Recently I posted the story of the disused Glenbrook rail tunnel during World War II. Located in the lower Blue Mountains of New South Wales, 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.

Glenbrook Railway Tunnel during World War II.
Barrels of gas piled outside the tunnel.

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.

Happier times following  World War  II. Ronald Johnson and his bride.
Ronald Johnson and his bride Nina, at their wedding in the  early 1950s.

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.

Declaration by Ronald Johnson re   storing chemical weapons during World War II.

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 has also 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.


  1. Dumping chemical weapons at sea was quite common – fishermen in the Baltic Sea are still sometimes affected by them when they accidentally come into contact with munitions dumped there after WW2

    • Pauline

      Oh dear, Christopher….the dreadful things we have done!

  2. Presumably, Dr Pickering was still keeping to his ‘Official Secrets Act’ oath?
    Didn’t do a lot for Mr Johnson, did he? No wonder he sounds angry.

    • Pauline

      I think Dr Pickering was a self-centred twit to be honest. I suspect nothing much happened re the Inquiry. Maybe some lessons learned for the future we hope.

  3. Pauline, I am Ronald and Nina Johnson’s son. My father passed away in October 1997 with an aneurysm to the heart. He had health issues that were blamed on the mustard gas. Regards Peter Johnson

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