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Chemical Weapons And Railway Tunnels

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  • 1. Chemical weapons and A bandoned railways have been used for a chemical weapons were captured in Papua New number of purposes, but none stranger Guinea and brought back to Australia for analysis. than for the storage of chemical weapons. Although the initial use of chemical weapons was During World War II, the tunnels of the old Great prohibited, the law did not prevent a nation either Western Railway in the Blue Mountains (west manufacturing or importing such weapons, thus of Sydney) were used for this very purpose. In a reserving a capability for retaliatory strikes. It was top-secret operation, the Royal Australian Air on this basis that the Australian authorities covertly Force (RAAF) imported mustard gas and the lethal imported its ‘insurance’ stocks. choking agent phosgene. Around one million The question ‘Where do we store them?’ was chemical weapons were imported from 1942 to the asked. Wing Commander Le Fevre, Chemical end of the war, and many of them passed through Adviser to the Officer Commanding the Far Eastern the Blue Mountain tunnels. Command, Royal Air Force (RAF), provided the As the Japanese swept south towards Australia, necessary advice. He had arrived from Singapore intelligence revealed they possessed a well- early in 1942 to oversee the organisation of the developed, chemical warfare organisational RAAF’s Chemical Warfare Section and was the structure as well as ample chemical weapons and right man for the job, as he had selected sites and defensive equipment. Indeed, samples of their supervised the storage of British chemical weapons in Below: Western end of Glenbrook chemical warfare storage tunnel. Bulk mustard gas storage drums are stacked outside the tunnel to the left. On the right-hand side of this entrance was an equipment store. The reasons for using tunnels to store these weapons was clear to chemical warfare armourer Frank Burkin, who said, “…it seemed to be plain enough to me. First of all, it was material that was obviously top secret anyway, and the cooler you could keep it, the better it was. Also, by having it in tunnels, it was virtually unattackable—it couldn’t be bombed or whatever because all the tunnels had big heavy wooden doors, huge things which used to shut at night-time. And I don’t know how thick, probably two inches or more thick these big wooden doors. So virtually it was locked away.” Mid-1943. © National Archives of Australia156 • May 2008 • AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY HISTORY • Bulletin of the Australian Railway Historical Society
  • 2. railway tunnels Geoff Plunkett reportsMalaya. During this search for suitable storage sites, Marrangaroo (Lithgow) and Glenbrook tunnelshe chanced a meeting with the curator of the Raffles were first used, followed by Picton and laterMuseum, whose archaeological and speleological Clarence. Clarence, Glenbrook and Marrangaroo Below: 250 lb bombs atinterest had equipped him with a thorough tunnels were part of the Great Western Railway. the Marrangaroo tunnelknowledge of excavations and caves throughout the Clarence tunnel formed one of the zigzag entrance are being cleanedMalayan Peninsula. On the curator’s advice, Le Fevre sections of the railway and had been built by electric buffers (alsoexamined the Batu caves just outside Kuala Lumpur. between 1866 and 1869. The Zig Zag Railway known as ‘buzzing off’)Those that were suitable were cleared of bat dung was constructed to enable produce to be taken before being passed toand used by the RAF to store chemical weapons. to Sydney from the prosperous farming areas further maintenance.Although caves were not available around Sydney beyond the Blue Mountains and to develop Chemical warfare armourersome bright spark remarked, the coal and iron ore deposits found in the Vic Hicks recalls, “Buzzing Lithgow Valley. off the bombs was a filthy The line to Lithgow was completed in June job; we wore goggles—just “Sir, we don’t have 1874, but by the end of the nineteenth century, rail traffic over the Blue Mountains had increased as well because the old flaky paint came off quite sufficiently that the single track proved a hard and flew into your any suitable caves bottleneck. This was relieved by the construction of a 10-tunnel deviation through the escarpment, face and all over your clothes leaving the only but we do have completed in 1910. The original alignment with its three tunnels fell into disuse soon after. clean place around the eyes.” The tunnel had tunnels!” The tunnel at Picton formed part of the original main southern line that had also been ‘stalagtite’ icicles attached to the ceiling at times bypassed by a new line. All the chosen tunnels in the winter. Mid-1943. Four rail tunnels in Australia were chosen by were thus abandoned and available for storage © National Archives ofthe RAAF as chemical weapons storage facilities. during World War II. Australia AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY HISTORY • Bulletin of the Australian Railway Historical Society • MAY 2008 • 157
