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Ammunition Repair and Maintenance

Introduction

This is a simplified, generic account of the work undertaken by a typical RAN Armament Depot of the mid-20th century. Some depots were concerned only with ammunition and explosives (Magazine Stores); others also managed guns, gun mountings, gunnery equipment, small arms and accoutrements (Gunwharf & Gunnery Equipment Stores)

Broadly speaking, the roles of an armament depot in respect of ammunition and explosives were to:

Ammunition received from an explosives factory, having been inspected there, and provided there were no broken package seals or transit damage, would be brought "on charge" as "Serviceable" condition and would remain in that condition unless something happened to change it, for example, expiry of its shelf life.

Ammunition returned by ships would be checked for broken package seals, which, if found, would show that the package had been opened rendering its contents suspect. If broken seals were found, the ammunition would be taken into a laboratory for examination for safety in transport and storage. At this point, depending on workload, the ammunition could either be subject to a full examination and repair or just re-packed, re-sealed and returned to store to be worked on at a later date.

Depot monogram seal

Depot Linen Monogram Seal - in this case, denoting Sydney (Kingswood)

Laboratory Work

The term "laboratory" used in relation to ammunition dates back to at least 1695, when the Royal Laboratory was constructed at what later became the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. More recently (1950s onward), the replacement terms "explosives workshop" or "ammunition repair workshop" have come into use. Below is a definition from 1873:

Definition of laboratory

A typical work assignment for a laboratory would be to "examine and repair". By way of explanation, ammunition could be held as one of 3 conditions: serviceable, repairable and unserviceable. To these could be added the qualifier of restricted, indicating that there was an entry in the Restriction List. The Restriction List recorded specific lots of ammunition where there was some question about the safety or reliability. For example, increased usage of ammunition during the Vietnam War resulted in a number of "in bore" or "close aboard prematures" during firing of 40/60 Bofors guns. (i.e. the projectile exploded either in the barrel or shortly after exiting the barrel). (This was caused by an interaction in the presence of moisture between the copper shell of the detonator and the lead azide filling, resulting in formation of very sensitive copper azide.) The lots involved, identifiable from the empty packages, would have been restricted from issue. If the restriction was subsequently lifted, then the ammunition reverted to its original condition

Photograph of laboratory operation at Newington in 1949

Base fuze or plug being removed from, or replaced in a large calibre BL projectile - Newington, 1949. Two of the people in this photo are believed to be Arthur Barker and Pat Turner.

Fred (Frederick James) Jeanes was born in Poole, Dorset, UK on 12 March 1900 and died on 13 May 1979. Fred served in the Royal Navy before being loaned to the Royal Australian Navy from 1 January 1918. At this time he was serving on HMAS Australia. His service record is a little unclear, but it seems that he was discharged as a Petty Officer in either 1927 or 1930.

In 6 April 1936 he commenced employment as an Assistant (Armament). Promoted to Laboratoryman in 1942, he progressed rapidly during wartime through the 3 grades of Laboratory Foreman to reach Grade A (temporary) by 1950. He had not yet been permanently appointed as a Laboratoryman. On 14 March 1952, he was promoted to Superintending Foreman of Laboratories, a position he occupied until his retirement in 1965, when he was awarded the Imperial Service Medal.

In the recommendation for this honour it is said that "in a relatively short period from 1936 - 1952 advanced by merit and ability from the lowest to the highest position in the Laboratory field and he has rendered highly valuable service to the Department."

Read an article from Navy News describing Fred's career.

Examination and repair could typically involve any of the following:

Laboratory work was conducted in accordance with Technical Instructions for Armament Depots (TIADs). The TIADs comprised individual worksheets for each combination of ammunition and task. These worksheets specified the tools and equipment needed, any special safety precautions, and the individual process steps.

