The Sinking of HMAS Woomera
HMAS Woomera sank on 11th. October 1960, after an explosion and fire
The Woomera was a wooden motor vessel built by the Australian Shipbuilding Board in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1945 and commissioned as AV (Army Vessel) Ashburton on 20th. January 1946. She was first used by the Australian Army, before being taken over by the Royal Australian Navy in early 1946 and renamed HMAS Woomera (spear thrower). Her main role was store carrying and ammunition dumping. As such she travelled widely around Australia and New Guinea.
On 11th. of October 1960, whilst dumping ammunition off Sydney, a huge explosion ripped through the ship. She burst into flames and quickly sank. Two sailors lost their lives.
Sydney Ammunition Pipeline
The term "Sydney Ammunition Pipeline" came into use during the early 1800s as a convenient way of denoting the complex of storage depots, maintenance depots and transport routes that terminated at naval ships moored at the Man of War anchorage in Port Jackson. Elements that made up these routes, and as management of military and civilian explosives was unified in the Colony of New South Wales, including non-naval elements. In the case of military ammunition, the "pipeline" particularly served the various fortifications around the Port of Sydney, all of which had their own "expense" magazines.
|First Redoubt 1788-1791||Dawes Battery 1788-1870||Fort Phillip 1804-1807|
|Fort Macquarie 1814-1890||Macquarie Point Battery 1856-1870||Fort Denison 1856-1870|
|Bradley's Head Batteries 1839-1903||Steel Point Battery 1871-1903||Chowder Bay Submarine Mining Depot 1891-1922|
|George's Heights Batteries 1871-1939||George's Head Batteries 1875-1920||Obelisk Point 1801-1806|
|Middle Head Batteries 1853-1960||North Head Battery 1838-1960||South Head Battery 1854-1963|
|Signal Hill Battery 1893-late 1930s||Coogee Battery 1893-1945||Bondi Battery 1893-1945|
|Henry Head Battery 1895-1918||Bare Island Fort 1885-1910|
Spectacle Island is an island in Sydney Harbour, Australia. It lies in the main channel of the western section of the harbour, upstream of the Harbour Bridge, adjacent to the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne and just west of Cockatoo Island. Dating from 1865, the island is historically significant as it is the oldest naval explosives manufacturing and storage complex in Australia. Originally built to store government gunpower, the island was converted to store naval munitions in 1893, for which purpose it hosts storesheds, jetties and an internal railway system. The island had been significantly increased in size by the use of waste from a coalmine in nearby Balmain.
At the end of WW11 the Navy continued to operate the site and it remained an intrinsic part of the Sydney Ammunition Pipeline. The pipeline is the term used to describe the movement of ammunition from storage facilities such as the Marylands Factory, the RAN Armament Depot at Kingswood via road to the Newington Armament Depot where it was transported by water to Specticle Island, Garden Island or directly to ships on Sydney's number 4 buoy. The Navy was still using the site for the transfer of armaments up to December 1999 (for use in East Timor). The site was handed to the NSW State Government in January 2000. Armaments used by Australian, British and United States Navy ships were received, inspected, tested, stored and distributed at these Depots. Armaments included gunpowder, explosive shells, cordite, fuses, depth charges, torpedoes and rockets.
"Dumping at Sea" Operations
The pipeline also served the loading of ships with obsolete ammunition for disposal by dumping over the 100 fathom line 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 WW11, large stocks of ammunition, including chemical ammunition, originating from both Australian and US services, were dumped off Sydney.
On the HMAS Watson duty watch roster for the 11th October, promlogated the afternoon before, I was duty ashore to crew Woomera (As were 8 or 9 others) dumping ammunition off Sydney Heads as was my room mate, Geoff V - Ordinary Seaman (Ord.) Robert Herd - "Herdy" - asked if he could swap duty roster as he wanted to go out on Woomera to collect white silk parachutes which were made into "tiddly fronts" - the white "shirt" worn under the traditional winter uniform top. Robert Herd, who joined the Navy the same day as me and underwent basic training in our intake, was a close friend and he went in our place. He was lost when Woomera caught fire and sank. It was widely rumoured at the time that the accident was a result of souveniring of the parachutes from obselete illuminating star shells. Star shells contained the element Phosphorous, which combusted when exposed to air. The other sailor to be lost was an ex RN Able Seaman, AB Bryant Baker.
Survivors in the water, before being rescued by HMAS Quickmatch and HMS Cavendish, were harassed by giant Wandering Albatross pecking at their heads and shoulders. When our comrades returned from this traumatic event and told their stories we were all very, very solemn. I have often reflected on what may have happened that day had we not swapped duties.
HMAS Woomera Statistics
|Beam||12 feet, 6 inches|
|Propulsion||Ruston-Hornsby diesel engines - 2 shafts, 306 BHP|
|Range||1000 nm @ 7.5 knots|
|Complement||3 Officers, 17 Ratings|