In the early years of the Second World War, the United Kingdom was unable to provide Australia with the necessary military hardware to equip a rapidly expanding Australian Army. The following two articles; For Want of Clean Socks: The Australian Mobile Laundry Trailers and And More Clean Socks: The Australian Light Laundry Trailer by Australian military historian and authority on the technical history of vehicles and equipment, Michael K Cecil, examine how Australian industry stepped up to provide the Australian Army Ordnance Corps with a Mobile Laundry capability. First published in the Australian Khaki Vehicle Enthusiasts Newsletter the KVE News of March 2013 these articles are Published with the permission of the author, Michael K Cecil.Copyright Michael K Cecil
For Want of Clean Socks: The Australian Mobile Laundry Trailers
Keeping clothing and bedding clean is only second in importance to good food and clean water when it comes to maintaining an Army’s health and morale. To this end, Laundry Units have been an integral part of the Australian Army’s Order of Battle since the First World War. But the early days of the Second World War heralded a change from the semi-static trench warfare of the First World War to a much more mechanised and fluid war – a war on wheels and tracks where gains or losses might be measured in tens of kilometres in a day. Any unit operating in a forward area had best be prepared to move quickly in response to changes in the tactical situation.
Mobile laundry facilities were first given serious consideration by the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (2AIF) in mid-1940, and by the Australian Military Forces (AMF) later the same year. Initial equipment was to be provided by purchase from Britain in line with the policy of adopting British Army standardised equipment wherever possible. However, Britain was unable to supply the laundry equipment in a timely manner or in the quantities required, so the Army turned to local industry to bridge the gap.
By late 1940, orders had been placed for the supply of various commercially available laundry equipment, in order to assemble a pilot model mobile laundry for trials. Several Australian companies from across the nation were contracted – Robert Bryce for the washing machine, Robert Lilley and Co. for the hydro-extractor and the soap and soda dissolver, Burtons Ltd for the tumble dryer, Cameron and Sutherland supplied centrifugal pumps, and a clarifier was supplied by the Perth-based firm Boltons Ltd. An entirely new device, a continuous drying machine, was being designed by the Land Headquarters Experimental Workshop, who would also assemble the pilot model laundry trailers. Power for each complete laundry was to be supplied by a 25kva, 415 Volt, three-phase AC generator mounted on a four wheel trailer. This was already an issue item, so procuring one for the pilot model laundry did not present a problem.
The equipment had all arrived at the workshop by the close of July 1941, except for the trailers. These were in extremely short supply owing to a higher priority demand for machinery trailers. The workshop went ahead and began assembling the laundry as a static unit – at least the components could be tested and their inter-relationship could be worked out within the trailer’s known dimensions in the interim.
And they were desperately needed. By February 1941, sixteen mobile laundry units were allowed for on the Australian Army’s Order of Battle – six for the 2nd AIF, and ten for a fully mobilised AMF, each one attached to an individual higher formation. Of those for the 2nd AIF, 5 were needed overseas. The 8 th Infantry Division in Malaya were in the greatest need, so the pilot model laundry – still not mounted on trailers – was sent to Malaya, along with some additional commercially available equipment, to provide a static laundry facility. Tropical conditions were already proving to be particularly hard on troops, and regular changes of clothing and bed linen helped keep tropical diseases, particularly skin rashes, in check.
By the time the pilot model’s equipment left for Malaya in September 1941, the mobile laundry design was well advanced. In anticipation of receiving trailers, contracts for the supply of the various major components were issued to suppliers. There was even a contract for the woven rattan trolley baskets, with Lawries Ltd engaged to manufacture enough sets for 11 mobile laundries.
Assembly of the first mobile laundry was to be undertaken by Robert Lilley and Co., but the supply of the trailers was still proving something of a problem. It was overcome by supplying machinery trailers that then had to be converted: hardly an ideal solution, but the only one available under the prevailing circumstances. The stripped machinery trailers were delivered to Lilleys in late April, 1942.
