1 Australian Field Experimental Station
Australian Chemical Warfare Research Station
- Scientific facility
Gunyarra Siding, Proserpine 4800
In late November 1943 the Department of Munitions began planning the construction of a new chemical warfare research station at Proserpine. The station, located on a farming property at a railway siding named Gunyarra, was a self-contained camp housing some 250 to 500 military personnel and scientists. Supporting staff were drawn from most of the Allied forces. Station numbers were augmented from time to time by the attachment of volunteers from the Australian forces to participate in experiments and simulated attacks involving poison gas.
With the shock surrender of the British base at Singapore in February 1942, Britain asked Australia to provide facilities to carry out experiments in chemical warfare to determine the effects of various poisonous gases, including mustard gas, on personnel and equipment in tropical conditions. The Australian government responded by forming the Australian Chemical Warfare and Research Section, later renamed 1 Australian Field Experimental Station. A British scientist, Frederick Gorrell, was sent to Australia to train scientists and medical officers and to supervise the trials and evaluate the effects. After initial tests which were held at Townsville in 1942, Gorrell returned to Britain to arrange for scientists from the Porton Down chemical warfare establishment to come to Australia and participate in further tests. Chemical warfare trials were carried out in north Queensland using volunteer service personnel who were known as 'GP's', or Guinea Pigs.
By early 1945 the Gunyarra Experimental Station formed a large complex of over 50 buildings including laboratories, quarters, stores and workshops. Most of the buildings have been removed, and today only one wartime building-typically of timber and fibrolite construction-remains on its original site.
Research into the effects of various poison gases, especially mustard gas, was conducted on the grounds that the Japanese were thought to have chemical weapons. Laboratories for the Australian Chemical Warfare and Research Section were established at Innisfail, in a row of requisitioned properties on Corinda Street beside the Johnstone River. Early trials were conducted at Mission Beach, at North Brook Island and in the Tully rainforest. Similar experiments were also carried out by the Australian Army 'Gas School' at Wongabel near Atherton. After exposure to gas, the burnt and blistered volunteers were hospitalised for further experiments on the best way to treat victims. A special ward was set up on the top floor of the Innisfail Hospital for the treatment of gas burns and nursing staff were required to maintain secrecy.
In late 1943 the Australian Department of Munitions began planning a new headquarters for the chemical warfare research unit at a more secure location at Gunyarra near Proserpine. The Allied Works Council (AWC) received a requisition for the construction of buildings and services at Gunyarra in December 1943. The building work was allotted to private contractors. Meanwhile field trials continued to be carried out by the Innisfail research station and about 120 bombs containing four tonnes of liquid mustard gas were dropped on North Brook Island in a major test in January 1944. US chemical warfare units began two months of experimental mustard gas bombing on North Brook Island in March 1944, using Australian volunteers.
At Gunyarra, the first building contract for 27 buildings with sewerage and water reticulation systems was nearing completion in July, when the Ministry of Munitions wrote to the AWC setting out the latest requirements with regard to the layout of buildings at the station, including extra construction required and funded by the War Cabinet.
The Chemical Warfare and Research Section was renamed 1 Australian Field Experimental Station, Royal Australian Engineers, on 15 August 1944. Its role in the development and testing of chemicals for use in warfare continued. Aircraft used by the unit for test missions in north Queensland included A-27 Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers and A-9 DAP Beaufort bombers operating from Bowen airfield.
By late 1944 Gunyarra accommodated an increasing number of military personnel, including members of the Australian Army, RAAF, WAAAF, AWAS, AAMWS, Royal Army Medical Corps, British and Australian scientists, and observers from the Australian Chemical Defence Board, US Army, South African Army and New Zealand Navy. The station was formally opened early in 1945. North Brook Island continued to be used as a chemical warfare bombing range. The island is now protected as an important nesting area for the Torresian Imperial-pigeon (Ducula spilorrhoa). The 1st Australian Field Experimental Station, was officially disbanded on 24 December 1945.
Pearce, Howard (contributing author)
Allied Works Council (Queensland), AWC Minutes 1942–1945, BP1/1, National Archives of Australia, Brisbane.
Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.
Plunkett, Geoff. & Australian Military History Publications. 2007, Chemical warfare in Australia / Geoff Plunkett Australian Military History Publications, Loftus, N.S.W. :
Peter Nielsen. Diary of WWII North Queensland, Nielsen Publishing, Gordonvale, 1993.
Howard Pearce. WWII: NQ: A cultural heritage overview of significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2009.