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HMAS Woomera Sinking - 1960

What Was HMAS Woomera?

HMAS Woomera was one of a class of 32 wooden motor vessels built by the the Australian Shipbuilding Board during World War 2:

"In order to bring Tasmania and Western Australia into the shipbuilding program the Australian Shipbuilding Board decided to undertake the construction there of 32 wooden 300-ton merchant ships. Designs for these ships (and many other small craft) were prepared by the Navy Office. The choice of wood as a material of construction was dictated by the fact that while both States were distant from sources of steel, they did possess shipyards suitable for the building of wooden ships. It was originally intended that these ships should go to the Department of Commerce, but they were finally allotted to the army.

Measuring 125 feet by 12 feet 6 inches and designed to carry 300 tons of dead weight, the ships were propelled by 136-200 h.p. diesel engines which, owing to the difficulty of importation, were manufactured in Australia. Their cruising range at 8 knots was 1,500 miles. By the end of the war 22 vessels, 6 of them provided with 7,750 cubic feet of refrigerated space, had been delivered to the army: ten from the Glenorchy Ship-building Yard at Prince of Wales Bay, Tasmania, and 12 from North Fremantle, Western Australia." (Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 4 – Civil - Volume V – The Role of Science and Industry, 1958, Pp. 462-463)

She entered service in late 1945 from the State Shipbuilding Yard, North Fremantle (established in 1942 for this project opposite Preston Point) as Army Vessel AV 1356 "Ashburton" and was transferred to the RAN on 23 January 1946.

HMAS Woomera was commissioned as an Armament Store Carrier on 20 February, 1946. (Navy Order 75 of 1946). She was principally engaged in ammunition transport and sea dumping throughout her 14 years of service. This extract gives an idea of how she was used:

" "WOOMERA" our small ammunition carrier, has done six return trips between Sydney and Melbourne this year, in addition to a month spent in Port Phillip lightering stores for overseas, and several dumping trips outside Sydney. During the period, "WOOMERA" has carried nearly 3,000 tons of stores." (Naval Ordnance Branch Newsletter, November 1951)
Photo of HMAS Woomera

HMAS Woomera Working Ammunition, Sydney Harbour 1960 - 200-ton Concrete Ammunition Lighter CAL 204 alongside.

What Happened?

On 27 September 1960 HMAS Woomera embarked 56 tons of obsolete 4-inch No. 1 Mk 1 reconnaissance flares at an explosives buoy in Sydney Harbour for dumping at sea. These flares contained a friction igniter operated by the deployment of the parachute. Woomera was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Douglas Marshall, RAN; the First Lieutenant was Lieutenant Walter Bateman, RAN. Dumping was commenced but at about 1.00 PM, the wind having increase to force 7, operations were suspended and the ship returned to port with about 70 boxes of flares and some unboxed flares.

On the following day all the flares were unboxed and stowed in the hold; 6-inch shell were also embarked. At this point the ship suffered a winch failure necessitating dockyard assistance. All explosives were therefore landed to an ammunition lighter which was taken to Spectacle Island and moored on the lighter trot there.

On 10 October the explosives were re-embarked with an additional 40 tons of 6-inch shell and some VT fuzes. Evidence given to the subsequent inquiry was that some of the flares had partially protruding parachutes when the flares were stacked in the hold.

On 11 October Woomera sailed at 5.00 AM to a position approximately 20 miles off Sydney Heads. Dumping of 6-inch shell and fuzes stowed on the upper deck commenced at 7.45 AM and was completed in 21 minutes. Dumping of shell and flares from the hold then commenced using the forward hatch; explosives were lifted in trays to the deck using the winch, from where they were individually dropped into the sea. On completion, the forward hold was closed up and dumping commenced using the after hatch.

At approximately 9.40 AM LCDR Marshall observed a rating pull a flare from a heap. There was a small crack, followed by a blinding flash and a large volume of whitish-yellow smoke. A fierce fire followed in the hold, from which some ratings escaped. Due to the wooden superstructure, the ship burned fiercely, and sank at 11.04 AM.

Photo of HMAS Woomera on fire

HMAS Woomera on Fire

An SOS was sent from the ship, to which HMAS Quickmatch and HMS Cavendish responded; Quickmatch recovering the survivors and Cavendish attempting to fight the fire. By the time Woomera sank a head count had shown that two ratings were missing; Quickmatch and Cavendish then commenced searching for the missing without success. It was later concluded that when the flare initiated, they ran forward in the hold to a position from which they could not escape.

