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Explosive Manufacture in Wartime 1940s

The following story was written by Norman Stace in 2003. It has been lodged with the Australian War Memorial:

Purely Personal Recollections of Norman E. Stace

Our son Peter has asked me several times to write a personal account of the WW2 experience, making high explosives in Australia.  I think he had ideas of “bang-bang” and everything being exciting, noisy, and heart-stopping, but in fact the first step in making explosives is to plan, right from the very beginning,  NOT to have bangs in the factory.  Later in the overall picture, of course, the explosive should go off at the right milli-second. On the battle-field; not in the factory!

This early planning results in a detailed set of operating standards and procedures, which must be thoroughly adhered to at every stage of often very complex processes. Naturally,  this doesn’t lead to much excitement;  In fact,  at times boredom can occur, calling for strict self-discipline  -- for example at half past three on a frosty night shift.  So in principle making explosives is not different from any other exacting industrial process.

Australia had commenced manufacturing munitions at a low level early in the 1900’s: in fact explosives were made, for mining and quarrying, in the 1800’s.  However during WW1 many Australian chemists (I mean real chemists, not pharmacists!) were sent to Britain to work in the great new factories built there to feed the insatiable demand for war-time supplies – particularly for shells: cordite to propel them, and high explosives to fill them.

WW1 was the first so called “technological war” which showed that armies and fleets could function -- indeed exist – only when backed at depth by modern industries.  So when the war was over, the returning chemists could envisage the need for Australia to arm itself, using the skill and experience they had gained in Britain.

Between the wars, Australian industries made great strides, and the Federal Government set up, mainly in Melbourne, a munitions complex making guns, ammunition, warships,  aeroplanes and the necessary explosives.  Thus when WW2 broke out in 1939, a great expansion was to take place, and it soon became obvious that a real shortage of chemists existed.  Without some action, it would be impossible to operate the new chemical/explosives complexes planned to be built in Melbourne, Ballarat, Adelaide, Albury and Sydney.

Well, Peter, where does your dad fit in?

In 1939, just as the war began, I graduated in New Zealand with a Masters degree in chemistry, and was awarded a lucrative 2-year Fellowship in industrial chemistry at the University of Otago in Dunedin.  The war certainly started badly, and with several other good friends I volunteered for a scheme to train as a junior officer in the Royal Navy in England.  Much to my chagrin I missed out: the others were accepted.   My professor didn’t comment, beyond saying “be patient”.  Later I was balloted to be called up for the army;  again, nothing happened.

Right at the end of 1940, Corinne and I were married. (Ah, youth!  Best thing I ever did!)

Early in 1941, my Professor (who had been made Scientific Advisor to the Government) flew to Australia, and when he returned things started to become clear.  I was asked if I would be interested in joining a scheme for trained chemists to go to Australia for the war effort; I certainly was: again I was advised to be patient.  

After a couple of false starts, and a bout of pneumonia,  I found myself in a group of chemists and engineers on board a small liner leaving Auckland for Sydney;  blacked out and escorted by an RAN warship. On arrival on July7 1941, (how impressed we were by the Harbour & the Bridge!), we were met and entertained at dinner by the Australian Chemical Institute and  put on the overnight train to Melbourne (first class sleeper, very impressed).  We were met by a large group of senior executives;  taken to an office and signed on to the Australian payroll;  given an astonishing sum of money for “expenses to date”;  given another sum as  “advance of salary”;   told how to claim for expenses,  which seemed very liberal; given advice on accommodation until we settled in.  All most agreeable.  We were then entertained at a slap-up lunch,   and told to look around Melbourne.  In the next several days our group, which was the first of several, was shown over the Maribyrnong Munitions complex.  We saw cascades of 303 ammunition (they could make several millions daily);  gun forging, tempering, machining and assembly;  large-scale forging of naval shells and aircraft bombs; fuses for artillery shells (looking like thousands of wrist watches);  batch after batch of shells being filled with TNT; production lines filling hand grenades with a mixture of  TNT and barium nitrate; a quick look-over the explosive plants; the R&D department; the library;  the Metrology section where they could measure dies and screw threads in ten-thousandth’s of an inch.  This is only part of what we saw: the effect on our group was one of overwhelming astonishment.  We were certainly motivated to become part of Australia’s war effort.

Our guides were sometimes as wide-eyed as we were; apparently our tour of inspection was the first of its kind for thoroughness and scope.

Then the group was broken up, and we each went to our allocated sections; several to Research; some to Development; others to Factory  Laboratories and three to explosives manufacture – I to TNT,  one to Nitro-glycerine, another to Cordite.  It was my good luck to find a fellow Kiwi at TNT:  we had several mutual friends, and he went out of his way to show me the ropes.

