Why were there chemical weapons in Australia?

On 22 January 1930 Australia ratified the Geneva Protocol of 1925 which banned the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases in time of war. Australia’s ratification was no doubt influenced to some degree by the World War I experience of Australian soldiers who suffered the deadly and debilitating effects of gas exposure.

At least as early as August 1937, some twenty-five months before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Australia was giving preliminary consideration to the need for war gas procurement. The Department of Defence’s Controller-General of Munitions Supply published an article entitled: ‘Chlorine from the Aspect of Defence’6 in which he noted that chlorine was a major component of many chemical weapons and argued the need to expand the chlorine industry to meet defensive needs, as would have been permitted under the Geneva Protocol of 1925. While the Geneva Protocol prohibited the initial use of chemical weapons, its terms did not prevent a nation either manufacturing or importing these weapons and thus reserving a capability for retaliatory strikes. The Controller-General concluded that Australia should devote time and money to the study and development of a chemical arm as ‘gas was a decisive weapon and its use would be resorted to in warfare whenever and wherever feasible.’

It was Japan’s entry into the war that changed everything, a careful consideration became urgent investigation. Japan was known to possess a well-developed chemical warfare organisational structure, ample chemical weapons and defensive equipment. Furthermore, Japan had a recent history of using these weapons against China. Finally, Japan had spurned the only international control of such weapons – the Geneva Protocol of 1925. For Australia, a theoretical possibility now became a distinct possibility. The debate moved from ‘if’ chemical weapons should be procured to ‘when’.

On 16 March 1942, the day after Singapore fell, the Defence Committee argued that a formal arrangement should be made with Britain for the export of chemical weapons stocks to Australia. The request itself came three weeks later on 10 March 1942. Ironically, in March 1941, a report had been produced on the vulnerability of Singapore to attack by chemical warfare. The report noted that ‘intelligence reports have stated that the Japanese are familiar with chemical warfare methods so that the possibility of the use of gas by them cannot be ignored.’ Ultimately, however, the Japanese captured Singapore by conventional means.

The response from Britain was swift and reassuring. The Australian Prime Minister received news on 24 March 1942 that immediate action was being taken to supply Australia’s needs. The Australian Army would receive a six-month supply of 25-pounders, and shells for 4.5-inch howitzer and 6-inch howitzer artillery units.  As soon as transport could be arranged, available supplies were to be dispatched.