Australia Special Weapons

Australia: Chemical weapons

Australia conducted extensive chemical weapons research during WW2 as part of a joint program with the UK and USA. Japan had used chemical weapons in Manchuria, and it was thought they might use them again. Fearing a Japanese invasion of Australia, advice on chemical weapons was sought from Britain.

Australia did not produce its own chemical weapons, but did have filling facilities for chemical munitions. Bulk mustard gas and phosgene was supplied by Britain in 1941 (possibly also in 1940, although no specific reference has been found to confirm this). Australia also began producing its own gas masks, with 500,000 made in 1940 alone.

Following the US entry into the war, the US Army supplied bulk mustard gas, adamsite, lewisite and CN tear gas to Australia. US archival documents state that by May 1942 the US Army had 6,000 adamsite candles, 148 tons of bulk mustard gas, 360 mustard-filled 75mm shells, 50 tons of bulk CN gas, and 400 CN gas grenades in Australia. The USAAF had 14,000 empty 100-pound bomb casings, and 870 tons of mustard gas was sent from the US on 15 April 1942 and reached Australia in August. Some of this gas was used to fill land mines.

As of January 1943, American CW inventory in Australia was:

By May 1944, the US Navy also had 1,000 lb phosgene bombs and 100lb lewisite bombs stockpiles at Charters Towers.

There were at least five CW depots operated by the British Army in Australia, although the stockpiles were nominally for joint British/Australian use. Three were located in disused railway tunnels Glenbrook, Clarence and Picton near Sydney. Mustard was stored at Glenbrook, and phosgene at Clarence. Other CW storage locations were at Hume Camp, near Albury, Victoria, and a site on Katherine Road, about 87 miles south of Darwin, Northern Territory. Archival records list the Hume Camp depot as containing only Australian Army munitions, but these must have been of US or British origin.

As of February 1943, the British/Australian stockpiles were:

As of May 1944 the stockpiles had increased to 250,000 25lb shells, with the addition of 250 and 500lb mustard and phosgene aerial bombs.

An experimental station was established near Townsville in northern Queensland in 1942, partly funded by the Chemical Warfare Liaison Mission from the British War Office, and headed by Major Fred Gorrill. North Queensland was chosen because of its tropical rainforests which were similar to the conditions in the New Guinea theatre of war.

Around 1,000 Australian soldiers were involved in mustard gas tests in 1942, either in a laboratory in Townsville or in field tests around Innisfail and Proserpine. Gas mortar shells were tested in open fields and in tropical rainforest.

An unknown number of CW mortar and artillery shells, aerial bombs and bulk agents were shipped to New Guinea for possible use against Japanese tunnels complexes. A stockpile of 1,000lb phosgene bombs was found at the site of Embi Airfield in 1970 and disposed of by the Australian Army, and drums of mustard gas were found in the jungle as recently as 1990.

Further mustard gas tests were conducted at Brook Island on 21 December 1944 to determine whether chemical weapons would be useful against Japanese bunkers on Pacific islands. Five Royal Australian Air Force crews attached to USAAF Fifth Air Force flew B-24 Liberators from Charters Towers to Brook Island, each carrying 60 gas bombs. The flight crews had been advised that 50 volunteers from US military prisons were used as guinea pigs for the mission. They had been promised freedom if they would occupy underground tunnels during the bombing mission.

Most of the stockpiles were dumped off the coast of Queensland during 1946, but an unknown amount of bulk agents and some mortar shells were retained by Australia, nominally for experimental purposes under the control of the New Weapons and Equipment Development Committee.

A small CW stockpile was discovered at Maxwelton in Queensland in 1989. Although the bulk agents were thought to be left over from WW2, some of the buildings on the site dated from the 1950s.

Australia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 1993 and ratified it with the Chemical Weapons (Prohibition) Act in 1994.

Prepared by David Bromage
Maintained by Steven Aftergood
Updated September 2, 2002