For the next fifteen months I was on shift work, which was an ideal way of learning every detail of a plant which in several stages reacted concentrated sulphuric and nitric acids with toluene, ending up with the finished product looking like cornflakes. The chemistry was very simple but there were some surprising little deviations from theory, and these caused the crude product to contain impurities which had to be removed.  The plant was based on processes devised in Britain in a hurry early in the First War, and the purification steps were cumbersome and unhygienic.  The chemist in charge of our plant had the bright idea of changing several key variables – Temperature, pH, Time, Concentration; and a quick trial showed promise.  So he disappeared into the main Development lab, and successfully came up with a greatly improved practical process.  I wondered if our old rattly plant was to be upgraded, but was told only the new, much larger plants would benefit.  This made sense; we could make a mere 25 tons weekly: by contrast ICI’s just-commissioned plant a few miles away made 80 tons and the two new Government factories under construction were each designed for 100 tons weekly. (These latter plants never reached their potential, but more about that later).

Imbued by this example, I looked for a comparable project, and made a thorough analysis of the various plant operations; soon it became clear that a great improvement could be made by a simple re-arrangement – a 60% increase in capacity with no extra labour, and at modest cost.  My report attracted approving comment from the senior staff but no action resulted. (Again, more about that later).

A most important event happened on December 5, 1941---note the date.  Dear Corinne arrived, having traveled across the Tasman by the American Matson liner, and we were joyously re-united.  

Pearl Harbour changed everything, including TNT production in Australia.  We soon had an example; one evening I arrived for the night shift, to find the afternoon chemist in a high state of excitement; he had just been phoned from Geelong docks where a shipload of American TNT was being unloaded.  A sling had broken, some boxes had fractured and bare explosive was lying on the wharf: what to do?  He advised the alarmed wharfie to gently sweep up the scattered flakes and to put them into buckets of water and then just carry on.  Rumour spread that 10,000 tons was on the ship,  and I cannot confirm this, but later on towards the end of the War, I was reliably informed that USA had sent a total of 30,000 tons to Australia. Such amounts overwhelmed our domestic output,  but were tiny in comparison with the half million tons scheduled in US for 1944.

The first general effect of Pearl Harbour was increased pressure for output at all levels:  the Japanese were at our gates, and no-one could foresee how things would turn out.  This push for production had a unhappy outcome.  One sunny afternoon I heard a thump and felt a shockwave: not far away a brown-grey cloud was rapidly ascending from the anti-blast walls of a nearby plant.  My first action was to go quickly over our unit to check if all was OK.  From the top storey I had a clear picture of what was going on; a Detonator magazine had gone up and flames were licking in the wreckage.  Men in bright scarlet overalls (the Det operators all wore these) were running out hoses, and soon had the fires under control.  For a short time, with these brilliant uniforms, the scene was like a stage production of Hades, but this was no make-believe.  The official enquiry, which was published, was quite damning.  Under pressure for output, protocols for the magazines had been breached, and boxes were stacked higher than they should.  A tumble was presumed to have set things off.

I found this spell to be interesting, although shift work was at times physically trying.  Afternoon shift was the best: it was called “gentleman’s hours”; get up late, enjoy a pleasant lunch, stroll to the city for window shopping, and catch the tram to work.  But the first two night shifts were always testing, sleeping in daytime I found difficult:  today we would call it jet-lag.  So I borrowed books on explosives from the Research library, which had an astonishing number and if my head started to droop, or the office grew too cold, I knew it was time to go into the plant and chat with the men who all had the same problem.  For a while, until austerity clamped down, we supervisors could walk to (a rather distant) staff canteen for a fine mid-shift three course meal, and it was always good to “talk shop”, with fellow chemists and discuss the problems of the day.  Sometimes one would be invited to look over another plant in the factory;  I don’t know if this was legal, but in the middle of the night who would know?  In this way we all got an insight of what was an eye-opening variety of activity: torpedo heads loaded with a special “Torpex” mixture; landmines assembled in their scores of thousands; Sulphuric and Nitric acids being made and concentrated; gun-cotton (actually gun-paper, an aussie genius had discovered that eucalyptus fibre was just fine) mixed with nitro-glycerine to make cordite:  cordite extruded into thousands of miles of coarse and sometimes hollow threads, to be chopped into lengths for processing in warm ovens; glycerine nitrated to nitro-glycerine - it gives you a fine headache! – made in 1-ton lots; it was slightly chilling to look at massive amounts of this sensitive material; and always the shell-filling, long rows going into the distance.

