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What Did the Naval Armament Depots Do?


At somewhere like the Newington Armory, visitors can see the physical remains of an Australian Naval Armament Depot. But what happened there? What work was performed?

Fortunately, courtesy of Reginald Ball, Assistant Director of Armament Supply in the Naval Ordnance Branch, we have a written account. On 2 September 1945, he submitted a 15-page proposal to the Secretary of the Department of Navy, on the recruitment, training and appointment of Executive Officers. This was the product of his experience in managing Armament Supply operations during the recent war, and was to lead to the establishment of the Naval Armament Cadet scheme.

Allowing for some special pleading (it was, after all, just 5 days since the Japanese surrender), and the writing style of the time, Ball's paper comprehensively described exactly what a Naval Armament Depot of the mid-2Oth century did.

What follows are those sections of the paper relevant to the question - what did the Depots do?


4. Armament Supply is one of three large Departments charged with the duty of supplying the Fleet, and its attendant bases and training establishments, with stores and equipment. Armament Stores, as the name implies, are the Fleet's weapons and associated stores. They comprise, guns, machine guns, small arms, ammunition, anti-submarine weapons, torpedoes and mines, all of them articles of a highly technical nature, of which knowledge is unobtainable outside a Service Department. A Store Department has four main functions, namely -

The main aspects of each of these problems will be briefly dealt with.


5. Provision is the task of estimating requirements sufficiently far ahead to ensure that when the articles are needed they will be available. Each section of Armament Supply presents a different kind of provision problem.

Guns in peace-time have a very long life and it is necessary to do very little more than maintain an adequate stock of spare parts, tools and maintenance gear. But in war-time, after prolonged firing, for example, in bombardment operations, or anti-aircraft defence, gun barrels quickly become worn. This may necessitate, according to type, replacing the entire gun, or fitting it with a spare barrel. Very careful watch must therefore be kept of the number of rounds fired in the various ships of the Fleet, and timely action taken to order replacements of weapons.

6. Ammunition requirements are, of course, unpredictable. Nevertheless they must be "estimated". This is probably the most difficult side of Armament Supply. The variety is extremely wide and the problem is complicated by the fact that explosives are prone to deteriorate and certain types frequently require replacement or overhaul.

A round of ammunition consists of many different parts - the primer or firing tube that initiates firing, the cartridge or propellant charge, the shell, and the fuze without which the shell would not function when it hit the target. These parts may be supplied joined together, or separately, or in varying combinations, according to type of gun or ammunition. Many of these parts are common to a number of different types of ammunition. Some of them are recoverable after firing and may be repaired and refilled.

The Armament Supply Officer and his provision clerks must have an intimate knowledge of all types of ammunition, know how long manufacturing orders of the various components take to complete, and carefully watch stocks of a wide range of matching components to see that rounds are complete in all respects. This requires a highly skilled organisation, staffed by specialist personnel.

7. The various types of anti-submarine devices, such as Depth Charges and their various components, naval mines, and torpedoes, present provision problems which are basically the same as those of ammunition, but differ as to method of treatment. The torpedo, for example, is a highly complicated and costly engine, used in comparatively small numbers. The emphasis here is on maintenance and spare parts, to ensure that every torpedo will be as nearly as possible mechanically perfect on the one and only occasion when it performs its mission.


8. Up to the nineteen thirties, before Australia commenced munitions manufacture of a significant scale, procurement was a comparatively simple clerical job of preparing a London order. British Industry, through the medium of the British Admiralty, produced the stores, and in due course shipped them to Australia. Fortunately for this country, however, munitions manufacture was established on a sound, if small basis on the outbreak of war, and the bulk of our requirements of Naval Armament Stores have been manufactured by the Ministry of Munitions for several years past.

It is the Armament Supply Officer's duty, in arranging local production, to follow up the progress of manufacture, provide contractors with delivery schedules, help in various ways when delays occur (e.g. by supplying components in aid from stock), and keep the factories supplied with recoverable components and packages. He also helps production in a more active role, by carrying out a certain amount of spare part manufacture and ammunition assembly in his own workshops and laboratories. By this means, he is able to keep his trade staff and ammunition workers fully employed when there is a lull in their normal work of repair and maintenance.

When, by some mischance, such as the failure of a large batch of explosives at proof, a hold-up in supply is threatened, the Armament Supply Officer must be ready with ways and means for recovering ground. He may be able to do this by breaking down assembled ammunition held surplus to immediate needs, to obtain a stock of the required component, or initiate a method of converting or modifying components to a design that will be acceptable as a substitute.