  • 3. Glenbrook tunnel was originally leased from his own mushroom-growing beds. In the early the New South Wales Railways by Herbert Edward stages of the mushroom-growing project, the spore Rowe (known affectionately as ‘Pop’), an out-of- was obtained in blocks about 12 feet by 6 feet from work master builder, in 1933. Mr and Mrs Rowe a Mr Hearn of Como, near Sutherland. had the idea of growing mushrooms in the disused On 6 January 1942 the Air Board approved the tunnel, and took up residence in an old Wirth’s RAAF’s acquisition of the disused 660-metre-long Circus tent that they pitched on a flat area to the railway tunnel at Glenbrook for the storage of right of the entrance to the cutting leading into bombs, a move that occurred on 4 April 1942. A the top end of the tunnel. A small cave formed by variety of ammunition types, including chemical some overhanging rock was the Rowes’ kitchen, ammunition, was stored at this site over the years. and a culvert under the Great Western Highway The chemical weapons consisted mainly of bulk was their ‘cold chest’. A pool dug at the end of the drums of mustard gas (50/90 gallon and Chemical culvert was their water tank, and Bert Rowe built Special No. 6), but also included 65 lb bombsRight: Eastern cutting tochemical warfare storagetunnel at Glenbrook wherethe bulk storage containerswere maintained. To theright, mustard gas drumsare seen in bond (a settlingperiod after venting) andother drums are beingcleaned and repaintedby a chemical warfarearmourer under a tarpaulinthat spans the cutting.Mid-1943. © NationalArchives of AustraliaRight: RAAF chemicalwarfare armours, the‘Mustard Gas Men’, justoutside the Glenbrookrailway chemical weaponsstorage tunnel. They are inthe maintenance cutting(east) atop ChemicalSpecial No. 6—drumsfilled mustard gas. (Leftto right) Tiny Waterman,Mark Williams,Geoff ‘Tassie’ Burn,Les Parsons, Arthur Blackwelland Alan Jack. Doug Bain,another Glenbrook armourer,has his named graffitied onthe wall. Arthur Blackwellis sitting on the latticecrates that were used totransport this type of drum.The drums are in ‘bond’,a settling period aftermaintenance. August 1944.© RAAF Chemical WarfareArmourers158 • May 2008 • AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY HISTORY • Bulletin of the Australian Railway Historical Society
  • 4. (empty). On 9 August 1942 arrangements for the ‘vented’; as the containers built up a pressure they Left: Entrance tofirst intake of chemical weapons at Glenbrook needed to be regularly dragged out of the tunnel Marrangaroo tunnel, 1943,were completed with material received from the and the bung taken out to relieve the pressure, with Alsatian guard dog.ship Nigerstrrom. On 14 July 1943 the Director of before being repainted and replaced. A boring, but The dogs had a fearsomeArmament staff (RAAF) conducted inspections very necessary, chore. reputation and wereof chemical weapons storage and maintenance Chemical warfare armourer Mel Carney avoided by all except thefacilities at Glenbrook. The following was noted: recalls the delicate work of backing a semi-trailer dog handlers. Chemical‘Drums stored at both ends of the tunnel in the into the tunnel warfare armourer Ivoropen due to insufficient tunnel space must be …at the time we were going to get rid of the gas Conway recalls them withmaintained at once as they are rusting badly’ [1946], they were all taken first, so they could back horror, “Bloody dogs …and ‘the maintenance of drums steel charged the semi-trailers down the tunnel or run them they were shocking. ThereH [mustard gas] was proceeding slowly, but was down frontwards and back them out. So you just was one, I can’t think ofof a high standard’. The weapons were regularly had room to get in with the trucks. They had to try his name—I thought it was Rex—but he had the ability to roll the collars over his neck and they used to put a couple of collars on him but he always managed to escape somehow or other and he’d come into the camp terrorising everybody and they used to blow a hooter and when they blew the hooter, we all went and locked ourselves in the hut, because we knew he was around. You know, he would have torn you limb from limb, he was a bastard. And I think some of them were actually mad.” © RAAF Chemical Warfare Armourers Left: Mustard gas was the most important agent imported by the US and Australia, both in terms of quantity and in its tactical use. View of the chemical weapons storage tunnel from the eastern end of the Glenbrook cutting where the stock was maintained. Bulk storage drums filled mustard gas are stacked outside the tunnel to the right. A guard dog is visible looking into the tunnel entrance. The tunnel is now used to grow mushrooms as it did before the war. Mid-1943. © National Archives of Australia AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY HISTORY • Bulletin of the Australian Railway Historical Society • MAY 2008 • 159
