Recently I posted the story of the disused Glenbrook rail tunnel during World War II. Located in the lower Blue Mountains, the tunnel was secretly used as an RAAF storage depot, for dangerous chemicals such as mustard gas and phosogene. The decision to stockpile the chemicals in 1942 was due to a fear of a Japanese invasion. Japan had already used chemical warfare against the Chinese, even though it contravened the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Darwin had been bombed, and there was concern that such weapons might be used again if Australia fell to the enemy.
Arrangements for the first intake of chemicals were made in August 1942, when material was received at Sydney’s Glebe Island from the ship MV Nigerstrromm. The 660 metre Glenbrook tunnel housed mainly mustard gas. It was stacked from end to end with containers of the gas, which was actually in the form of a thick fluid resembling oil. An area in a cutting leading from the tunnel was set up for maintenance and inspection. Damaged containers were vented, decanted and decontaminated.
The servicemen who worked at Glenbrook and other such storage centres during World War II had no idea of how dangerous the chemicals were.
After my article was published I was contacted by Geoff Williams, whose maternal uncle Ronald Howell ‘Bill’ Johnson was one of those men.
Eventually the full story of Glenbrook and other storage depots emerged. In the 1990s there was a Federal Government inquiry into the whole subject of hazardous chemicals in World War II. RAAF personnel who were involved gave evidence relating to their experience, including safety precautions (or the lack of them) and injuries suffered. A Statutory Declaration was made by Ronald Johnson (Service No. 130520) in 1997. It makes for interesting, but disturbing reading.
Thanks for allowing me to publish the stat dec, Geoff. I must say that the dumping of chemicals at sea was shocking. The men who worked at the chemical storage depots were serving our country in a time of war and deserve our greatest appreciation.
After this piece was published I was contacted by Stuart Livesey, who writes on our railway history. He told me that a relative, RAAF serviceman Dallas Bird, was at both Marrangaroo and Glenbrook. On one occasion there was an accident at Glenbrook when a number of airmen were gassed. He recalled several civilian ambulances being called to transport the injured to hospital. The incident occurred at night, which probably made it easier for the authorities to prevent local people finding out.
UPDATE – Ronald Johnson’s son Peter contacted me after reading this story. He said that his father passed away in 1997, the same year he made the statutory declaration. He had suffering many years of ill health attributed to mustard gas. What a tragedy.
There is currently a move to restore and reopen the tunnel as a tourist site, and part of a nature trail. If the project comes to fruition, let’s hope that the World War II story will be sensitively interpreted.
For my original story on the chemical storage CLICK HERE.
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