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Sydney Ammunition Pipeline

Loading ship with shell

Sydney, NSW. May, 1940. A workman gives instructions to the crane driver on lifting 8" gun shells from the wharf to load into a lighter for transfer to an RAN cruiser. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial.(http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/001644)

The term "Sydney Ammunition Pipeline" came into use during the 1980s as a convenient way of denoting the network of armament depots, maintenance establishments and transport routes that terminated at naval ships moored at explosives buoys in the Man of War anchorage in Port Jackson. This page describes the elements that made up these routes over time, and as management of military and civilian explosives was unified in the Colony of New South Wales, non-naval elements are also described. In the case of military ammunition, the pipeline particularly served the various fortifications around the Port, all of which had their own "expense" magazines. These included:

(Adapted from Peter Oppenheim, The Fragile Forts, 2004, appendix 1)

These fortifications are not separately discussed below, except for George's Head Battery.

Most references to the "pipeline" relate to the 1980s. However the pipeline has been in place, in various configurations, since ammunition and explosives were first landed ashore in Port Jackson. This was possibly as early as 15 March 1788, when First Fleeter Captain Collins recorded in his Journal:

"We continued to be still busily employed. A wharf for the convenience of landing stores was begun under the direction of the Surveyor General: the ordnance, consisting of two brass six-pounders on travelling carriages, four iron 12-pounders, and two iron six-pounders, were landed..."


Pre-1884

Pipeline elements: - Goat Island (from 1838), Spectacle Island (from 1865), Dawes Battery (1791 to about 1850), Fort Phillip (1804 to about 1832), Berry's Bay (Torpedo Corps, from 1870 to 1889), Floating Magazines (Powder Hulks) (1832-1860s).

There is a reference from 1827 (Sydney Gazette, 28 November 1827) to powder being landed to Fort Phillip at the King's Wharf (or Government wharf, and after 1837, Queen's Wharf), adjacent to the Commissariat Store on the west side of Circular Quay:

"But this is not all, about twenty or thirty barrels were landed within the last ten days at the King's Wharf. The boat, in which they were brought on shore, continued for some time alongside one of the Colonial crafts, which had a blazing fire on board, and sparks flying in all quarters. It was in the course of the day lodged on the Wharf, and a Gentleman happening to visit the spot on business, actually discovered a black native in the act of sitting upon a barrel, with a pipe in his mouth, from which the sable gentleman, unconscious of the danger to himself, his fellow creatures, the buildings and the ships, was leisurely puffing forth immense clouds."

In 1833 the brig "Ann Jamison" (or "Jamieson") blew up at the King's Wharf at Circular Quay with the loss of 8 lives when loose gunpowder in the hold was ignited.

An 1836 map of Dawes Point (from the The Report From The Select Committee On Transportation) shows what appears to be a landing place (denoted by a solid black square projecting into the water), due north of the Dawes Battery buildings, and to the east of "Walkers Wharf" on the north-western side of the Point.

In 1841 "An Act for better regulating the keeping and carriage of Gunpowder" was enacted. This required all ships arriving in Port Jackson to land all gunpowder to the Government magazine, whether cargo or stores. Other provisions dealt with:

In 1855 "An Act further to amend the Act for better regulating the keeping and carriage of Gunpowder" was enacted. This Act changed the landing place for explosives from Goat Island from the Queen's Wharf to "the Point near Dawes' Battery" consequent on the incorporation of the Queen's Wharf into Circular Quay.

The draft Gunpowder Consolidation Act of 1866 (which was not enacted) refers to the use of "boats or other conveyances" in connection with the transport of explosives in Port Jackson. There was a prohibition on merchant vessels carrying more than 25 pounds of gunpowder west of Garden Island.

This draft Act also specified that the only permitted landing place for merchant's powder was "at the point near Dawes Battery". The terminology used (with no mention of a wharf) suggests that the seawall was used as the landing place at this time.