9. For the work carried out in his own establishment, the Armament Supply Officer must procure and maintain an adequate stock of a very wide range of materials, such as paints, varnishes, lutings, fabrics, felt, glazeboard, etc. for ammunition work, and special steels, bronzes etc. for gun work. Stocks of these require the most careful supervision, since their special nature, requiring manufacture to Admiralty Specifications, precludes their being obtained from trade sources at short notice, and a temporary shortage of one comparatively simple item of material may have serous consequences.


10. In a Magazine Depot, the character of the whole organization is coloured by the fact that the goods in storage are explosives and therefore dangerous. In the Naval Service, the range of types of explosives dealt with is perhaps wider than it is in either the Army or Air Force, for the Navy uses practically every type of weapon found in all three Services.

It will be realised that the Officer-in-Charge of a Naval Magazine Depot has numerous Regulations to guide him in dealing with the dangerous property under his control, but unless he has received a thorough training in the nature and peculiar properties of explosives, and in the methods of handling them, he is not fully capable of carrying out his duties. Explosives Regulations in some respects are the enunciation of ideal conditions not all of which are attainable at al times in any one place. In wartime, the unattainable may sometimes become the rule rather than the exception.

To quote one example, the regulations prescribe maximum quantities of explosives to be stored in buildings, the quantities varying as the distance between the buildings, or depending upon whether the buildings are surrounded by earth or concrete mounds or are screened one from the other by natural earth features. If his magazines are already full to regulation capacity and, through circumstances beyond his control, the Armament Supply Officer is called upon to receive still more explosives, he must decide where they can be put with the least hazard, and initiate proposals for erecting additional coverage or laying down open dumps. To be able to do this, he must know the reasons underlying all the Regulations governing explosives storage, the special characteristics of fourteen distinct types of explosives, and of the hundreds of different natures of weapons into which these explosives are filled. Utilising this knowledge, the Armament Supply Officer is continually called upon to decide, as a matter of personal judgment, upon a certain line of action on which he will receive very little guidance from external sources.

To be able to to make the best use of the resources at his disposal, he must keep abreast of changes and advances in the technique of explosives storage, as these are announced from time to time by the Research Departments of the Services, and see that his Foremen and other subordinate officers are properly instructed in all such changes.

It is his responsibility to see that safety measures such as fire fighting equipment, lightning conductors, etc. are adequate and efficient, and that the entire staff is organised for emergencies and fully trained in its duties.

He must arrange a programme of work that will ensure that all explosives in his charge are periodically sampled and tested, that sufficient tools and special equipment are maintained for this purpose, that all stores found defective are repaired with the least possible delay. Above all, he must ensure that only fully serviceable explosives are issued to the Fleet.


11. On the non-explosive side, his responsibilities are equally onerous, even although they are concerned with less potentially dangerous articles. All weapons are dangerous, and the danger is not confined to persons at the receiving end. There is an element of risk to the men at the breech whenever a gun is fired. The ammunition may be faulty, causing a premature burst. Or part of the gun may fail, causing an explosion behind the gun. To eliminate such accidents as far as possible, gun parts are subjected to very rigorous standards of inspection.

The workshops of an Armament Depot carry out all the more difficult repairs, modifications and overhauls of the guns and gun mechanisms of the Fleet, that is, those that cannot be done on board the Ships.

Besides maintaining an adequate stock of replacement of gun parts, the Depot must be ready to manufacture spares required at short notice, for which service it keeps a stock of special gun steels and other metals. The range of stores maintained for guns is even more numerous than for ammunition, comprising as it does many hundreds of spares, tools, side arms, cleaning and testing equipment for every type of gun from 16-inch down to the .38" pistol, including machine guns, cannons and rocket weapons for the Fleet Air Arm.

Unlike ammunition, which comes from the Factories elaborately labelled and otherwise identifiable from markings and appearance, gun parts, except those sufficiently large to be made recognisable by stamping, cannot as a rule be identified, except by the expert, without the aid of illustrated handbooks or sealed drawings. This calls for very careful and thorough organisation of the Storehouse Staff, each Section Leader of which must specialise in and be responsible for a limited range of stores, which he must be able to identify and lay his hands upon when required.

Here again, the Armament Supply Officer must personally see that his establishment is so organised that a sufficient stock for foreseeable needs is maintained, that his workshop staff is sufficient and capable of carrying out all necessary repair work, and that only fully serviceable equipment is issued to the Fleet from his storehouses.


12. Issues can range from sending a brown paper parcel containing a few gun parts to a ship in port by motor boat, to loading 2,000 tons of ammunition into an Armament Store Carrier, working night and day to meet a dead-line sailing date. Whilst something like the latter is happening, it may be necessary to take delivery of a few thousand tons of ammunition and bombs from two or three overseas freighters. Events of this description are commonplace at Sydney at the time of writing.

