SILENT WEAPONS OF WAR
My research for this story began amid the startling news of the chemical attack on the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, and of chemical weapons being used in Syria.
I knew about mustard gas in WWI, because my great-uncle had been affected by it while fighting in France. Its use had been banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1925.
CHEMICALS WEAPONS IN AUSTRALIA
As the threat of Japanese invasion increased during WWII, it was decided that the RAAF should compile a stock of mustard gas, obtained from Great Britain. This was a complete shock to me, I had never heard a word about it. The Japanese had already used chemical weapons against the Chinese post WWI and fear they may do so against Australia was very real. The chemical was only to be employed in retaliation, if the Japanese should act first.
The barrels of gas were stored in disused railway tunnels, including one at Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains of NSW. Naturally it was a top secret project. The Glenbrook tunnel had previously been used for growing mushrooms. Later the locals would feel they had been treated rather like the mushrooms; kept in the dark and fed bullshit. It was many years before the horrifying truth about the mustard gas storage and its legacy was revealed.
In 1981 The Canberra Times ran an alarming piece after an interview with Mr John Humphrys, who had worked at Glenbrook.
The article mentioned that Dr John England, now a cardiologist in Katoomba, had prepared a submission to a Federal Government inquiry into WWII hazardous chemicals. It included statistics of cancer cases in the Blue Mountains. Dr England commented that the situation regarding Glenbrook warranted further investigation. How true that turned out to be!
Problems in handling the mustard gas began while the containers were being unloaded from a freighter at Sydney’s Glebe Island in August 1942. They had shifted and bumped against each other at sea, resulting in abrasion and leakage. Some 36kg had spilled on board. The men who unloaded the drums had no idea of the dangers involved. Some were badly injured. They were taken to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and treated for burns, blisters, breathing problems and loss of vision A code of silence surrounded the whole affair, from the medical staff involved to the men themselves.
One person interviewed for the Canberra Times piece was Mr Alick Stocker, a former instructor in the use and maintenance of the mustard gas. He told of how the leaking drums were loaded onto trains bound for Glenbrook and the RAAF base further west at Marrangaroo, near Lithgow. Stocker said; ‘We often had to decontaminate the rail tracks in the dark and it was not long before we ran out of decontamination equipment.’ He considered that much of the rail line had remained contaminated.
Ten years ago RAAF veterans Geoff Burns and Arthur Lewis revisited the tunnel they had worked in. The men were bitter about their experience, feeling they had not been properly informed about the risks involved.
THE PUB WITH NO BEER
Fearing Japanese espionage flights, the military depot at Marrangaroo was designed so that, from the air, it would appear as a small country hamlet. The administration centre and mess was disguised as Ryan’s Hotel, complete with hitching rail. That roof top lettering is visible on the building to this day.
Cattle strolled down the main street to help create a bucolic scene, as did dogs. The cows were harmless enough, but the dogs had been trained to attack intruders.
There was even a ‘butcher’s shop’ (see below). I love the way the horse is looking at the little dog. He might be saying; ‘Don’t waste your time young fellow, not a single sausage in there. You heard it from the horse’s mouth.’
When the war was over the problem arose of how to safely dispose of the Glenbrook mustard gas. It was decided that burning it would be the safest option. During February and March 1946, 2,000 tonnes were secretly incinerated in Newnes State Forest. Unfortunately the exercise was not wholly successful. More burning and bleaching was carried out over the next couple of years.
In 1980, more intensive decontamination took place. 2,500 tonnes of soil were removed, taken to an ammunition depot, burned in a pit and bleached.
There was yet another clean up as recently as 2004.
Eventually the old Glenbrook tunnel reverted to its former use as a mushroom farm. The most recent operation ceased in 2016. Sadly, the tunnel and its surrounds were left in a terrible condition. It is hoped that the whole site will be cleaned up, and the tunnel opened as a significant historical site.
If you would like to read a broader and more detailed account of chemical weapons in this country (including the operations at Glenbrook and Marrangaroo) a book written by Geoff Plunkett may be of interest. It’s called Chemical Warfare In Australia; Australia’s Involvement In Chemical Warfare 1914-1945.
UPDATE – after this piece was published I was contacted by Geoff Williams. Geoff’s uncle served at Glenbrook and in 1997 he provided evidence to the Federal Government inquiry into Australia’s wartime use of chemicals. You can read his disturbing statutory declaration HERE.
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