Evidence given at the inquest into the Bridge Street explosion in 1866 reveals how explosives were transferred to and from Goat Island:

"William Bayliss, stevedore and lighterman, said I live in Hamilton lane; my house is about one hundred yards from the scene of the explosion; I was sitting in the lane in view of the whole of the back of the building when the explosion took place; suddenly I heard a loud report, and immediately thereafter several smaller rolling reports; I jumped up and saw a large black cloud of smoke with white smoke like steam underneath, and a quantity of wood two or three feet long, being thrown into the air in different directions. I have the contract for conveying the powder to and from the magazine at Goat Island; I have seen a 25-lb. cask of powder explode, but I cannot say whether the smoke was similar to that at the explosion in Bridge-street. On Friday the 2nd of March I brought 70 tons of powder from two ships in lighters, to Goat Island, to be stored there, and I was obliged to keep part of it in the lighter till the following Monday, because the overseer would not receive it, saying he had short hours on Saturday, and he would not receive it; the powder was brought alongside the Island before 1 o'clock on Friday and the last was not discharged from the lighter until about the middle of the day on the following Monday."

A deputation to the Colonial Secretary on 4 March 1875, seeking closure of the Goat Island Magazine, made mention of:

"... the danger arising from the carriage of gunpowder. He had seen gunpowder to the extent of half-a-ton lying exposed in a waterman's boat at the landing place at Dawe's Point for an hour or an hour-and-a-half in the morning, numerous steamers passing at the time. Then it was conveyed through the town in an open van to the danger of the lives and property of the inhabitants. ... Mr Alger said that powder was taken through George-street to the railway station. If the train was not ready to take it away, it was taken a short distance along the line, and thus the people of Redfern were in as much danger as those of Sydney."

By the time of the issue of the Regulations under the Gunpowder and Explosive Consolidation Act, 1876 the reference to means of water transport has changed to "vessel or lighter". From this time forward, dumb lighters with holds and hatches seem to have been the usual method of transport within Port Jackson for both naval and civilian explosives. This is probably an outcome of the 1875 Storage of Gunpowder Board's report. Recommendation 4 of this report read:

"4. That efficiently constructed powder barges, and steam-launch for towing the same, be provided by the Government for removal of gunpowder and other explosives."

A photograph of a powder lighter that is probably similar to those used around this time can be found at the State Library of NSW.

In 1876 £350 was allocated for the extension of the wharf at Spectacle Island as due to a miscalculation when first constructed lighters could not be brought alongside at low water. (In 2010 there are still ammunition lighters moored around Spectacle Island.)

In earlier periods the lighters would have been constructed of wood or steel; during World War 2 concrete lighters were added to the mix. The largest lighters used at Spectacle Island were 300 ton steel Philippine lighters with dimensions length 80-feet, breadth 23-feet 9-inches, depth 7-feet 9-inches.

In 1876 the Steam-Launch Sea Breeze was in service at Goat Island; the acquisition of this launch may also have resulted from the report of the 1875 Board. Towing craft and lighters were readily available for hire in the Port by this period.

Also in 1876, landing places were proclaimed under the Gunpowder and Explosive Consolidation Act of 1876. These specified where explosives could be brought ashore in Port Jackson. These sites were the reclaimed land immediately in front of Fort Macquarie and the north-west side of Darling Harbour, adjacent to the explosives siding at Pyrmont; the latter was intended for explosives that were to be railed to their destination. (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 1876.)

An Explosives Wharf and Sentry Box (next to Ives Steps) are said to have been constructed between 1880-1882 at Dawes Point, near the Battery.


1884 – 1913

Pipeline elements: - Spectacle Island, Goat Island, Man of War Anchorage, Rose Bay Powder Ground (for unloading imported explosives), Garden Island.

In September 1884, Royal Navy (or Imperial) stores were being moved from Goat Island to Spectacle Island, following the transfer of ownership of the latter to the Royal Navy. In a letter of 1 September from Cyprian A. G. Bridge, Captain, HMS Espiegle, Thomas C. Fenton, Torpedo Lieut, HMS Nelson and P. Tillard, Gunnery Lieut, HMS Nelson, proposing how the movement of the stores could be effected, appears this paragraph:

4. The "present use" powder could be moved by a small working party in a ships launch. The transfer of the explosives from Berry Bay and Middle Harbour would require a working party of 40 men ... The final transfer of the whole remaining powder from Goat Island would require two working parties of about 15 men each ... permission to use the powder lighters and tugs belonging to the Colonial Government should be obtained.. the adoption of the above suggestions would go far to secure the citizens of Sydney against dangers concerning which they express much anxiety.