By mid June 1942, good progress was being made on the construction of the pilot model mobile laundry at Robert Lilley and Co in West Melbourne. Trailer brake modifications were well advanced at Patons Brakes, and the McGrath Trailer Co had completed a new trailer specifically for the boiler assembly after the converted machinery trailer proved unsatisfactory. In anticipation of successful trials, contracts had also been placed with various manufacturers for laundry components, such was the urgent need to supply completed laundries to field units. The contractors list was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the Australian light manufacturing industry at the time: Andrew & Higgs, Gordon Brothers, Lawries Ltd, Johnsons Tyne Foundry, and L Horscroft & Co., to name a few.
A fully equipped divisional mobile laundry consisted of 9 trailers of equipment, each one towed by a 3- ton truck or lorry. There were four washing machine trailers, two boiler and feed water trailers, two trailers equipped with a generator and tumble dryer (the dedicated generator trailer had been abandoned in favour of combining it with a dryer in a more compact layout), and a continuous drying room trailer. They were designed to be parked in a line and interconnected by the various pipe work and electrical cabling. The trailers’ lower sides were designed to fold out horizontally to provide working room and facilitate movement of staff and trolleys laden carrying washing between trailers. The upper wire mesh sides were hinged at the top, allowing them to be raised to the horizontal to provide an all round awning over the workspace.
The Unit was manned by 3 officers and 118 other ranks, and the washing capacity was 400 pounds weight (181 kilograms) of dry clothing and linen per hour. Manning was based upon a sustained operation of two 8 hour shifts per day, 6 days per week, but greater output was possible if operated with more staff on a three shift rotation. For attachment to hospitals, a Hospital Mobile Laundry Unit was created. This was essentially a ‘half laundry’, consisting of five trailers: 2 washing machine, 1 each boiler and generator/tumble dryer trailer, and a drying room.
By early 1943, mobile laundry equipment manufactured by Australian industry was flowing to field units. Divisional Units were attached to higher formations located across Australia and in New Guinea, and Hospital laundry units were taking over from the older and far less efficient technology being employed at General Hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations in Northern Australia and New Guinea.
While these large capacity laundries were hard at work satisfying the never-ending requirements for clean linen and uniforms in larger formations and medical facilities, experience in the tropics during 1942 had demonstrated a need to constantly provide front line troops with clean clothes whenever possible, both for health and morale reasons. But the Mobile and Hospital laundries were just too far in the rear and too unwieldy to be safely moved further into the combat zone. Consequently, there was a desperate need for a lighter, more compact laundry for deployment as far forward into the combat zone as possible. Consequently, there was a desperate need for a lighter, more compact laundry for deployment as far forward into the combat zone as possible. The following article covers the Australian ‘Light Laundry’,
And More Clean Socks: The Australian Light Laundry Trailer
While the multi-trailer Mobile and Hospital laundries served the rear areas well, there was still a desperate need for a lighter, more compact laundry for deployment as far forward into the combat zone as possible. Troops operating anywhere need to maintain their clothes and equipment, but suffice to say, combat conditions often preclude anything more than the most basic of attention to this. While troops could survive quite well operating in the dry conditions of the Middle East, Greece and North Africa, the tropics meant dealing with a whole new regime of endlessly wet, muddy and humid conditions, together with the prevalence of some debilitating tropical diseases. Such conditions could rapidly reduce an army’s fighting effectiveness. Hence, the provision of clothes washing and decontamination facilities for front line troops and forward medical facilities such as Casualty Clearing Stations became almost as important as good food and shelter.