UNCLASSIFIED MESSAGE

110011Z                       OPERATIONAL IMMEDIATE

FM QUICKMATCH
TO FOIC EA       INFO D EIGHT

WOOMERA REPORTS FIRE ONBOARD PROCEEDING IN COMPANY CAVENDISH E T A 1040

//110011Z OCT 60

DIST    C OF P    GM    MA    SNSO    SASO

P/N-R-0019Z    EJF    11-10-60

What Happened Afterwards?

LCDR Marshall and LT Bateman were subsequently court-martialled, but were found to have no case to answer.

As far as the Armament Supply Branch was concerned, two staff members from Spectacle Island were reprimanded - in one case for permitting unboxed flares to be present in a lighter and in the second, for inadequate supervision of the first individual. A review of Armament Depot operations was conducted by the Director of Armament Supply, Mr A. V. McDonald. Arising from this review the following recommendations were made:

The first of these recommendations led to the depot at Kingswood having a member of the Directing staff continually present; initially this was by a daily rotation by Newington-based staff.

The Navy Office file dealing with the sinking of HMAS Woomera (1240/201/2) is available on-line at the National Archives of Australia.

It was widely rumoured at the time of Woomera's sinking that ratings had been souveniring the parachutes from the flares; the report of the inquiry into the fire does not lend support to these rumours. However the risk of inadvertent operation of the flares was known and had been the subject of recent instructions.

Dumping at Sea

"Until the early 1970s, obsolete ammunition and equipment was regularly dumped by or on behalf of all three Australian forces, Navy, Airforce and Army. As was the case for hazardous chemicals wastes, the options for ammunition disposal were limited. Disposal on land had inherent dangers and destruction was difficult and costly. Dumpings occurred frequently at the end of World War II to eliminate old war stocks (this included obsolete war planes dumped off Sydney). Again, exact dumping figures are difficult to locate, although it is known that by the early 1970s, some 23,000 tons of ammunition had been dumped by the Department of Supply (former suppliers for the forces) off the North Queensland coast.

The ammunition (historically including shells, cartridges, fuses, projectiles, guns, missile parts, pistols, mortar bombs, markers, rifles, flares, igniters, depth charges, bombs, plastic explosive, grenades, detonators, bayonets and smoke floats) was dumped, packaged or unpackaged (sometimes counterweighted), at a variety of depths (refer to Appendix G for details and Appendix K for a visual presentation of dumping patterns). Other material included old medical stores, scrap metal, tyres, boats and other surplus or obsolete material. Originally, the Navy appears to have dumped at depths greater than 549 metres (300 fathoms), but then switched to depths greater than 915 metres (500 fathoms) after trawlers working at the 300 fathoms limit had snared ammunition in their nets. Other dumpings are known to have occurred at lesser depths eg: 183 metres (100 fathoms), including the 1945 dumpings off Sydney as mentioned above. Historical exercise areas for gunfire and torpedo practice include Hervey Bay, Jervis Bay, Fremantle, Port Hobart, Port Phillip and Port Jackson." (Geoff Plunkett Sea dumping in Australia : historical and contemporary aspects, Department of Defence, Australia, 2003 p.16)

Commonwealth Navy Order 310 of 1947

"DUMPING OF AMMUNITION AND EXPLOSIVES AT SEA.
It is Naval Board policy that all dumping of ammunition and explosives at sea is to be carried out in deep water. Deep water is to be considered as water of over 300 fathoms in depth.

2. The only exception permitted is when immediate disposal is essential for safety (e.g., disposal of a missfired round). 3. Navy Office signal 300941, May, 1946, addressed to A.I.G. 112 (all Naval Officers-in-Charge), is cancelled.
(471/201/1821.)"

Predecessors

Woomera was not the RAN's first Armament Store Carrier (or Armament Stores Issuing Ship (ASIS). Although the "MOONTA" was supposedly fitted out, a check of her wartime movements shows her as having been confined to South Australian waters so she was unlikely to have served in the role. The "MULCRA", after spending the early years of the war on the Adelaide - Melbourne run was requisitioned by the United States Army Small Ships Command in November 1942. Her movements thereafter are distinctly tropical (around New Guinea and adjacent islands) until she was released and commissioned into the RAN as an Armament Stores Issuing Ship on 11 June 1945.

The Chinese river steamers "POYANG" and "YUNNAN" also served in this role. More information is available in the RAN Hindsight Newsletter The RAN’s Chinese Coastal Steamers.

A Postscript

A decade or so after the loss of HMAS Woomera, the RAN Armament Depot at Kingswood named the roads contained within its explosives storage area. The names of famous RAN Ships were used. In approving the names, a certain senior naval officer remarked that it was a pity that the name "Woomera" hadn't been used. After all, he said, somewhat sardonically, it was the only ship to die in the cause of the Armament Supply Branch.


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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au