Harry (Herbert Joseph) Creighton was born on 21 September 1921 and died on 8 October 2005. He started work as a Junior Assistant (Armament) at Spectacle Island on 3 May 1938. He was then aged 16 years, and had been sponsored by the Repatriation Commission as the son of a deceased soldier. On reaching the minimum age for employment on explosives work he transferred to the Explosives Laboratories at the Newington sub-depot. He was promoted as Foreman of Laboratories Grade C in 1951; in 1960 he transferred to the Kingswood sub-depot, where new laboratory facilities had recently been constructed. Further promotions in 1970 and 1974 were followed by promotion to the highest position available to him, that of Senior Foreman (Armament Supply Explosives Workshops) in 1976.

Harry was always an inspiration to both management and fellow workers. Despite the handicaps of limited education and the amputation of his right leg in 1945, Harry's service was marked by sustained achievement both technically and administratively. Good natured, and good company, his competence and positive outlook made Officers-in-charge sleep easily at night.

To mention just one highlight - with the introduction of American ammunition in the 1960s it became necessary to produce relevant maintenance instructions (Technical Instructions for Armament Depots(TIADs)). The RAN had previously been reliant on the Royal Navy for these instructions, and had no experience or training in their preparation. In 1969 Harry was sent to the United States on a familiarisation visit. Within 3 months of his return, he had produced a set of TIADs covering those US origin items then in service.

In later years, most ammunition was supplied from the factory fully assembled. However in earlier times it was common for components to be supplied, with the armament depot carrying out the task of assembly. Typical assembly tasks were:

Bundling cordite

Sydney, NSW. 1940-05. RAN personnel inspecting cordite then tying it into bundles. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/001636

A Special Laboratory Assignment

Prior to the Vietnam War, 4.5-inch calibre gun ammunition (for Daring class destroyers and River class destroyer escorts) was supplied boxed and plugged (i.e. without the fuze) and ship’s crew were responsible for fuzing as and when required. This permitted some additional flexibility in varying the fuze for emergent operational tasks. Smaller calibre types, e.g. 40/60 Bofors ammunition, were always supplied fuzed.

During the Vietnam War Australia assigned Daring class destroyers to "gun line" duties in Vietnam. These ships were replenished out of the US Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. For standardisation with USN practice, it was necessary to design and implement methods of supplying fuzed shell in unit loads on metal pallets. It was a major project, undertaken at short notice and in quick time, to design and manufacture the pallets, and to fuze the shell and pack them into the pallets.

Palletised projectiles

US Navy style unit loads

Disposal Work

Disposal of unserviceable or obsolete ammunition was also part of the role of depot laboratories.

Common methods included:

Not all depots had access to a demolition range, and disposal was often "contracted out" to explosives factories, other depots or services.

Photograph of laboratory worker at Newington in 1949

Removing primer from a round of fixed QF ammunition - Newington, 1949. The maintainer has been identified as Cec Denmeade.

Inspection Work

What we now refer to as "quality control" and "quality assurance" was referred to in earlier times as Inspection; within Navy, this was the role of the Naval Ordnance Inspection & Design Branch (NOIDB). This branch had a staff comprising naval officers (Inspectors of Naval Ordnance) and civilian technical and inspecting staff. They performed, amongst other things, a checking role in relation to laboratory operations, and were responsible for parts of the Annual Inspection process. In common with other areas of the ADF, from the 1980s onward, more modern approaches to quality assurance, based on international standards were adopted and the term Inspection fell into disfavour.

An Annual Inspection was a joint activity of the Depot and Inspection staff. A program was drawn up each year showing when each type of ammunition was to be reported and inspected. Using this program, storehouse foremen took stock and compiled a form which recorded their stockholding as of a specified date. Each specific ammunition lot, or unique combination of manufacturer/filler lot was separately recorded.

From the Annual Inspection form, the depot Inspection staff selected representative samples that were to be subject to examination. Examination was undertaken in the depot laboratories, and may have involved:

Cordite testing

Sydney, NSW. 1940-05. Cordite being tested. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/001638)

Inspection staff would also select smaller samples of certain items to be subject to proof firings. Some of these proof firings could be conducted within a depot, others were conducted at one or other of the Proof and Experimental Establishments elsewhere in Australia. A failure at proof would likely result in the withdrawal of all stocks of the particular lot affected.

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au