8 million dollars and retained Buildings 83 and 84 (the original school building and vault).

In May 1988 the last of the ROT classes graduated and promptly remained to complete a RO conversion course before departing CERBERUS. Also in that year the Communications School had become part of the second phase of the staged redevelopment of facilities at CERBERUS and in March 1990 the contract for the new School was awarded to Baulderstone Hornibrook Pty Ltd for an amount of slightly more than A$9.2 million dollars. Construction commenced in 1989 and Senator Robert Ray, Minister for Defence, officially opened the new school on May 13, 1992. Of the original buildings constructed over the years only the MSO building, now CERBERUS’ Commcen and the AT trainer, now used by the Wardroom, remain. The original building was demolished during the construction of the new school while buildings 83 and 84 were finally demolished in late 1999.

In 1995 CAPT DB Cotsell RAN was tasked to undertake a review of the maritime CIS organisation with the original report being presented in early 1996. As a result of this initial review and more detailed second phase was commenced and the RAN Communications and Information Services (RANCIS) report was delivered in April 1997. One of the major and first recommendations to be accepted by the Chief of Navy’s Senior Advisory Committee in August that year was the amalgamation of the Radio and Signalman branches and the inclusion of Information Systems in the revised category. Having been involved in the drafting of the RANCIS report and recognising the need for change the School had commenced work in January 1997 on redeveloping all training from the then current two levels to the new three tiered Competency based concept, a task, which took three years to complete.

The period between 1996 and mid 1999 saw a number of changes to the training continuum; aural morse code ceased being taught in January 1996; the last Basic Radio Operator course completed in September of 1997; the last Basic Signalman course completed in February the following year and the SSRO PJT course ceased to exist in mid 1998. The final ‘old’ course, the Advanced Radio Operator, completed in July 1999 and the first personnel to complete the new CIS training, thus becoming the first members of the new CIS branch, graduated from their Tier 1 course on 9 April 1999.

1999 also saw the first of the Tier 2 and 3 alignment courses commence thus starting the long and often difficult road to an amalgamated branch, a journey which is expected to take three years. To streamline the alignment process and reduce the training impost a decision was taken that those personnel who had completed an Advanced course would remain defacto streamed for sea postings in their ‘old’ categories. All other personnel would be eligible for any posting within the Communications branch, once they had aligned, irrespective of their original category. 1998/99 also saw the emergence of a proposal under the Defence Efficiency Review to amalgamate the single service CIS training into one ADF CIS School based at Simpson Barracks in Melbourne. Phase 1 commenced in December 1999 when the RAAF CIS training relocated to Simpson Barracks while the RAN’s training is expected to follow in late 2004 once the alignment process is completed and new buildings are constructed.

In February 2000 the first CIS Tier 3 course commenced for those personnel who had previously aligned at the Tier 2 level.

Training Responsibilities

The specific training functions of the Communications and Information Systems School are: