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RAN Armament Depot Byford

Introduction

Byford is a suburb of Perth, located about 33 kilometres south-east of the port of Fremantle.

During 1941-42 a torpedo depot was constructed at Preston Point (near Fremantle) to provide torpedo maintenance facilities for allied submarines and gunnery training for the RAN. In 1942-43, an armament depot was established at Byford that was subsequently expanded to cater for mines and gunnery equipment. The site was probably chosen because it was sufficiently far from the coast to be safe from seaborne attack, and because rail access was available.

In October 1945 the Naval Armament Supply Officer in charge was Mr. S. H. Stokes; the Deputy Armament Supply Officer was A. W. Bennett. Both were "on loan" from the Admiralty. At its peak, the depot is believed to have employed up to 250 civilian workers, and contained over 50 buildings. The depot was also notable for having mounted naval police providing security, a distinction shared with RANAD Newington. According to a history of the Naval Dockyard Police:

"The Naval Dockyard Police can lay claim to having been the last, if not the only, branch of the RAN to have been horse-borne. Patrols of establishments on horse back commenced during WW II at depots such as Byford, in WA, and Newington in NSW. They continued right through until 1952 when the last fiery steed was with drawn from service at Byford and transferred to the less illustrious role of towing a roller around the sports ground of HMAS LEEUWIN. Notwithstanding this, Riding Breeches appeared on the official kit list of the Naval Dockyard Police some time after the disappearance of our last horse." (http://www.gunplot.net/navalpolice/navalpolice1.html - accessed 6 May 2012)
Photo of warhead examination room, Byford, 1949

Warhead Examination Room, RANAD Byford, 1949

Until 1947, the Officer-in-Charge was known as the "Naval Armament Supply Officer, Fremantle," and the depot as "Naval Armament Depot, Fremantle".

Commonwealth Navy Order 208 of 1947

NAVAL ARMAMENT DEPOT, BYF0RD.

The Naval Armament Establishments in the Fremantle Area comprise :

(a) The former Torpedo Depot, which is in use for gunwharf storage,
(b) Magazine and Mining storage at Byford, and
(c) Naval Armament Storage at Guilford.

2. The Mine Depot, Byford, has been combined for administrative purposes with the Naval Armament Depot, and, together with the former Torpedo Depot, is under the control of the Naval Armament Supply Officer.

3. It has been decided that the name of the combined establishment shall be:

Naval Armament Depot, Byford.

4. The short title of the Officer-in-Charge is Naval Armament Supply Officer, Byford, and all correspondence should be addressed to:

Naval Armament Supply Officer,
Naval Armament Depot,
Byford, W.A.

5. The telephone number of the Depot is Armadale 117.

6. Navy Orders 84 of 1945 and 155 of 1946, and Confidential Commonwealth Navy Order 65 of 1944, are hereby cancelled.

(525/201/1011.)

Early History

The following account of the foundation of the depot was printed in the depot's newsletter for May, 1948:

"INTRODUCTORY

Byford being a new depot and its establishment the result of World War II, a few remarks anent its "birth" may not be out of place as an introduction to the first Newsletter.

Early in 1942 the Japanese threat rendered imperative the establishment of a major Armament Depot in Western Australia within easy reach of the main port, Fremantle.

The onerous task of creating such a depot was entrusted to Mr. A. V. McDonald, while Mr L.W. Chadwick, previously at Sydney, ably assisted in the technical and practical problems which arose.

A site of approximately 300 acres, situated 25 miles east of Perth and Fremantle, in bush country mainly covered by "gum" trees, banksia and blackboys but conveniently served by rail and road, was chosen.

In order to meet immediate storage requirements and to provide for issues at short notice, the State Explosive Area at Fremantle, covering some 270 acres and comprising numerous small buildings, was taken over. This area has, of course, now reverted to the State.

Shortly after Mr. McDonald's arrival in Western Australia, Mr. H. Stokes (our present N.A.S.O.) and a number of Admiralty staff from the R.N. Armament depot at Singapore arrived at Fremantle. These officers had been fortunate in getting away from Singapore and Batavia and arrived in ragged shorts and shirts and with precious little else.