The testimony of Henry Capper, the redoubtable Royal Navy Gunner in command at Spectacle Island between 1895 and 1900, unfortunately doesn’t shed any light on the arrangements to move ammunition between the Island and naval ships at that period. Anecdotal evidence regarding contingency planning shows an intention to borrow lighters from the State Government Explosives Department and to hire towing vessels in a naval emergency.

From about 1897 the Newington Military Reserve was operational for military ammunition storage. The Reserve was planned for water rather than land transport operations; no details of how it was worked are available.


1913 – 1921

Pipeline elements: - Spectacle Island, Man of War Anchorage, Rose Bay Powder Ground, Garden Island.

At the beginning of this period ownership of Spectacle Island had transferred to the Royal Australian Navy. Anecdotal evidence says that some ammunition lighters were constructed for the RAN by Cockatoo Island Dockyard during World War 1.


1921 – 1939

Pipeline elements: - Spectacle Island, Newington, Georges Head Battery, Man of War Anchorage, Rose Bay Powder Ground (to 1938), Garden Island.

Georges Head Battery was used during the early part of this period for storage of overflow stocks held in the years after the end of the war in 1918. By the end of the period, most ammunition and explosives had been transferred from Spectacle Island to the Newington Depot, or plans were underway for their transfer. The role of Spectacle Island then became that of a gunwharf depot, administrative headquarters, and service facility (workshops, support craft base, etc).

From 1921 forward, the Newington wharf was a pivotal facility for the pipeline.


1940 – 1957

Pipeline elements: - Spectacle Island, Newington Depot, Homebush Brickworks (including Brickworks wharf), St Marys sub-depot, Kingswood sub-depot, US Navy Depot (Carnarvon), Man of War Anchorage, RAN Torpedo Establishment (Neutral Bay), Double Bay Powder Ground, Commercial Wharves, Garden Island.

HMAS Vampire ammunitioning

1940. A DEPTH CHARGE FROM AN AMMUNITION BARGE IS HOISTED ABOARD THE DESTROYER HMAS VAMPIRE. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/133617)

During this period, encompassing World War 2 and the Korean War, national security needs sometimes dictated the use of commercial wharves at places such as Darling Harbour, Rozelle, Pyrmont and Woolloomooloo for loading and unloading of ammunition ships, and for transfers to rail. This continued to at least 1947, when the Waterside Workers Federation placed a national ban on working explosives at other than approved powder grounds. This action followed news of the Texas City ship explosion of 16 April 1947.

Crane chasing

Sydney, NSW. 1940-05. A workman gives instructions to the crane driver on lifting 8" shells from the wharf to load onto a boat for transfer to A RAN cruiser. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/001642)

Newington Depot was greatly expanded, and subsidiary storage was secured at St Marys and at the ex-US Army Depot at Kingswood.

A US Navy Ammunition Depot was constructed during 1943 by a US Navy Construction Battalion (Seabees) on land previously occupied by the Carnarvon Golf Course adjacent to the Newington Depot. Later, construction of storehouses was undertaken at Newington to support the British Pacific Fleet.

Shell handling

Male employees storing 8 inch naval shells in a shed on the wharf before they were loaded onto HMAS Sydney. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/001646)

(Note: the photo caption above is that of the Australian War Memorial. HMAS Sydney was a 6-inch gun ship so if these shells were intended for her they must be 6-inch calibre.)

During the period betwen the end of the war in 1945 and 1960, HMAS Woomera was used extensively to shift bulk stocks of ammunition between depots in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. Some rail transport was also used during this period.

By the end of this period, permanent storehouses and laboratories were being constructed at the Kingswood sub-depot as it took over from Newington the job of storing "Cat Z/ZZ" (or mass-detonating) explosives.

