When we think of the history of science in Australia, we think
at once of the CSIRO; of the universities; of our other big public
research institutions. But this is to forget another important
sector of scientific enterprise. I am referring to the research
establishments controlled by the Department of Defence. These
have made a contribution in certain special areas of technology,
and not only in the overtly military area. Their archives are
remarkably extensive and complete, though gaining access to them
is another story.
One of these defence science archives is particularly important.
The residue of a most colourful and secretive scientific enterprise,
it was generated by the work at a research centre in Salisbury,
north of Adelaide, and at Woomera, the rocket range town in the
far outback of South Australia. Under a blunt name the
Weapons Research Establishment this centre was set up just
after World War II, jointly financed by the Chifley government
in Australia and the Attlee government in Britain. It still exists
under the more anodyne name of the Defence Science and Technology
Organisation (DSTO), though the British have long since withdrawn,
its functions have altered somewhat, and it has now lost control
of Woomera itself.
In its heyday Woomera was home to 6000 people. There were another
6000 engineers and scientists employed at Salisbury. Subsidary
facilities, mostly tracking stations, were founded right across
the continent in northern WA, Queensland and even at Gove in Arnhem
Land. The Joint Project , as it was called, comprised the largest
and most expensive single Research and Developmentcumengineering
activity ever conducted in Australia in peacetime. This was public
science and technology on a truly Leviathanic scale.
In the Bible, Leviathan is a great sea beast. Thomas Hobbes,
the social philosopher, appropriated the name to describe the
centralised, allpowerful state. In the mid1980s it
fell to my lot to engage with Hobbes's Leviathan. I first played
Jonah and entered the belly of the beast in 1983 when I left my
university post, having been commissioned to write a history of
Salisbury and Woomera. Working in these archives, and telling
a coherent story of what I found there in my book, Fire Across
the Desert, was my main activity for over three years.
I was not a professional archivist. Indeed, when I did this work,
I might fairly have been described as an 'archives virgin'. I
had already written a book and several papers on scientific history,
but the research for them had been done in the library stacks.
I had never looked at a primary archival document in my life.
Further, my academic field was the late nineteenth century, not
forty years of postwar Australian history ending as recently as
1980. Instead of having all the main players safely dead and in
no condition to argue back, I was faced with a large range of
characters who were alive and kicking, many of them now in very
senior government posts, not too keen to have the follies of their
youth exposed and only too eager to foist their own version of
events on me. I often had cause to remember Walter Raleigh's wise
observation: 'Whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow
truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth'.
We recall that Queen Elizabeth had Raleigh's head cut off soon
after for treason. Really, in following truth closely at the heels
I got off almost scot free: I was only threatened twice with an
action for defamation. Throughout, there was a tugofwar
between those who wanted a dry factual record with all the politics
and personalities left out, and those of us, among whom I counted
myself, who wanted to use the archives for the activity described
by one of our opponents as 'raking through the muckheaps'. Still,
I thought my experiences, from the perspective of a user/historian,
in what must be one of the largest and one of the most neglected
archives of Australian science and technology, might be of interest.
These archives really are remarkable. It is true that much of
the work they record, especially in the Cold War years of the
late 1950s, was devoted to finding bigger and better ways of killing
people and destroying things. All the work on the trials of nuclear
devices, bomb guidance, and the many types of guided missile,
fits into that category - much of it, but not all, originating
in the UK. That, of course, gives the archives a certain melancholy
interest of their own.
But their range is much greater than that. In particular, virtually
everything Australia has ever done in rocket and space technology
is recorded in that archive. At Salisbury was designed, and at
Woomera was launched into orbit, Australia's one and only space
satellite, WRESAT, in 1967. Innumerable other firings of instrument
packages into space using rockets like Black Knight and Skylark,
took place at Woomera, which at one time was the biggest land
rocket range in the western world. There, too, took place eight
firings, including three orbital attempts, of the big liquid fuelled
Europa 1 three stage rocket. Little physically is left of all
this work except for a vast mound of paper.
The urgency of the Cold War weapons work, and the advanced nature
of the space work, meant Salisbury was a forcing house for related
technologies too, especially in fine mechanisms, advanced optics,
telemetry and rocket fuel chemistry. Australian electronics benefited
most. The laboratories were pioneers in computer technology in
the mid50s. They were planning to build a computer, LEDAC,
only a year or two after the first programmable machine in the
world, at Manchester University. If I say they led the world it
will sound like an exaggeration; but such was actually the case
for a few years in a special area, that of the automatic processing
of doppler and telemetry records. Then again, some of the first
development work on xerography, dry paper copying, was done at
Salisbury; there too were developed many techniques of complex
optics, including the socalled fish-eye lens and camera.
Also, of course, these archives contain far more than the record
of research and development work. Just as interesting more
interesting to me, indeed were the papers bearing on that
large area where politicians, public service officialdom and the
big scientific bureaucracy interact. I don't think I'm particularly
naive about the governmental process, but it was a revelation
to me to see how in the not very distant past huge decisions were
taken by two or three men without the scrutiny of Parliament,
the media and least of all the taxpayers who were paying the bills.