The unexpected arrivals were heartily welcomed and quickly put into harness.

Admiralty then asked that a Mine Depot capable of assembling over 200 mines per week be constructed adjacent to the Armament Depot, and in 1942 whilst it was still under construction Mr. A.W. Bennett, the present depot D.A.S.O., was sent out from the United Kingdom to take charge.

Photo mine test room at Byford 1949

Mine Test Room, RANAD Byford, 1949

In 1943 Mr. McDonald was compelled to relinquish his command on account of ill health. He had the satisfaction, however, of seeing the depot well established and running smoothly, before handing over to his successor, Mr. Stokes.

Until 1946 the Main Offices and gunwharf were centred in hired premises in Fremantle. In 1946, however, the Office staff and all factory work was transferred to Byford.

During 1946 the Armament Depot also took over the Gun Mounting Store in Fremantle and became responsible for the custody and maintenance of all gun mountings and equipment. The Torpedo Depot at Preston Point, Fremantle, was also taken over and provided additional storage space for gunmounting and gunwharf stores. The Torpedo Depot also provides useful storage for non-explosive stores awaiting shipment, whilst at its jetty are moored three naval armament lighters.

GENERAL

The depot as it exists today, consists of an up-to-date and well equipped Armament Supply Depot complete with well traversed Magazines, Ammunition, Gunwharf and Mine Stores, Laboratories, Main Offices, Factory and Workshops.

Present activities are centred on Annual Inspection, breakdown and re-packing work, disposals and the completion of a post war overhaul and re-stowage of stocks. A lengthy ammunition repair program has been drawn up and will be put in hand as soon as circumstances allow.

Factory work is being seriously hampered by a shortage of tradesmen and little progress can be made with outstanding gun and gun mounting modification and repair work.

Since 1946 all depot transport has been serviced at Byford, and apart from major overhauls, repairs to vehicles are carried out by Factory staff.

Total personnel employed at the depot numbers 141 and is made up as follows:

Executive ...........................................3
Clerical ............................................18
Foremen ...........................................4
Storehousemen and
Asst. Storehousemen .........................14
Laboratorymen and
Asst. Laboratorymen...........................11
Tradesmen.........................................7
Assistants (Armament)........................84

The opening of a depot canteen and cafeteria at the end of 1947 provided a much needed amenity and has proved highly satisfactory. The cafeteria is well supported, is largely operated by the staff themselves, and is in a sound financial position.

A sick and benevolent fund also functions at the depot."

(According to a report in The West Australian on 7 September 1946, the hired premises in Fremantle referred to above was the Gibbs, Bright & Co. building in High Street.)

Another account of the early years of the depot was given in The West Australian of 4 October 1945:

"NAVAL ARMAMENT DEPOT NEAR PERTH
A Well-guarded War Secret.

A well-guarded war secret - a naval station in the bush, about 25 miles from Perth, known officially as R.A.N. 145, otherwise a British Admiralty armament depot - can now be disclosed. In the days when a trainload of workers used to leave Perth each morning for a destination on the Bunbury line few persons knew that these men and women were engaged in handling shells, mines and bombs for the Royal Navy. After the fall of Singapore, early in 1942, the British Admiralty decided to establish an armament depot in Western Australia and asked the Federal Government to make a site available for a depot to take 10,000 tons of naval armament ranging from 15in shells (weighing from one ton each) to the smallest calibre.

The first site inspected was the Cannington racecourse, but it was found to be unsuitable because there was no room for expansion. A site at Cardup, on the Bunbury railway, was liable to be too wet. Finally, an area at Byford, about five miles south of Armadale, was chosen. In the meantime explosives were on the way from England. They arrived in June, 1942, and were placed in the magazines at Woodman's Point, south of Fremantle.

Value About 1,000,000.

The depot at Byford began to take shape in the same month. In December, 1942, the Allied Works Council had enough of the depot built to permit the first lot of explosives to be stored there in that month. During 1943 ammunition flowed in rapidly from England, In addition the Admiralty wanted a laboratory and repairing facilities established. The total area of the depot is 370 acres. It cost 250,000 to build. It is estimated that the value of the depot and the materials is now about 1,000,000.

