Maribyrnong Munitions and Explosives Factories during World War II

Igor Bera is a Yr. 10 student at Footscray City College who did two weeks of work experience at the museum. I decided to do a web page about the munitions factories in the Western Suburbs because I am interested in history, especially modern history. In two weeks I went from not knowing anything about the munitions industry in Maribyrnong, to establishing a basic knowledge of many aspects of munitions work. I would like to thank everyone at the museum for making this a very enjoyable and interesting experience.

The relationship between munitions factories and the Maribyrnong area is a long and significant one. It dates back to the mid 1870’s with the construction of the Saltwater Gunpowder Magazine in 1874. Fourteen years later, in 1888, the Colonial Ammunition Company built the Colonial Ammunition Factory in Footscray. This factory soon became a major supplier to the colonial forces.

By the time World War II started, a number of factories had been built in Maribyrnong and Footscray. These included the Cordite Factory, built in 1918, and the addition of High Explosives and Filling departments to the Explosives Factory Maribyrnong in 1918-20.

These factories proved to be vital to the Australian war effort in the First World War with more than 2,000,000 rounds of .303 rifle ammunition was made in Footscray annually, during the World War I. These rounds were used by the AIF in Europe and in the Middle East.

(Click to enlarge image)

The 1930’s saw major expansions in the Ordnance Factory due to the rising tensions taking place in Europe, and the imperialistic policy of the Japanese Empire.

The Maribyrnong explosives, munitions and ordnance factories came into their own during World War II. In fact, the Explosives Factory Maribyrnong was the only Australian explosives and filling factory to be producing to capacity in the first two years of war. With introduction of the Albion Explosives Factory in 1940, the capacity to produce explosives and cordite in Melbourne’s Western suburbs was further increased.

The munitions factories not only produced ammunition and explosives during the war, but they also made products for commercial use. Tupperware and various plastic products, like plastic tent pegs, were also manufactured in the factories.

As the tide of the war began to change in Europe and the Pacific, a tide of workers poured into the factories. There was a demand for more bullets, shells, mortars, and mines was great, and it needed to be met. This resulted in an enormous expansion of the number of people working in the Maribyrnong and Footscray munitions factories.

In 1935, a few hundred people were employed at the cordite, munitions, and ordnance factory in Maribyrnong. By April 1943, the workforce had grown to 6,262 people. Similarly, at the Gordon Street plant in Footscray, (which was the only source of small arms ammunition up until 1939), employment grew from a few hundred workers to over 6,000 with in 12 months of the wars commencement. At their peak, the munitions and ordnance factories in Maribyrnong employed around 20,000 men and women.

(Click to enlarge image)

Shells and explosives made in Maribyrnong were not always used correctly. This conversation between Lieutenant-Colonel Godfrey of the 2/6th Battalion and Lieutenant-Colonel Cremor of the 2/2nd Field Regiment is about misguided Australian artillery during the battle of Bardia, 3 January, 1941.

“Is that you, Bill? It’s Arthur here. You’d better turn your mob off, it’s landing right in amongst us.”
“It’s not mine Arthur.”
“It’s not yours be blowed. It’s got ‘Made in Maribyrnong’ all over it.”
(David Hay, Nothing Over Us: the story of the 2/6th Australian Infantry Battalion. Page. 96).

The ‘Made in Maribyrnong' tag became synonymous with the Australian war effort on the home front.

The outbreak of World War II presented many opportunities for women in Australia. Due to the shortage of men, women began to work in fields that were previously and traditionally dominated by men. An example of this, is the munitions and explosives department.

From its inception in 1909, the Explosives Factory Maribyrnong did not employ any female workers. The factory was completely staffed by men, even during the First World War. (Some factories, like the Government Ammunition Factory, by the Maribyrnong River, staffed women during and before World War I). At peak production during World War II, women formed 52% of the workforce at the Explosives Factory Maribyrnong. Figures similar to this appeared in all the factories the area during World War II. At one stage during the war, women made up 45% of the overall workforce.

(Click to enlarge image)

Even married women were encouraged to participate in paid employment for the war effort. One in seven married women were usually working in war related industries by 1943

Employers explained their choice for female workers by; females' greater dexterity which supposedly led to higher quality and safer working, however the most likely reason women were employed on a large scale during World War II, was because they were paid lower wages as well as the shortage of male labor.

It was predicted before the war began, that female labor would be needed to run the factories during the up coming war. So in the 1930’s expansions, women’s change rooms were constructed. The six years of the war, 1939-45, was an extraordinary and important time in women’s work history. It showed that women could compete with men in any sphere of industry. It was claimed that in some tasks, women were superior to men.

As Maribyrnong and Footscray were the center of small arms ammunition, explosives and ordnance production in Australia, not to mention the vital port facilities, power stations, chemical plants and gasworks in the area, it was feared that the Japanese would launch an air attack against the Western Suburbs. Air raid precautions were strictly applied, with workers arriving from their suburbs on trains obscured from each other.

Safety precautions were strictly applied in the factories. Buildings were separated by great distances so that one explosion would not set off a chain reaction of explosions. This resulted in factory sites being the size of small suburbs. Mounds were created around buildings so that if an explosion occurred, it would blow upwards, instead of laterally. Mowers were not used to cut the grass, because of the fear that the vibration could cause an explosion, so sheep were allowed to graze within the factory grounds. The buildings had very thick walls to contain an explosion if it occurred, but not all safety solutions were as elaborate as these. Some were quiet primitive, for example. Exposure to toxic chemicals often went unrecognized, even though exposure to TNT left workers with yellow skin, nausea and violent headaches. The solution was to rotate workers more often on the particularly arduous and intolerable labor.

(Click to enlarge image)

Munitions was a protected industry during the Second World War, with munitions workers not being liable for military service. They were also paid very high wages for the time. Not everybody was appreciative of the worth of the munitions workers. It has been reported that some members of the armed services were disgruntled with the high wages received by the munitions workers.

However this did not slow down production in the factories. In between 1940 and 1945, the number of rounds of the assorted types of ammunition produced in Australia is staggering.

Small arms – 1,845,000,000
Light anti-aircraft – 3,784,695
Heavy anti-aircraft – 575,222
Light artillery – 1,521,411
Medium artillery – 8,021,850
Heavy artillery – 131,725
Mortar bombs – 1,840,719 (practice)
Aircraft bombs – 147,718 (service)
Mines (land) – 750,098
Mines (naval) – 12,336

Much of this ammunition was produced in the Maribyrnong and Footscray factories.

The munitions and explosives factories have played a leading role in shaping the Western Suburbs. From the first factories built in 1874 and 1888, to the high tech, efficient factories of World War II and the Cold War era, they have always been at the heart of the regions industry, and world leaders in technological development.

Today, most of the buildings have been destroyed in order to construct new housing developments, like Edgewater, but we must preserve the few remnants we have of a time when the humble Western Suburbs were at the forefront of ammunition production not only in Australia, but also in the world.

<back to museum home