MUSTARD GAS EXPERIMENTS
Top-secret chemical warfare research was conducted in Australia during World War 2. This was carried out under a secret Anglo-American chemical warfare policy. The Japanese had used chemical weapons against the Chinese in Manchuria and it was thought that they would use it again.
In 1942 Australian servicemen started to be involved in field trials using mustard gas. An experimental station was established in the Townsville area in north Queensland by the Chemical Warfare Liaison Mission from the War Office in London. North Queensland was chosen because of its tropical rainforests which were similar to the conditions in the New Guinea theatre of war. The Americans had considerable stocks of gas weapons in Australia and this unit in north Queensland would liaise with the American forces to assist with their research.
Major Fred Gorrill was head of the Research Unit. The experiments were carried out on recruits from Australian troops on leave in rest camps on the Atherton Tablelands. They were told they were required for Top Secret war work. They were asked to sign "Secrecy" agreements. Over a period of time, approximately 1,000 men, usually wearing minimal protection, were either exposed to mustard gas in a large stainless steel chamber, or were exposed by gas mortar shells being fired into open paddocks, or were exposed by tramping through jungle heavily bombed with mustard gas. Tests were also carried out to see how long it would take for a soldier involved in an arduous assault course to become unfit for duty when exposed to mustard gas.
There is a file in National Archives of Australia dated 1944 and titled:- "Assignment of United States scientists to work under Lieut.-Colonel F.S. GORRILL at the Field Experimental Station of the Australian Chemical Board".
There is another file dated 1943 and titled:- "Copy of cable sent to London by Major Gorrill 10 February 1943"
There is another file dated 1942 and titled:- "Maj. F.S. Gorrill - Proposed course of instruction in chemical warfare for physiologists". It would appear that this latter file can no longer be located by National Archives of Australia!!
Gorrill organised his group from the Chemical Warfare Physiology School in Melbourne to move from Melbourne to Townsville on 21 December 1942. He mounted his gas chamber on the back of a 3-ton truck which headed to Townsville with a convoy of others vehicles. He reopened his Chemical Warfare Physiology School in Townsville on about 31 December 1942. There is a file in National Archives of Australia titled "Chemical Warfare Physiology School, Townsville, Qld Jan - Feb 1943 Report on chemical warfare physiological investigations". There are a number of other similarly named files.
The Mustard Gas tests were carried out in a gas chamber in Mango Avenue, Mundingburra, Townsville. This was a portable Gas Chamber that Fred Gorrill bought with him from Melbourne. Those volunteers involved in the tests generally suffered shocking burns to their armpits, groin and neck areas where sweat was present. These tests were also later carried out in the Innisfail and Proserpine areas. Some bombing tests were also carried out in early 1944 on Brook Island by American Liberator bombers. "Volunteers" were then dropped onto the island after the intensive bombing missions
I have a slight element of doubt as to whether these tests were carried out in Mango Avenue, Mundingburra though I am aware that No. 14 Mango Avenue was used as temporary Headquarters for General Tom Daly of the 5th Division, Australian Army in April/May 1942. Bridget Goodwin in her book "Keen as Mustard" mentions that Volunteers involved in chemical testing, recall the area being known as Mango Farm or Mango Avenue. Some official sources suggested this may have been a synonym for Cape Cleveland. I know there were Chemical Live firing testing ranges at Heathfield and Cape Cleveland south of Townsville. Heathfield is probably Heathfield Station, about 80kms SSW of Townsville. Geoff Plunkett's book Chemical Warfare in Australia - Australia's Involvement in Chemical Warfare 1914 - 1945 states on page 520 that the two test areas in the Townsville area were at Heathfield Station and Cape Cleveland (Haughton River, Mango Farm) 20 miles east of Townsville. Could the gas chamber tests have been carried out at the Mango Farm at Haughton River perhaps rather than at Mango Avenue?? Can anyone help me please?
Photo:- via Ronald Watt
No. 14 Mango Avenue
can be seen above Mango Avenue in the circled area.
That is Ross River Road running top to bottom at the left of the photo.
"Keen as Mustard"
by Bridget Goodwin
"60 Minutes The Book"
Has a Chapter on Mustard Gas Heroes.
Warfare in Australia
Australia's Involvement in Chemical Warfare 1914 - 1945
By Geoff Plunkett
The Australian, 4/5 April 1998
I'd like to thank Lucy Buchanan, Colin Watson and Ronald Watt for their assistance with this web page.
Can anyone help me with more information?
"Australia @ War" Research Products
© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 4 December 1998
This page last updated 06 August 2018