From this depot naval armament of all types was supplied to British and Allied ships with the exception of the American Navy, which had its own organisation. Mines were assembled at Byford, then sent by rail to Cockburn Sound, where they were loaded from the trucks on to the beach, where final adjustments were made immediately before their transfer to submarines. In 1944, when British submarines began operating out of Fremantle, a stage was reached when the depot had no submarine ammunition. This was because most of the damage done by submarines at that time was by gunfire instead of torpedoes. Components were rushed to W.A. by sea and air, assembled at Byford and rushed down to the submarines.

A recent inspection of the area revealed the immense amount of armament stored at the depot. There are about 2,000 mines of all types, thousands of shells from the 15in shell (one ton) down to the .303 rifle ammunition, 1,600lb down to 40lb bombs for the British Fleet Air Arm, and warheads for torpedoes. For the storing of this armament special buildings were constructed. At present some types of mines are being broken up, the explosives dumped at sea, and the parts sold as scrap metal through the Salvage Commission.

Women Extinguish Fire

One of the greatest hazards with which the depot at Byford and the miniature depot at Woodman's Point had to contend was fire. Early in 1944 a fire occurred at Woodman's Point and at one period approached the magazines. Before the arrival of the fire brigade the women employed there manned the hoses and successfully fought the fire. For this work the Naval Officer-in-Charge at Fremantle (Commodore C. J. Pope, R.A.N.) issued a special letter of congratulation to the women. Last summer a bushfire occurred near the Byford depot, but no damage was done. This area is protected by a water system surrounding the depot. From a bore about half a mile away water is pumped into 100,000 gallon tanks and then boosted by electricity power to the point where it is required.

In addition to the Naval Armament Supply Officer in W.A. (Mr H. Stokes) seven specialists were brought from the armament depots in England. They trained the men and women engaged locally, and at the end of the war about 250 persons were employed at Byford and 50 at Woodman's Point. Half of the staff were women. Mr Stokes was in Rosyth, Scotland in 1939. From there he went to Hong Kong and moved to Singapore in 1940. When it was decided to open a naval armament depot in Java he went there under Commodore J. A. Collins, who was in charge at the time. When the Japanese landed in March, 1942, he escaped to Australia.

The officer in charge of the mines section at Byford (Mr A. W. Bennett) came from the Portsmouth mines depot. The others, who arrived in 1942 to establish the Byford depot, are Mr R. A. Williams, foreman of the laboratory; Mr F. G. James, foreman of the mines section; Messrs E. S. Randall and F. H. Cottrell, store foremen; and Messrs M. G. Lawford and J. R. Helme, mechanical chargemen."

Closure

In 1981 the depot transferred to Garden Island, in connection with the establishment of what is now known as "Fleet Base West". It was renamed RAN Armament & Weapon Equipment Depot, Garden Island WA. The Byford site was cleared for redevelopment about 2000.


A Personal Recollection

"Later when a friend came to our home I was able to get a position in the Mines Department at the Royal Naval Depot at Byford. Workers caught the train to Byford where we had a long walk to the Depot. Later a special train for the workers brought us right to the Depot Gate as I think there would have been over 200 working there. All the heads of each section were sent out from England. There were 3 Railway Tracks to each section, the mines, bombs and ammunition. The Mess where we had to go for our lunch was 10 minutes walk from the Mine Department."

(Memoir by Kathleen (Kaye) Joan Vaux, Tell Us Your Story Program, ANZAC Day Working Group - Department of the Premier and Cabinet Website: www.anzac.dpc.wa.gov.au)


A Singapore Story

"The Japanese forces were on the Johore side of the Straits, and the RNAD was under occasional shell and machine gun fire. At times this was varied with dive bombing attacks. The road from the jetty to the laboratory was literally the front line, and the buildings there could be only entered from the Japanese side. Considerable credit is due to the staff who worked under these conditions."

How RANAD Byford recruited its first managing staff.


Like to Know More?

Dot point  Take a mid-20th century photographic tour through this depot.

RAN Armament Depot Photo Album circa 1949-1953

Dot point  These photos may also be viewed online at the State Library of Western Australia.

Dot point  The RANAD Byford Chronology page contains additional information.


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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au