Nor is that all. This was, after all, a Joint project. Thousands
of documents stored at Salisbury originated in the UK. Some of
them are marked 'UKEO', ie 'for British eyes only', although no
one seemed to take much notice of that at the time. Many of them
are policy papers, review documents and explanations of new strategic
initiatives, which collectively throw much light on British defence
plans from the 1950s to the 1970s, and it is material certainly
not available in the UK itself.
Given the extraordinary secrecy which the British government
maintains on all defence matters I particularly enjoyed digging
out the details of such causes celebres as the Blue Streak
project of 1960 and Britain's very secretive multiple reentry
nuclear warhead program tested at Woomera in the early 70s. I
wasn't allowed even to mention the code name of the latter project
in the book. It was also interesting that the British sponsored
a series of tests of dummy poison gas bombs at Woomera, which
ran counter to, if not the letter, then certainly the spirit,
of its international treaty commitments. All in all, these documents
give a fascinating view of the changing relations between Britain
and Australia throughout the decades since the war.
Fire Across the Desert made a big book, but I can't pretend
I even scraped the surface of many of the areas I have mentioned.
If I have aroused the interest of historians of science in these
very rich archives, that's good. There are, however, major problems
in using them, which can be put under two headings: the problem
of dispersal and the problem of security classification. I will
discuss these in turn.
The major difficulty is certainly the sheer physical dispersal
of all the relevant material on the Joint Project. We are talking
here of a vast bulk of documents, amounting to many hundreds of
metres of shelf space. Just as the rockets fired from Woomera
spanned the continent, so the records are widely scattered, and
across more than one continent.
Large chunks, to be sure, have ended up in the care of Australian
Archives. The Australian end of the Joint Project was administered
by the Department of Supply, housed for many years in Swanston
Street, Melbourne; so the Victorian State Office of Australian
Archives has mounds of the administrative documents. The Department
of Supply moved to Canberra in 1968, so more of its records are
in the Mitchell branch in the ACT.
Not surprisingly, the Collinswood, SA branch of the Archives
has the lion's share, especially of the technical papers. They
reach back to the earliest days, when the place was first built
as an explosives filling factory in the Second World War. They
are scrupulously catalogued. In my several years of work I found
only a handful of occasions when files had been lost or mislaid.
In cases where I wanted to reconstruct a story in really fine
detail eg the planning for, and the actual building of,
the town of Woomera and the rocket range itself I think
I unearthed nearly every relevant bit of paper.
Today there is no problem, in theory, for any historian applying
for access to the historical Salisbury material. Late in 1987,
soon after I had stopped working on my book, the authorities grasped
the nettle. All the nonactive Salisbury files which had
accumulated over the previous forty years were combed through
with the help of British officials. The material was culled and
transferred en masse to Collinswood. I gather that vast quantities
of material were destroyed at that time, but, so I am assured,
only that of indisputably zero interest to future historians.
I concede that a great deal of culling was inevitable; I myself
only glanced at a tiny fraction of the material available. I am
told by the Salisbury staff who carried out this process that
they erred at every point on the side of caution. I have been
unable, personally, to test the truth of that statement. I must
say that my own experience was not very reassuring. There have
been holocausts of papers at Salisbury before, in the late 1960s,
when the place was restructured. Many of the files which I called
up, some of which I found very useful, had been marked for burning,
but no one had got around to carrying out the sentence. The destruction
sentence had been applied according to no discernible principles,
and certainly no established archival principles. All in all,
I think it is unfortunate that no scientific historian was involved
when the recent culling took place.
Step beyond the wellregulated confines of the Australian
Archives and you are entirely on your own, especially when it
comes to dealing with the Department of Defence itself, in Canberra.
This houses within itself an Archives and Historical Studies (AHS)
section, an overworked and harassed section it's powerful,
too, for all requests for file releases go through AHS. To deal
with AHS, one needs to have lots of time, lots of patience and
to know, fairly exactly, what one wants.
The voluminous records relating to the history of the town of
Woomera itself have not, I think, ever been catalogued. The last
time I saw them, which was about 1985, they were in the form of
great boxes of files, piled chaotically into a storeroom in the
abandoned Technical Area offices of the rocket range. Some, I
recall, had intriguing titles, such as 'Sightings of Unidentified
Flying Objects'. They could be there still, for all I know.
So far I have spoken only of the Australian end. In London there
are large repositories of papers vitally interesting to our science
historians. They are located in various offices of the Ministry
of Defence such as Lacon House and Ad Astral house, vast rambling
Victorian premises on the Strand. For the visiting academic historian,
these might as well be on the dark side of the moon. The old Ministry
of Supply has, it is true, passed papers from the 1940s and 50s
on to the Public Records Office at Kew, though the papers had
either been selected so much at random, or had been so thoroughly
sanitised, that I found them of little use.