For this work, the Armament Supply Officer is provided with a fleet of ammunition lighters, motor trucks, mobile lifting appliances, internal traction for moving the stores in his Depot and a limited amount of labour which he must augment as occasion warrants, by engaging stevedores and hiring cartage.

It is perhaps unnecessary to elaborate upon the task of moving 2,000 tons of highly diverse cargo, from one-ton shell and bombs to small packages of pyrotechnics, out of magazines scattered over an area of some square miles, into trucks or lighters, thence to the wharf or anchorage for loading. It amounts to a major operation, demanding the utmost concentration of effort, timing and co-operation by all concerned in it, from the men driving the trucks or manning the lighters and tugs, to the Storehouseman issuing the articles from the Magazines.


13. Behind the scenes the Main Office - the nerve centre of the Depot, plays an indispensable part. A great amount of paper work will have been necessary to plan this operation. In war-time, it will have started in the "forward area", where the fleet is, in the form of written or signalled demands for replenishments of stores. At Headquarters in Melbourne, the demands will be coordinated, and a "loading-list", comprising a weight of stores within the capacity of the Ship to be loaded, will be sent to the Depot from which the stores are to be withdrawn. Clerks in the Depot will break down the list into several parts, corresponding to the sections into which the storehouses are organised, and prepare "Issue Orders" for each Store Section. Before doing so, they will verify from the stock ledgers that sufficient quantities of each are available, or if not immediately so, that they are "due", from some source or another, within sufficient time.

It may be that several requirements have to be met at the same time, and rationing may be necessary, in which event, some other item, not on the original Loading List, may be substituted, ensuring that the Stores Carrier does not leave with good cargo space empty. It is the common practice, in preparing such Lists, especially when haste is necessary in war-time to meet operational dates, to describe some types of equipment in general terms, e.g. so many 500 lb. bombs "with all associated stores".

Depot clerks when preparing the Issue Orders must fill in the gaps, by naming every item, e.g. primers, detonators, fuzes, tails etc.; because such stores, belonging as they do to different explosive groups, will be under the charge of several different Storehousemen, and cannot therefore be issued by one responsible person as a complete set.

The Clerks must therefore be experts in a highly technical and complicated job. All the information they need will of course be available in written, or printed form in some book or document, and they must know exactly where to go when some technical matter requires confirmation, but unless they have the bulk of this necessary knowledge "in their heads", the organization of the Department would break down because the paper work would lag behind the physical part of any Armament Supply Operation.


14. No less important is the actual storekeeping or Store Accounting work, the task of keeping a day by day record of the stocks of over ten thousand different items. This entails a thorough check of all goods received into the Storehouses, preparation of invoices exactly tallying with receipts, and posting the stock ledgers from these invoices. It involves on the other hand, preparation of Issue Vouchers exactly agreeing with quantities and descriptions of stores sent away from the Storehouses, and the posting of the ledgers from these Issue Vouchers. During busy times the ledger balances of a wide range of articles is continually changing. These alterations in stock are reported to the Central Administration, which uses the stock reports from all sources as the basis on which manufacturing orders are placed for additional supplies, or on which transfers of stock from one depot to another are arranged.

The preparation of vouchers and the posting of ledgers are not in themselves difficult tasks, but the goods they account for are unfamiliar to the layman and the clerks and storehousemen who do the work require a considerable amount of experience before they can be entrusted with it.

Store Accounting involves thorough co-ordination between the Storehouses, and the Main Office and a very sound organisation is necessary in any Armament Depot if, after a very busy period in war-time, it is to pass the acid test - does the stock shown in the ledgers reflect the actual stock in the storehouses?


15. As has been indicated already, the Armament Supply Department is staffed by civilians. There are a few positions occupied by Naval Officers, but these do not affect the general situation. The Superintendent of a Torpedo Factory, and the Officer in Charge of a Torpedo depot are Naval Engineer Officers, but the remainder of the staff in such establishments is civilian.

It was not always so. 50 years ago, the Lords of the Admiralty permitted the Royal Navy's Ordnance Depots on land to be run by the Army. Subsequently the Marines, and later the Navy proper took them over until finally, a few years before the Great War, they became a Civilian Department. As a civilian, one applauds this development, because Armament Supply is, after all, predominantly a shore-going activity, highly specialized in character, so much so as to make it a career job. It must be assumed therefore that the Admiralty, in their wisdom, after long experience, consider that a permanent civilian department is the best answer.