  • 5. and work from both sides if they could, which was and 30 lb bombs. As phosgene is odourless and difficult...in a straight [part] it was alright, you lethal, it was stored in open-sided sheds in theBelow: Storage shed could run the semi; once you got to the curves, you rail cutting and the mustard gas was placed inat the Marrangaroo had to get rid of [the drums] from both sides of the the tunnel. On 23 August 1942 a special trainrailway cutting for 250 lb tunnel...I never realised that semi-trailer drivers loaded with chemical weapons, accompanied byphosgene bombs. Here were so good at their job. You know, standing on guards and decontamination personnel, arrivedthe bombs have been the running board, reversing up a tunnel...using at Marrangaroo, having been also been unloadedhorizontally stacked. his controls, his hand throttle from the running from the Nigerstrrom at Williamstown, Victoria.United Kingdom storage board. I guess we had to take our hats off to those Ray Minahan, another chemical warfare armourer,regulations recommended chaps...because really, to us, they were just drivers recalls the tunnel set up:that chemical weapons before that. Well, the actual tunnel itself, how it was set up wasbe stored in trenches. The The RAAF inspected the disused Marrangaroo the bombs were sort of stacked to the side, becauseAustralian authorities tunnel on 30 April 1942 and Air Board approval it’s fairly wide, and they had the little trucks likeimprovised and used was sought for its acquisition for storage purposes. they have at the airport for towing—little thingscuttings associated with On 6 May 1942 the head of the RAAF chemical that we all learned to drive on. [They were] just likerailway tunnels, which were warfare arm also made an inspection, and on a minI truck and that hooked the trolleys on you‘ready made’ trenches. 29 June 1942 contractors commenced work. The know, [and we would] go in, pick up the bombs—Mid-1943. © National tunnel and outside cutting held the chemical they were just stacked to the side. And on the roadArchives of Australia weapons that were in bomb form, mainly 250- in, they had some of the bombs stacked to the side Above: Phosgene storage sheds in the Marrangaroo cutting in mid-1943. The bombs, stacked vertically, are 250 lb light-case bombs. © National Archives of AustraliaRight: Aerial view ofeastern cutting withcovered maintenancearea at the Glenbrooktunnel. Trenches wererecommended as thestorage option of choice Above: The chemical warfare armourers learnt most offor chemical weapons. their trade on the job. Noel Stoneman said, “We neverThis photo shows clearly actually got to use the bombs at our training—it washow the deep rail cuttings only a week’s training as regards to chemical warfare.imitated a trench storage And I think basically, from thereon, a lot of the learningsystem. 1944. © RAAF came from experience and having different accidentsChemical Warfare happen and seeing the results.” This image shows a viewArmourers of the maintenance line at Marrangaroo (cutting) with a temporary shelter at the rear. Mustard filled 250 lb light-case bombs await venting on both sides of the road. The bombs were mid-grey and stencilled with yellow paint for bomb identification. Brown detector paint was applied to detect gas leaks. The chemical warfare armourer pictured is possibly Doug Brock or Geoff ‘Tassi’ Burn doing maintenance on 250 lb bombs at Marrangaroo. Mid-1943. © National Archives of Australia160 • May 2008 • AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY HISTORY • Bulletin of the Australian Railway Historical Society
