Port Elizabeth of Yore: Smoke on the Water

Mustard gas was first used in WW1 and thereafter according to Wikipedia it has been used another 14 times. Yet in the immediate aftermath of WW2, numerous people in Port Elizabeth were to endure the effects of mustard gas. How did this occur and why was mustard gas stored in Port Elizabeth during WW2?

Main picture: Gas warfare during WW1

In warfare one has to be prepared for all eventualities, however obscure. Preparedness implies allowing for all possibilities. At the outset of WW2, planning by Churchill had at least to allow the possibility that Hitler would ignore the treaty banning the use of chemical weapons in warfare. The distressing reality for Churchill was that apart from the Navy and Royal Airforce, the ground forces were in a parlous state, understaffed, undergunned and ill-prepared for the rampaging Wehrmacht. Unlike a hobbled pony, Churchill did possess some options, the British Empire. To this end, the British could subcontract the manufacture of mustard gas to South Africa where it could be out of harms way until it was required.

With this in mind, British Ministry of Supply made contact with the Union Defence Force. As a consequence, Brigadier Henry Cotton of the GA Engineer Corps requested that Major William Bleloch, an eminent chemical engineer, undertake a feasibility study about mustard gas manufacture in South Africa. Given the fact that most raw materials were available in this country, this task was rapidly accomplished, and a favourable report produced. To test their suppositions, a pilot plant to produce the deadliest form of the mustard gas, was erected at Modderfontein on the East Rand. This establishment became the 99 Technical Works Company of the SA Engineering Corps.


With more pressing matters at hand, the British now delegated the change to full gas production, to the South Africans. Not being indifferent to the potential for disaster in the case of an industrial accident occurring, the location of the plant had to be in an isolated area. Against this background, the Government purchased a site on the farm Klipfontein No.19 outside Port Elizabeth and Col. Bleloch commissioned a plant to produce mustard gas at a rate of 10 tons per day. As this capacity was insufficient for the British principals, and a second factory was erected at Firgrove on the False Bay coast.

Once full production had commenced at all plants, the 99 Technical Works Coy was disbanded and all operations placed on a civilian basis, with Col. Bleloch remaining as General Manager, albeit describing the production of gas as a “foul and thankless task and very hazardous”. Fortunately, neither did “spills” of gases nor fatalities occur but a great number of injuries were recorded.

During that conflict, Port Elizabeth was used not only as a manufacturing site but also as a research and storage site for mustard gas ordered by the British Air Ministry.

Post WW2

The conclusion of the war brought the fate of the unused and now unwanted mustard gas into sharp focus. How was the stockpile to be securely and safely disposed of? Two possibilities were raised as options. The gas could either be burnt or the cylinders could be disposed of off the coast.   Most of it was burned whereas the decision was a taken to dump some of it into the sea near Port Elizabeth. The unwanted cylinders were dumped in an arc stretching from Cape St. Francis to Bird Island.

In July 1946 the coaster ‘Homeford’ and her well known master Captain Sir Henry Hammerton made 10 sea trips out to sea just off the Riy Bank, situated approxinately 9kms south east of Cape Recife in Algoa Bay to dispose of munitions from after the war. The ‘Homeford’ dumped some 2,800 tons of Mustard gas including 7,000 tons of explosives and assorted ammunition. A high number of fishermen suffered while trawling in the area and after the spate of injuries all fishing craft were warned to avoid the area for their own safety.  

In a stroke of bad luck according to an article in the SA Military History journal, some was “carelessly dumped” resulting in burn cases among trawlermen. This totalled 34. Does this imply that the cylinders should not have been dumped in the sea off Port Elizabeth or were they dumped in shallow water?

According to Wikipedia, nautical charts of the bay caution mariners that “projectiles and badly corroded mustard gas containers have been found in the area between Cape St Francis and Bird Island out to depths of 400 m (1,300 ft). Trawlers should exercise the greatest caution.

Current status of incidents

One publication states that 34 trawlermen have suffered injuries due to their trawler dredging up leaking cylinder whereas an official at the SA Navy’s Hydrographic Office recalls that at least one trawler once snagged a projectile or canister in its nets and that the crew were badly burned. 

The condition of the canisters and projectiles are not currently known and there has been no record of any recent incidents.

Whilst researching the history of Schoenmakerskop, an unverified incident was recounted to me relating to mustard gas. According to a resident of Schoenmakerskop, the late Mr Clarrie Wood of No. 44 Marine Drive, the reason why a patch of soil behind the old Bedford Café does not have any vegetation growing on it is a consequence of a cloud of mustard gas settling on this area. As no chemical analysis has ever been performed of this soil to establish the presence of this gas, this supposition has not been confirmed.  

Despite this substance bearing the name gas, in reality it is fluid in the form of a spray. Hence it is not dispersed into the air but tends to be swept along the ground by air currents. If indeed it was a cloud of mustard gas which was responsible for the poisoning of the ground at Schoenmakerskop, then in all probability it made landfall opposite the T-junction and then advanced in a northerly direction before settling on the vegetation, and thereby poisoning the soil.




Mr Charles Newby Junior

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