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RAN Armament Depot Byford - Chronology

1942

Early in 1942 the Japanese threat necessitated the construction of an armament depot in proximity to Fremantle. The task of creating the depot was entrusted to Mr A.V. McDonald, while Mr L.W. Chadwick, previously at Sydney, assisted with the technical problems which arose. In order to meet immediate requirements, the State Explosives Area at Fremantle was taken over.

Mr H. Stokes and a number of other Admiralty staff evacuated from the RN Armament Depot at Singapore arrived at Fremantle "in ragged shorts and shirts and with precious little else" and were taken on to the staff.

The Admiralty asked that a Mine Depot be established at Byford capable of assembling 200 mines per week. Mr A. W. Bennett was sent out from England to take charge.

The main office and gunwharf were established in hired premises in Fremantle.

1946

Office staff and all factory work was transferred to Byford.

The depot took over the Gun Mounting Store in Fremantle.

The Torpedo Depot at Preston Point was taken over and used for gunwharf and gun mounting stores, whilst the wharf was used to moor 3 naval armament lighters.

1947

""LIKE ATOMIC BOMB
Naval Demolition Party Explodes Mine


How a naval party watched a torpex-filled mine explode on the beach about 60 miles north of Perth on Tuesday evening and compared the sight with photographs of an atomic bomb explosion, was told yesterday afternoon when the party returned to Fremantle. The mine, which was without detonator or primer, was presumably one which failed to sink when jettisoned from L.S.T. 3014 west of Rottnest Island in September.

It was reported on Monday by the fishing vessel Kingfisher, and its explosion marked the success of the naval party which set off on Tuesday morning to destroy it.

The naval party was led by Lieut Commander H.B.Hatton, R.A.N.and consisted of six in all, including the deputy naval armament supply officer (Mr. A. Bennett). ..." (West Australian, 13 November 1947)

1948

Shipping difficulties were causing concern:

"The greatest difficulty is experienced in obtaining sea freight for explosives both overseas and interstate. Harbour regulations at Fremantle prohibit handling explosives by civilian labour within this harbour which means that explosives must be lightered to or from ships at anchor in Gage Roads. Such lighterage is only practicable in calm weather. The Department now has one 300-ton and three 100-ton lighters - particularly necessary at Fremantle where commercial lighters are practically non-existent." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, August 1948)

It was proving difficult to attract skilled employees:

"The distance of Byford from Perth and Fremantle and the inadequate transport facilities available do not help recruitment. While some members of the staff reside in and around the nearby town of Armadale, the majority, of necessity, reside much further afield and are forced to contend with a tedious daily train journey between Perth and Byford. Many spend 3½ to 4 hours per day travelling to and from work.

Negotiations for an allocation of workers homes at Armadale have been going on for some time. ... Shortage of labour and materials, however, makes erection of the homes a slow process ... (RANAD Byford Newsletter, November 1948)

Water supply was also a problem:

" ... The insufficient water supply available for domestic and fire fighting purposes continues to be a headache for the D.A.S.O who daily coaxes an overworked pump to give of its best from an inadequate source of supply. Arrangements to connect with "scheme" water from the Canning Dam have now fallen through owing to the State Authorities retracting from their agreement to pay one third of the cost. ..." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, November 1948)

1949

In February, electric power breakdowns and restrictions resulting from inadequate generating capacity in the State were hampering depot operations. Also, due to the acute shortage of water, cordite burning operations were being conducted on the beach at Woodmans Point, some 20 miles from the depot. Bushfires approaching the depot during working hours were necessitating cessation of operations so that staff could attend to bushfire fighting. The telephone service was also in a poor state; calls to and from Fremantle often being delayed for up to 2 hours. The Children's party, which had to be delayed at Christmas, was still in abeyance due to an Infantile Paralysis epidemic.

By May, the water supply problem seemed almost fixed:

"... Mr. Chadwick has recently "devined" a stream running in a southerly direction in the Depot and he considers that this hitherto untapped source within the Area may end most of our troubles. This stream has now been tapped about three quarters of a mile south of the Depot and has given an adequate supply at all seasons of the year.

A well has been commenced in the South-west corner of the Depot and water was located at 8 feet. This has caused some difficulty to the well sinkers. It is hoped that a practically unlimited supply will be available at less than 30 feet. If satisfactory, a motor driven centrifugal pump will be installed and water pumped into the existing Depot rising main to the storage tanks. ..." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, May 1949)

Changes were afoot to the existing storage safety distances:

"Far-reaching changes appear in the new tables of Safety Distances issued last year by the United Kingdom Committee, following the large scale test explosions conducted in Germany and elsewhere since the war ended. We are now examining our own storages and tonnages to see what the effect would be if the new distances were applied to existing explosives area, and the results to date clearly indicate that we need more room." (Naval Ordnance Branch Newsletter, May 1949)

A site was selected for an additional residence, on the edge of the Byford township.

1950

Loading of freight ships was a constant preoccupation, as stocks were returned to the UK, or redistributed within Australia:

" "Fort Langley" arrived in Gage Roads on 5th. November only to find 17 other vessels waiting in the "Rottnest queue". As a result, berthing at North Wharf was delayed until 9th. November. Loading commenced on Friday 10th. November and continued until Friday 24th. November, the ship sailing for Melbourne on the following day. Loading was carried out from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and continued until 10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No work was carried out on Saturday afternoon or Sunday. During this period just over 1,000 tons of mining and gunwharf stores were loaded.

Considering the difficulties experienced in stowing sinkers outside the square of the hatch, the whole operation was carried out most satisfactorily. We are glad to report that waterside workers and stevedores co-operated to the fullest extent and rendered willing assistance in experimenting to determine the best and quickest method of overstowing sinkers.