  • 6. there under sort of [makeshift] sheds, I suppose at the tunnel were then constructed, with the you’d say. Before you went into the tunnel there was weapons arriving in early 1943. These consisted an area set up with a shed there and a canopy to of 250- and 500 lb mustard gas spray tanks. sort of work under in the heat ... you know, through Clarence was the last of the tunnels acquired, the summer ... or a bit of shelter from the rain. and was located in the area above Lithgow in the And in the shed was stored whatever you sort of vicinity of the current tourist Zig Zag Railway. needed ... you know, a bit of protective gear, not that Work preparatory for the storage of chemical anybody wore it much. At the back of the tunnel warfare stocks in the Clarence tunnel began on they had guard dogs. And they also had them at 28 January 1944 and the transfer of chemical the front of the tunnel and running along the side warfare stocks from Glenbrook tunnel to Clarence of the road—but the sheds, as I recall, were closed. began on 7 February 1944. The tunnel was used as I never handled any phosgene bombs there; they a staging depot for a newly established chemical were already there. weapons storage depot in Queensland. OnOn 7 July 1942 the Air Board approved the 15 February 1944 personnel from the new depotacquisition of the disused railway tunnel at took charge at Clarence tunnel, and the transfer ofPicton, for the storage of conventional bombs. chemical warfare stocks to the north commenced.On 4 December 1942 the Air Board approved the Immediately after the war the chemical‘suitability’ of the Picton tunnel for the storage weapons were taken out of the tunnels andof chemical-warfare munitions. Storage facilities either dumped in the sea or burnt in a huge Left: Sheds at the Marrangaroo railway cutting housing 250 lb phosgene-filled bombs, which can be seen stacked horizontally. Originally open-sided sheds, walls were later added to protect stocks from the driving rains experienced at this locality, although, to allow air circulation, the sheds were not totally enclosed. This was crucial as a leaking phosgene bomb could have had a lethal effect in an enclosed space. The mustard bombs were stored in the tunnel, the entrance of which is visible to the left. Mid-1943. © National Archives of AustraliaAbove: View of the temporary shelter for maintenanceoperations at Marrangaroo during bad weather and forthe painting of bombs. On the right of the photo, the250 lb bombs are seen upright and undercover. Stacks oftransit rings, which were attached to the bottom of thebomb, are also visible (centre and left under tarpaulin). Above: Loading platform at one of the phosgene storage shedsMid 1943. These tarpaulins had originally covered the at the Marrangaroo railway cutting, with 250 lb light-casechemical weapons when they travelled on the rail trucks. bombs (filled phosgene) in a five row stack. Mid-1943.© National Archives of Australia © National Archives of Australia AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY HISTORY • Bulletin of the Australian Railway Historical Society • MAY 2008 • 161
  • 7. conflagration at Newnes State Forest, close to abandoned, while Picton (temporarily closed Clarence tunnel. Glenbrook tunnel has reverted due to roof instability) is used for ghost tours, to its pre-war use and is again used for mushroom although, according to the chemical warfare staff, farming, while Clarence tunnel forms part of the the ghosts are recent additions as they swear there Zig Zag Railway. Marrangaroo tunnel remains were none there in the 1940s.Left: The only knownphoto with a view frominside a chemical warfarestorage tunnel, in thiscase Glenbrook. ChemicalSpecial No. 6 mustard(filled) recharging drumsare to the left, with bulkstorage drums, alsomustard-filled, stackedagainst the tunnel wallto the right. The latticecrates (to the back right)housed the ChemicalSpecial No. 6 drums. Theshot was taken near thecentre of the tunnel withthe brickwork constructionin the tunnel clearly visibleon the right-hand wall.Tunnels offered severaladvantages for storingmustard gas, including lowtemperatures and constanthumidity, and the fact thatthey were easily guardedand difficult to detect fromthe air. © RAAF ChemicalWarfare Armourers About the author Geoff Plunkett has worked for the Department of Defence since 1996 and wrote an official report on sea dumpings and marine pollution. He co-wrote Scuttled and Abandoned Ships in Australian Waters in co-operation with maritime historian Ron Parsons. Geoff has been researching Australia’s chemical warfare history for the past 13 years and is the author of Chemical Warfare Agent Sea Dumping off Australia (third edition–revised and updated), published by the Department of Defence in 2003. His current book Chemical Warfare in Australia (pictured) looks at Australia’s involvement in chemical warfare during the period 1914–1945 and can be purchased direct from Australian Military History Publications, phone (02) 9542 6771 or www.warbooks.com.au ($45 delivered anywhere in Australia). The author’s website is www.mustardgas.org162 • May 2008 • AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY HISTORY • Bulletin of the Australian Railway Historical Society