To provide washing facilities, the mobile showering unit, wholly mounted in a ¼ ton truck, was invented. To wash and decontaminate their clothes, the Australian Light Laundry was devised. The design work commenced in earnest in December 1942, and a pilot model was put together during January 1943. It was a somewhat radical design, as it dispensed with the steam pressure boiler altogether, opting for a direct-fired water heater to provide the hot water directly to the washing machine. This had the advantage that a qualified pressure vessel (boiler) attendant was not required: the simple system could be operated by almost anyone with a minimum of training. The drying system was also a departure from the conventional, as it too used a system of direct firing to heat the air exchanger that forced heated air into the tumble dryer. The complete laundry was mounted on a single four-wheeled 14 foot x 7 foot flat bed trailer. Initial trials of the pilot model during January and February 1943 proved the rugged simplicity of the design.
The US Forces had also come to the realisation that a light mobile laundry was needed, but when shown the Australian pilot model, expressed some dismay at its unconventional features. The US Army Services of Supply (USASOS) opted for a different, more conventional design much to the disappointment of the Australian authorities. This design, which utilised a conventional 100 psi steam pressure boiler, was to be manufactured in Australia under the Reciprocal Lease Lend agreement. By refusing to standardise, Australian industry would effectively be required to split their efforts and produce two light laundry designs in parallel. Australian authorities considered this division a waste of precious manufacturing resources, but the USASOS were not to be swayed.
The Light Laundry (Aust) was geared toward the washing needs of a small hospital or casualty clearing station of up to 200 beds. With this capability, it could also be used for the washing and decontamination of the clothing of front line units when withdrawn to secure areas a short distance behind the lines. In addition to consumables such as soap and fuel, all the Light Laundry (Aust) needed was a reliable supply of water. Delivery of water to the washer and water heater was handled by a small petrol engine driven pump which was included as part of the laundry’s basic equipment.
The oil-fired water heater provided hot water to the washing machine, with the residual heat used to provide the primary supply of warm air to the tumble dryer. A booster burner was also provided to heat the air-exchanger for times when the water heater was not in full operation. Power to operate the dryer and washer was provided by a 10hp Ford petrol engine connected to a counter-shaft running the full length of the trailer. Flexible couplings enabled any one part of the system to be temporarily disengaged, such as when emptying or filling the dryer or washing machine, and power was transferred from the countershaft by belts and pulleys. The fully integrated system was designed to wash 60 lbs dry weight of clothing per hour, but early trials exceeded all expectations by consistently processing more than 70 lbs per hour, and an experienced crew could complete more than 80 lbs per hour for short periods if needed.
With the success of the pilot model, and in anticipation of an early delivery of the production equipment, Army Headquarters authorised the addition of 22 Light Mobile Laundry Units onto the Order of Battle in February 1943. The units were designed to operate with any type of formation or unit as required, and were manned by members of the Australian Army Ordnance Corps (AAOC). To equip them, contracts were raised with L Horscroft and Co. for 25 Light Laundries (Aust) in April 1943, which was later raised to 40. L. Horscroft and Co. were experienced in the manufacture of laundry and oven equipment, and were already handling several military contracts for cleaning and drying equipment, including ovens for heating explosives. Within a few months, Light Mobile Laundry Units AAOC were in operation within Australia and on their way to several locations in New Guinea.
The Light Laundry (Aust) was one of the more successful collaborative projects undertaken by Australian industry during the Second World War. From the Army’s articulation of the requirement in late 1942, it took only until mid-1943 to equip, raise and deploy the new units into forward areas. Truly a fantastic effort.
Copyright Michael K Cecil
Biographical Details Michael K Cecil
Michael K. Cecil was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1955. His tertiary studies were at Monash University (Clayton campus) where he graduated with two degrees: a Batchelor of Science with Honours and a Batchelor of Arts. He later studied at Canberra Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a Certificate IV in Museum Practice.
Following graduation from Monash University, he held various positions in both the public service and in private consulting. These included research assistant to the ‘Atlas of Victoria’ project, various tertiary teaching positions, and technical administration appointments.
Always passionate about history, he has been researching Australian military history – particularly the technical history of vehicles and equipment – since the early 1970s. This translated into publication of articles in the late 1980s, and his first book in the early 1990s.