Throughout we had a researcher in the UK whose job it was to
ferret through the British archives at our instructions. He came
up with some useful material but he was a retired Defence bureaucrat
and I quickly came to the conclusion that nothing in the slightest
bit inconvenient or embarrassing would ever come to us from that
Nor was that all. There was the European connection. The largest
space vehicle project at Woomera was the huge 3-stage satellite
launching liquid fuelled rocket under the control of ELDO, a six-nation
collaborative effort in which each country was responsible for
a separate part of the construction. ELDO had fizzled out in Australia
in the late 1960s, but its records had been taken over by the
European Space Agency, whose headquarters are now in Noordwijk,
Even that wasn't all. I soon discovered an interesting skeleton
in the cupboard, if you like, dating from the beginning of the
Joint Project just after the war. A vital part of the agreement
with the British, the thing which had made entering into it attractive
to our government, had been that young Australian graduate scientists
should be placed in research establishments and universities in
Britain, where they would be trained for the advanced rocketry
and electronics techniques needed for the weapons projects to
be tackled back home. This was a remarkable opportunity, at a
time when overseas scholarships were very rare.
In 19481949 the Americans forced the British to refuse
entry to our trainees, on the grounds that the security situation
in Australia was unsatisfactory: there was undue communist influence
in the Chifley Government. The American embargo (lifted when Menzies
came to power in 1950) was kept secret and has never been fully
understood by Australian historians, yet it is a key ingredient
in AustralianAmerican relations just after the war. My account
benefited hugely from a great mass of documents released to me
under the powerful US Freedom of Information Act, which, remarkably,
is available to foreigners also. (However, even some of these
documents were only released by the State Department after I made
an appeal against a decision to withhold them).
Looming over everything, bedevilling and hampering the activities
of the bona fide researcher, is the problem of security
classification. Beyond question, this causes major difficulties,
which the faint-hearted may consider to be insuperable. In my
time several academic historians tried to look at the Salisbury
papers. The whitened bones of their attempts, and mine on their
behalf, now rest mouldering in the files of correspondence at
Even I, as 'official historian', had no privileged access to
these papers at all. I had to go through a 'Top Secret' clearance,
and it is an expensive exercise. It required an interview with
an ASIO agent, which in my case took place one mournful rainy
morning in a small isolated hut, formerly used for storing explosives.
It had the atmosphere of a confessional, reinforced when I was
quizzed on my sexual preferences and other potential blackmailing
The need for that at least no longer exists. Many thousands of
Salisbury/Woomera files of security classification Restricted
and Confidential now held by the Australian Archives are openly
available on request. This may sound heartening, but unfortunately
it is much less useful than it seems. The truth is that the two
upper categories, Secret and Top Secret, were used with cheerful
abandon in the Joint Project days. Even at the time this was thought
excessive. A security officer told me a revealing story: when
Woomera was being built in the late 1940s, a plan for a toilet
block just a latrine, a wooden shelter over a pit
was classified Secret by its designer. There was almost the belief
that if it happened at Woomera at all, it was ipso facto
at least Secret. Plans for that latrine are still in a Secret
file somewhere. There are no sunset provisions in the Australian
security classifications: how they were graded at the outset is
how they have remained.
It goes without saying, then, that all the interesting policy
documents, especially the intergovernment communiques, and
the details of the bigger military projects such as Blue Streak,
were and are automatically classified Top Secret. Under the access
policy agreed between the Australian Archives and the Department
of Defence, if anyone seeks access to post1945 records of
these classifications, a list of the files, with summaries of
the contents, has to be submitted to the Department of Defence
in Canberra for clearance in writing and the Department
may, if it is in any doubt about the contents, request the files
themselves for examination. The entire process can be subject
to fantastic delays. I have been told informally by a contact
at Salisbury that some access requests dating from two or three
years ago are still pending with no decision in sight.
I can well believe it. Even in my case, an official historian
who enjoyed some fasttracking, one chapter of Fire Across
the Desert, which took about six weeks to research and write,
took fifteen months to be cleared for publication. The fact is
that there are only a handful of people even in the huge Defence
bureaucracy with the expertise and the authority to deal with
scientific and technical files, let alone with ones originating
in the UK.
This all adds up to a fearsome handicap to the user/researcher.
Like most public service files, these files are not exactly informationdense.
Hundreds of pages are repetitive or redundant; the historian can
turn over a dozen or a hundred files in a morning and be left
with a bare handful of facts, and often not even that. It puts
a real damper on that wellknown activity which historians
know very well can lead to their putting some key pieces of the
jigsaw into place which is called 'creative rummaging'.
Incidentally, so far I have not even mentioned the familiar 30year
rule, limiting access to records of at least that age. Its provisions,
of course, normally apply to all archived public documents, with
the exception of requests made under the Freedom of Information
Act and classified documents are exempt from those requests
anyway. The 30year rule, in the present context, brings
us no closer than the opening years of the 1960s, which means
that a full 20 years of the Joint Project are still out of bounds.
(It didn't end until the British finally pulled out of Woomera
To sum up, then. My advice to anyone wanting to use Defence science
archival material is, therefore, start very early. Cultivate the
virtues of patience and good humour. Fortify yourself for a long
murky adventure into the entrails of government bureaucracy. Making
Leviathan disgorge his secrets, even years after the event, is
a thankless task.