And lots more. It was well organized, and it worked. There were thousands of men and women in the factory, and my mind could not help but think that around the world there would be hundreds of similar plants only much bigger.

I should mention “burning –off”. This was a fenced area for disposal of waste explosives; almost all came from the cordite and gun-paper plants as scrap, floor sweepings, or out-of-spec material. These (but not detonating explosives) could be safely burned if not confined. For some reason, this area was under the control of the TNT day foreman, and from time to time he would announce “-burning off today”, and solemnly take out the key to the box marked “Matches” which would then be used to light a carefully-prepared fuse-train leading to the explosives. These would ignite in a spectacular burst of flame. One day he asked me to look at something which didn’t seem right; it was a round green-grey disk with a cheesy texture, about 2ft diameter, weighing about 100lbs.  It certainly wasn’t right, and turned out to be the steamed-out charge of an unexploded Japanese bomb from Darwin; the chemist who emptied it had said in all innocence “— take it to the Burningoff Ground”. A few days later there was a general notice tightening the disposal of scrap and explosive waste. Interestingly, the material was an unusual explosive which reflected the Japanese lack of toluene.

During my first year, a handful of men passed through the unit for special training, and these (including my kiwi friend) were sent to Adelaide to start up the explosives section of a large ammunition factory.  A similar plant was reputed to be under construction near Villawood, west of Sydney.

With time I seemed to become better known: senior men would nod and sometimes know my name, and I wondered if there was any chance of being selected to go to this new factory.  In late 1942 this came true: I was told that I was destined to be the Chemist in Charge of the 100 ton-perweek TNT plant. So towards the end of 1942 Corinne and I, with little 7-month Helen, spent 2 months in Adelaide before going to Sydney.

In Adelaide I had the first inkling that the War was changing,  and this needs some background. The basic assumption on which these great factories had been planned was that WW2 would be like WW1, with millions shells raining down in great artillery barrages, but for Australia at least, it didn’t work out that way. So when invited to look over one of the ammunition assembly plants, I was puzzled to see production at almost a token rate. From today’s viewpoint it’s easy to see the reasons: jungle warfare doesn’t call for lots of heavy ammunition; anyway the Americans were in charge and had their own dedicated massive supply lines; and above all, the terrible defeats on all fronts ceased by the end of 1942: although years of desperate fighting were yet to come, we had started to win.

All this was obscured in the future, of course, so I was puzzled. However, we did get a hint that basic explosives were still in short supply.

Just before Christmas 1942, we went to Sydney and I started work at the new explosives factory at Villawood. No slowdown there! Obviously there had been a slow start in the early war days, and someone was trying to make up for lost time. It had been planned on a big scale, several square miles bounded on the South by the Hume highway, on the West by Woodville road, reaching to Chester Hill and almost to the main waterpipes supplying Sydney. It certainly was a hive of construction industry; rumoured to be fifteen thousand men when I arrived. A severe drought didn’t help, causing water to be severely rationed.

Things proceeded at a headlong pace for several months, and everyone was looking forward to an early start of production. Then, almost imperceptibly, things started to slow down: engineers were moved to new projects; skilled tradesmen became scarce; morale of the awaiting production staff was dented. A late project was the sewer connection, and the unhygienic dunnies were a cause of problems. I went down with severe dysentery (yes, you sure lose lots of blood!). And so 1943 went by, and then even the early part of next year; it wasn’t until well into 1944 that we got going. My small team of chemist supervisors were so keen!  We didn’t realize what was happening, and the penny didn’t drop until I was just assembling the staff (mostly women) for shift work, when a telegram came from the Department in Melbourne “DO NOT REPEAT NOT START SHIFT. CONTINUE DAY WORK ONLY”. So production crawled along at a snail pace: in fact we made no more than a thousand tons.

I realized why my proposal to increase capacity by 60% (it could have been so easily incorporated in the new plant at no cost) had not been adopted. We did have the new procedure for purification, and it was a great success. In fact it was the main reason why we had started at all: after the war I met a senior man from Melbourne headquarters who told me that a production-scale test was required, and we were it. Our quality was much superior to the American TNT being used at the shell-filling plants, and the purification loss was lower. 