16. The Staff of a typical Naval Armament Depot consists of the following:

In a large Depot such as that at Sydney, there are more than 1,100 employees, and it will be suitable at this stage to indicate briefly the nature of the organisation.


17. Taking the Storehouse Staff first, there are two main divisions under a Foreman or Superintending Foreman, viz.:-

Naval armament Stores are classified in groups, sections and sub-sections and are catalogued in a number of volumes known as the Priced Vocabulary of Naval Armament Stores, under a necessarily elaborate system of nomenclature. Incidentally, the "Priced Vocabulary" is notable for, more often than not, the absence of prices (which are secret for many stores), and for the fact in war time, new weapons and new types of ammunition are introduced so frequently and in such numbers that it is beyond human ingenuity to keep it up to date.

The Storehouses are divided into Sections on the same basis as the Vocabulary, each Section under a leader with the grade of Storehouseman, who is usually a permanent employee. Each Storehouseman has one or more Assistant Storehousemen to take charge of Sub-Sections of Stores under his supervision. These also, in many cases, are permanent employees.

The Storehouseman is the person in actual physical charge of stock. He keeps the keys of the buildings in which his stores are housed, keeps a ledger in which all receipts and issues are recorded, and prepares, or deputes to an Assistant, the vouchers covering transactions in the stores. The actual work of receiving stores into the buildings, counting and classifying them, putting them away in the proper stacks, cupboards or shelves, is done by the Assistants, but under the immediate supervision of the Storehouseman or one of his Assistant Storehousemen.


18. The laboratories are under the immediate charge of a Foreman and are divided into several sections, each under a Laboratoryman, with sub-sections under Assistant Laboratorymen. The Laboratory organisation undertakes the following work:

The amount of work requiring to be done varies from year to year, according to a variety of circumstances. The work for each week must be planned, according to urgency and type of operation. This is arranged by weekly meetings between representatives of the Directing, Main Office and Laboratory Staffs. To obviate taking on and discharging workmen during fluctuations in volume of Laboratory work, hands may be transferred temporarily from the Storehouses. Laboratory work is dangerous and is therefore performed under what is called "clean" conditions, in specially constructed buildings, by men wearing special clothing, and operating under stringent safeguards.


19. Attached to every Magazine Depot are also a number of workshops. In these, carpenters are employed on the repair of wooden ammunition packages, plumbers and coppersmiths on the repair of the metal linings of wooden packages and in the soldering of metal cylinders containing such items as fuzes. Painters are employed in considerable numbers on the painting of packages and shell. Another section employing many men is that dealing with the repair and reforming of brass cartridge cases returned from Ships after firing, the cases being useable for re-filling.


20. The "Factory" is the name given by custom to the shop in which gun maintenance and repairs are carried out. Depot Factories vary in size and in detail of equipment, but generally speaking, their plant comprises a range of machine tools and associated gear for carrying out high precision and general engineering work. The skilled tradesmen employed are for the most part, fitters and turners who have specialized in gun fitting and repair and are known as Armament Artificers. Besides being highly skilled in the use of the tools of their trade, they must have an expert knowledge of all types of gun mechanisms, of the types of defect to which each mechanism is prone, and of the approved methods of repair of the unusual faults.

Besides their work in the Factory, these artificers, when the Fleet is in port, go on board ships to investigate faults in and repair the mounted guns, on the receipt by the Armament Supply Officer of a requisition for their services from the Commanding Officer.


21. At the head of these four main divisions of the Depot is the Directing or Managerial Staff, comprising the Armament Supply Officer, and his Deputies and Assistants, with the necessary Office staff of clerks, typists and messengers.

In a large Depot with a Superintending Armament Supply Officer in charge, there are usually three Armament Supply Officers, one to control Magazine Storehouse work, the second in charge of Laboratory work, and the third for general supervision of the gunwharf storehouses and factory combined. Directing Officers of lower rank will be responsible for sections of these three main activities.

The duties of the Directing Staff are both managerial and administrative in character, that is, the officers are concerned not only with organizing their particular department from the office chair, but also with supervising the physical work of that department. The bulk of the paper work is therefore carried out by the Clerical Staff, with the Directing Staff giving decisions as necessary on debatable matters and supervising the office work generally, but spending more of their time in the Storehouses, Laboratories or Workshops, as the case may be, than in their offices. The necessity for this emphasis on the personal touch, especially in Magazine Depots, will be realised when it is remembered that the boundaries of a large Depot may enclose an area of two or more square miles, and unless responsible officers are constantly out and about, efficiency is bound to suffer as a result of imperfect supervision and lack of contact between workmen and management."

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Robert Curran
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