Low level elevating trucks, roller conveyers and jubilee rails were used. ...

The stores to be embarked were transported by road from the Torpedo Depot and Gun Mounting Store, Fremantle, and by rail from Byford. Apart from one minor delay to the last rake of stores to leave Byford (caused by a locomotive breakdown) everything went to plan. ..." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, November 1950)

1951

In 1951, ship loading operations were being switched from alongside at Fremantle Harbour to offshore in Gage Roads:

"The first major loading operation carried out in Gage Roads was successfully completed when 1,212-tons of explosives and 1-ton of non-explosives were loaded into "Fort Sandusky".

Loading commenced on March 20th, and the fact that it was completed by April 6th reflects great credit on all Depot staff whether engaged at Byford, Woodman Point or in Gage Roads.

The stores were railed from Byford to Woodman Point and lightered to the ship by three 100-ton lighters and by the local Boom vessel H.M.A.S. "Karangi". The large 300-ton Phillipine lighter is considered to be unsuitable for such work owing to difficulties with towage, etc.

The long hauls to and from Woodman Point were made by naval tow boats, and, despite depleted crews having to work long hours, loading was rarely held up through lack of supplies.

Contrary to all forebodings the weather remained well nigh perfect ... only on the final day of loading ... a storm which had threatened for some days nearly upset calculations. After the rain had eased the heavy swell made working in the lighters extremely difficult and only men seemingly immune from sea-sickness could keep going." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, May 1951)

Facilities for disposal were a continuing issue:

"A suitable site not being available within the Depot area, approval was obtained to carry out the demolition of heavily corroded 20mm. ammunition on the nearby property of a local farmer. The site selected proved very satisfactory in all respects and, to date, 13 boxes of Oerlikon have been demolished.

A nominal fee was paid to the farmer for this facility ... The only solution to the problem of finding a permanent demolition site is considered to be the acquisition of additional land on the eastern boundary of the Depot."(RANAD Byford Newsletter, May 1951)

The natural environment at Byford meant that constant vigilance was necessary to avoid fires within the Depot, which was being cleared of selected trees, dead timber, scrub and blackboys.

Admiralty staff, some of whom had been "on exchange" in Australia since the war were progressively returning home.

"Mr A.W. Bennett, N.A.S.O. since the departure of Mr. Stokes in January 1950, and D.A.S.O. at the Depot for the previous eight years, sailed for the United Kingdom in R.M.S. "Orcades" on May 28th. on return to Admiralty service.

Following Mr. Bennett's departure, Mr. A.P. Skelton took over as N.A.S.O. and Officer-in-Charge, while Mr. T.A. Dalgleish, D.A.S.O., commenced duty on 21st. May on transfer from Maribyrnong."(RANAD Byford Newsletter, May 1951)

A start was made on the construction of the N.A.S.O.'s residence.

It was the end of an era:

"Mr. W.J. Cope, the last of the Admiralty Staff at Byford, sailed for the United Kingdom on the "Stratheden" on 28th. August. ... Mr. Cope, who has been with the Depot since February 1946 ..." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, August 1951)

Another option for shipping was explored:

"S.S. "Beltana" arrived from Sydney on 11th. December with a consignment of approximately 1360 tons of explosives for storage at Byford. Discharge was carried out at Bunbury (90 miles from Byford) and the stores unloaded were moved by rail each night to Byford. Holds were cleared by p.m. on 17th. December and unloading of rail trucks at Byford completed on 19th. December.

... Bunbury has been recommended as the port of discharge for future shipments of explosive stores whenever possible. It may not always be possible to use the port as the draught of the vessel is a factor." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, February 1952)

This shipment was the largest explosives shipment within Australia undertaken by the RAN.

110 acres of additional land was acquired on the depot's eastern boundary to provide a demolition area.

1952

May: The residence at the Torpedo Depot at Preston Point was turned over for the use of the Training Officer at HMAS Leeuwin.

1953

Ringing out the changes:

"Our rather old fashioned magneto operated telephone switchboard has just been replaced by an up to date common battery type. Most of us are still sub-consciously reaching for ringing handles, which no longer exist." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, November 1953)

1954

Bushfire!:

"Our normally peaceful everyday routine was violently interrupted on the 27th January, by the outbreak of a large bushfire on the outskirts of Byford township. Several truckloads of volunteers representing every section of the depot were rushed to the scene to lend assistance to the locals. ...

In view of the lessons learned in firefighting this large fire, it was decided to remove the suction pump from the fire-fighting trailer. The trailer has now been rigged out with knapsacks, beaters, etc., for emergency fire-fighting at close quarters, and the tractor and trailer will be used as a mobile bush fire-fighting unit." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, February 1954)

High wool prices result in:

"Our first consignment of sheep (43 in number), arrived this quarter and judging by the difficulty experienced so far in locating the flock, our stocktaking officer is in for some trouble." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, February 1954)

The new residence was finally occupied by the N.A.S.O., Mr. H.J. Gardner.

A new Gunnery Equipment Store was set up at Byford, and smaller components were transferred there from the Torpedo Depot.

The Canteen, which had been closed for some 2 years, was re-opened

1955

August: Construction of two brick residences for Naval Police was progressing.

Only Byford and Snake Creek had external rail links to the main state rail systems:

"With the co-operation of the W.A. Government Railways, who supplied the framework, a railway platform has been built for Depot employees at the East Gate. This platform may lessen the risk of broken limbs, and subsequent compensation claim, which exists at present, as the climb to rail carriages from the rough ground has always required a certain amount of athletic ability." (RANAD Byford Newsletter, November 1955)

1956

Shearing of the depot's sheep flock resulted in a wool clip valued at £340.

1981

The depot was closed, and operations transferred to a new Armament Depot at Garden Island.


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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au