"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep...He raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves...they reel to and fro and stagger like drunken sailors!" (psalm 107)

The Sinking of HMAS Woomera

RAN Banner

HMAS Woomera sank on 11th. October 1960, after an explosion and fire

HMAS Woomera

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.

These included:

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

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.

HMAS <i>Woomera</i>

"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

Displacement 603 tons
Length 125 feet
Beam 12 feet, 6 inches
Propulsion Ruston-Hornsby diesel engines - 2 shafts, 306 BHP
Speed 7.5 knots
Range 1000 nm @ 7.5 knots
Complement 3 Officers, 17 Ratings

This web site built and owned by Phil Bensted, feel free to use, copy or publish any images or parts of these pages. Pages in my web site represent my own views and I do not pretend or assume to, nor do I, represent others.