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Engaging with Leviathan: A Historian's Perspective on Using the Scientific Archives of the Department of Defence

Peter Morton
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the more anodyne name of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), though the British have long since withdrawn, its functions have altered somewhat, and it has now lost control of Woomera itself.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 source.

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, Holland.

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).

Security Classification

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 Salisbury.

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 opportunities.

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 in 1980.)

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.

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