Laurence John Hartnett, an experienced engineer, was the Manager of General Motors Holden (Australia) when, in May 1940, he was asked by the Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, to become Director of Ordnance Production in the newly formed Department of Munitions. In this role, Harnett was in charge of the 2-pounder anti-tank gun production, and many other munitions required by the armed services. As the 2-pounder anti-tank guns started to roll off the production line, it was discovered that the gunsights expected from Britain would not be arriving. Harnett stated that Australia would simply have to make the gunsights themselves!
I began to feel a bit less confident when I realised an optical instrument industry just didn't exist in Australia. Apart from spectacles made from imported glass hardly a single optical instrument had ever been made in Australia. The manufacture of optical glass was a highly specialized science, and the techniques involved were little known ... Unless we could pull this one out of the hat, the [anti-tank guns] would be a waste of time ... Sights had to be used for everything but point-blank, open-sight shooting. (1)
This was a desperate situation, and Hartnett's first action was to call on the experts: he asked the Assistant Director-General of Munitions, Keith Brodbribb, for assistance. Brodbribb replied:
You want physicists? We've got half a dozen of them, roaring around, dying to do something to help, but no one's been able to use them.(2)
Hartnett met with the physicists, including T.H. Laby, E.L. Sayce, H.J. Frost, in Melbourne on 26 June 1940. It was at this meeting that the Optical Munitions Panel was established.
One month later, Hartnett presided over the first official meeting of the Panel. He continued to have a guiding influence over the Panel's activities and always had a lively and direct interest in each project.
Hartnett's autobiography Big Wheels and Little Wheels makes amusing and fascinating reading, and contains further information on Australian wartime production and the development of our own automobile industry.
(1) Sir Laurence Hartnett (1973), Big Wheels and Little Wheels, 2nd edn, Gold Star Publications, Hawthorn, Victoria, p. 129.
(2) Sir Laurence Hartnett (1973), Big Wheels and Little Wheels, 2nd edn, Gold Star Publications, Hawthorn, Victoria, p. 130.