Since this is a personal record, I have to say that I was quite busy, despite the slow operating rate. Top-level managers were disappearing to new projects: later I learned they were planning new technology - - the war had ushered in many innovations, particularly for high explosives (RDX; spoken about in hushed voices), propellants and rockets. So rather to my surprise I was given a couple legs up the organization scale, and called on to take charge of the several square miles of many-faceted stores, magazines, maintenance shops and above all, the large acid factories, which fed  the Explosives plant, and recycled  its spent acid. Keeping all this going at a slow rate called for careful planning, in fact it was much more difficult than “going flat out”. The two raw materials were elemental sulphur which was burned and catalysed to make fuming sulphuric acid [105% strength - - I’ll leave you to work that one out] and aqueous ammonia which was recovered from Sydney’s gasworks, dehydrated and burned over a platinum catalyst to nitric acid. Juggling these two acids, concentrating, recycling and mixing them, was something I had to understand very quickly, but fortunately the man in charge was experienced and co-operative and we worked well together, particularly when the time came to close everything down.  Until then, of course, and afterwards, the organization’s structure had to be maintained: telephones, transport, canteens, paymaster (v. imp!) and a million other items all needed attention. So I was busy indeed; firstly keeping things going, then closing them down in an ordered sequence.

It became obvious to everyone that closure was imminent, and by the end of 1944 the program to put the Acid and TNT plants on a “care & maintenance” basis was well on the way. Not a difficult program, merely attention to detail; no trace of TNT or acid must remain. But I merely set things on their way, for early in 1945 I left the Government service, and took a similar position with a Sydney chemical company which many years later became Union Carbide Australia.

Before leaving the Villawood area, I should mention an interesting incident. My boss in Melbourne warned me of an important visit due in a few days: everything had to be in good order. No, he couldn’t tell me what it was about - - just have things in good shape. I assumed it was an inspection team from the headquarters of Explosive Supply to see how the close-down was going, and prepared a summary of what was planned, what had been done and what had yet to be done. On the day, a group of men in civilian clothes arrived, escorted by the Boss from Melbourne: I must have looked as if I was aiming to join them, but the Boss cut me off & hissed in my ear “ - - it’s not for you; push off!”. So it was something secret, but you cannot beat the rumour mill; it turned out that the men were from the British Navy planning to bring the main fleet to the Pacific, and were looking for a site for a major store complex in the Sydney area. The rumour mill even knew that the decision was unfavourable!

 
Norman Stace, Perth, c.1959

 

There’s another little story. You will remember that I had been sent to Australia to work in the  Australian munitions industry, and when word of my leaving the Government service reached New Zealand, someone there looked at the original agreement and called loudly and plaintively that “Stace must return to fulfill his obligations”. Sounded ominous! But I was determined to stay in Australia - - anyway, my new job-to-be was to take charge of a substantial complex which had been built to make the raw material for “explosives initiators” (which ensured that the detonator in a shell would in fact set off the TNT). Though not on Government land, everything had been built with Government money: it was a so-called Annexe, a device to use the resources of private industry. So I would still be working, both in fact and in spirit, in line with the original agreement. Someone in Wellington didn’t get the point, and telegrams flew to-and-fro across the Tasman, until a friend in Explosives Supply proposed I contact a Mr Nash, the NZ Technical Liaison officer in Melbourne. My advisor said “ - -  his dad is the politician, Walter Nash”. So when I saw him, my story was ready “ - - We met some years ago :when I kicked a football from the Hutt High School into your backyard and you were kind enough to let me get it back” [quite true]. Of course, he didn’t remember, but it was a good start to the discussion, and he promised to “ - - sort Wellington out”, which he did promptly. And everything went through.  

I tell this story for two reasons: firstly, it’s who you know rather than what you know and secondly, it’s why and how all five of you children were brought up in OZ and not in NZ.

The remainder of the War was spent as the supervisor of a most interesting complex, not too different in principle from the Villawood plant I had just left, but different enough in detail to make the job challenging. Originally built to make Dimethyl and Monoethyl Aniline (the first is the raw material for a high-explosive initiator, and the second is a chemical stabilizer for propellants), neither was being produced at the time: ample supply was available. However there was still demand for the intermediates, (aniline, nitrobenzene, nitric acid and ammonia), and as orders came through, the plants would be started, but at a low overall rate. Operating in this way demanded serious planning and new managing skills, but I took to it like a duck to water. The most interesting work was proposing to convert part of the plant to a new project.

Then came V-E Day, in August V-J Day; and that was the end of the War.

In summary, what had I personally achieved? Without boasting, I had gained a good name (probably better than deserved:  I had the good luck to be the right man when senior positions became vacant), and I was seriously head-hunted by three Managing Directors seeking to create new industries in the post-war world. Also, I could have stayed in the Government munitions. All this, together with the feeling of general optimism in Australia, confirmed the decision not to return to New Zealand, and to stay (at first anyway) in Sydney.

And our family? At war’s end, Corinne and I had two wonderful, cheerful, lively toddlers and the third on the way. An achievement which puts in the shade my slight success in industry!

 

 

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