The use of road transport was greatly increased during this period as the Kingswood and St Marys depots were served only by road, and new construction storehouses at Newington were also designed for service by road. There was, however, a major increase in the lighter and support craft fleets, details of which can be found elsewhere. It was during this period that the first concrete ammunition lighters were constructed by the Timms Bridge Construction Co. These lighters – between 50 and 200 ton capacity - were built in Tasmania and towed to Sydney with ballast cargoes of metal ingots. Some of these lighters served in operational areas.


1958 – 1999

Pipeline elements: - Spectacle Island, RANAD Newington, St Marys sub-depot (to about 1969), Kingswood sub-depot (later RANAD Kingswood, incorporating the Guided Missile Unit), RAN Missile Maintenance Facility, RAN Torpedo Establishment (later RAN Torpedo Depot & RAN Torpedo Maintenance Establishment), Man of War Anchorage, Double Bay Powder Ground (for unloading imported explosives), Garden Island.

Antisubmarine mortar

AN ANTI SUBMARINE MORTAR MARK 10 (LIMBO) ABOARD AN AUSTRALIAN WARSHIP. NOTE THE LOADING TROLLEY ON ITS RAILWAY AT THE AMMUNITION HATCH. (NAVAL HISTORICAL COLLECTION).From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/304517)

During this period, encompassing the Vietnam and First Gulf Wars, the major change to the pipeline was the progressive incorporation of guided weapons (Seacat, Sidewinder, Ikara, Tartar, Standard, Harpoon and Mks 44, 46 and 48 Torpedoes) facilities into the pipeline, and a switch to mechanised handling of unit loads of ammunition (i.e. palletised ammunition). Progressively, explosives imports tended to arrive by road from the Commonwealth explosives wharf at Point Wilson near Geelong in Victoria, although some smaller import shipments and shipments in support of Army operations and Daring class destroyer deployments to Vietnam were loaded/unloaded through Port Jackson.

HMAS Brisbane replenishment

Crew members of the RAN destroyer HMAS Brisbane (II) D41 participate in a Replenishment at Sea (RAS) off the coast of Vietnam. From the collection of the Australian war Memorial) (http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/NAVYM0383/02)

A proposal in the 1950s to link the Kingswood Depot by rail to the main Western railway line did not proceed.

Further concrete ammunition lighters were constructed at Blackwattle Bay in Port Jackson during the early 1970s.

Introduction of guided weapons necessitated the use of lighter-mounted cranes for ammunitioning ships. Initially, commercial operators provided this service until the RAN constructed three Crane Stores Lighters. These rapidly became the "maid of all work", due to their ability to tow, lift, and provide a stable work platform alongside ships.

Photo of support craft on Sydney Harbour 1982

Sydney Harbour 1982 - HMAS Torrens Serves as a Rounding Mark Whilst Attended by Two Concrete Ammunition Lighters, the RANAD "Dunny Barge" (amenities lighter) and a RANAD Workboat.

Increasingly stringent safety distance principles for storage and handling of explosives during the latter part of this period drove more highly planned and controlled ammunitioning operations. Typically, a major ammunitioning operation during the later part of this period involved:

Towards the end of this period, and to minimise risk to the public, some operations that in the past would have been conducted in Port Jackson were instead conducted at the Point Wilson explosives wharf in Victoria. The staging of lighters at Spectacle Island was also discontinued for the same reason.

The last ammunition operation was conducted over the Newington wharf on 14 December 1999.

Photo of last wharf operation at Newington

The photo above was taken on 14 December 1999 by Mike Fuller, who drove the crane for this final operation. Standard missiles are being loaded into a concrete ammunition lighter. In the photo below, a lighter is being covered up for the last time. (My thanks to Mike Fuller for permission to use these photos.)

Photo of last wharf operation at Newington

"Dumping at Sea" Operations

The pipeline also served the loading of ships with obsolete ammunition for disposal by dumping at the "dumping ground" off Port Jackson. Such operations were being conducted by both service and civilian authorities by the 1890s and ceased in the 1970s when international conventions on dumping at sea came into force. Immediately after World War 2, large stocks of ammunition, including chemical ammunition, originating from both Australian and US services, were dumped off Sydney; these most likely were loaded over commercial wharves.

Read about the loss of HMAS Woomera whilst dumping ammunition in 1960.

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au