Laundry and Bath Units have played a significant role in the ultimate success of many of the conflicts that New Zealand has participated in since the First World War. Troops from the fighting units, filthy after weeks of chasing the enemy through the desert, muddy fields and primary jungle would find it slightly surreal to emerge in their filth and greeted by a unit offering them a hot shower and a complete change of clothing. Such was the effect on the morale of our fighting soldiers that it is reasonable to assume that on many occasions the enemy specifically targeted Laundry and Bath units for elimination. The Identity of many Laundry and Bath operators is unknown. This is of course for security reasons. Some soldiers got the wrong laundry back. Moreover, as you all well know, when it comes to personal kit soldiers just don’t forget things like that!
This article will provide some historical context on field baths and laundry’s and examine the primary Mobile and Bath equipment used by the New Zealand Army from 1914 to 1996
The provision of laundry and Bath functions in commonwealth armies was a function that was shared by the Medical and Ordnance Corps. The RAMC would provide facilities and Hospitals and bases and Ordnance mobile facilities for deployment into the field.  The Ordnance role of Laundry and Bath Units was to:
- Decontaminate men and their equipment after a gas attack.
- Laundry and bath facilities to forward units.
- Laundry facilities for supported Medical Unit.
First World War 1914-18
Managed as a Divisional unit under Medical corps supervision, Divisional Bathhouses were established in facilities such as breweries of fabric processing plants, which with their vats and water supply were easily repurposed. Typically able to provide bathing, washing, disinfecting, drying and repair functions for up to 1200 men a day, the Staff of the Divisional Bathhouse was provided by a combination of civilian staff, medical Corps personnel and soldiers deemed not fit for front-line service.
Despite the availability of Divisional Bath Houses, units would at time make their own arrangements as described by WHA Groom “First of all, we had to have a clean up with a shower bath and clean underclothing, which would however again be lousy within a few hours; so with eager anticipation we marched off and after about a mile we came to the baths. There they were in a field – some baths! It was a corrugated iron compound, almost wide open to the elements and this housed an authentic Heath Robinson or Emmett contraption which consisted of a boiler with the hot water going through a small elevated tank from which the water flowed to pipes having small water can roses at intervals so in groups of twelve we stood shivering and at a signal from the corporal in charge on came the hot water – usually too damned hot and quick was the word as the shower did not last long. The slow ones were left with soap and no more water – a sorry predicament, but damned funny for those not caught”.
The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, better known as the FANY’s attempted to provide opportunities for soldiers to bath by bringing close to the frontline a mobile bath unit nicknamed ‘James’. This unit carried ten collapsible baths and used the motor engine of their truck to heat water so that about 40 men an hour could have the rare luxury of a bath.
Developed by the British military medical mission to Serbia, the Serbian barrel was developed to heat water to allow the disinfection of clothing and bedding, destroying lice and their eggs preventing the spread of diseases such as typhus. The initial design used metal barrels that had water on the bottom and were put on fire, heating the water and creating steam. A basket in the inner part of the barrel prevented contact with water on which the clothes and bedding were placed. Given the scarcity of metal barrels, modifications were made to the design with clothing was put in an empty wooden barrel whose bottom had been drilled. A container with water was placed over a fire and above it was placed the wooden barrel. The hot steam from the container penetrated through the barrel holes, disinfecting the clothing. This new invention soon was named “Serbian barrel” and it has contributed greatly to minimize the epidemic of typhus in 1915 and would be widely used by British and allied forces in the Great War. Normally allotted on a basis of four per battalion or unit of a similar size, owing to transport shortfalls they were left behind in base areas and frequently not utilised. Normally allotted on a basis of four per battalion or unit of a similar size, owing to transport shortfalls they were left behind in base areas and frequently not utilised.
Thresh Disinfector Delousing Chambers
The Thresh Disinfector Company took out a patent for a Disinfector in 1904. The disinfecting device utilised low-pressure steam to disinfect bedding and clothing. Hot air was also created within the appliance. enabling drying of the contents to also take place. These disinfectors were allocated to Divisions on a basis of one Foden steam wagon variant (Two Thresh chambers) and two horse-drawn variants (One Thresh chamber).
Both variants of the Thresh Disinfector consisted of a horizontal steam chamber around which there was an outer jacket which is assembled as a unit with a boiler. Clothing was placed loosely in a basket so that the that the steam was able to penetrate. After the clothing, was placed in the disinfestor, the doors were shut and sealed and a vacuum of 10 to 15 inches [254 to 381 mm of Mercury] created, after which the steam is turned on until a positive pressure of 15 pounds [6.8 kg] was attained [corresponding to a water temperature of 165 °C], this would be held for about twenty minutes. At the end of this time the steam is released and a vacuum of 10 to 15 inches is produced in order to dry the clothing. This vacuum is held for about five minutes.
Horse-drawn Thresh Disinfector Delousing Chambers
The horse-drawn variant was a single thresh disinfector chamber mounted on a single axis horse-drawn wagon. Fitted with a self-contained burner unit under the chamber, the horse-drawn variant could generate its own heated water to power the unit.
Foden Steam Wagons ‘Thresh’ Disinfector Delousing Chambers
Used by many of the allied forces including the United States and Australia 100 Foden Steam Wagons were each mounted with two ‘Thresh’ Disinfector Delousing Chambers. The Foden Steam Wagon provided a supply of steam from its engine, dispensing with the burner unit found on the horse-drawn variant.
Both variants of the Thresh Disinfectors were well suited to deal with the delousing of lice infections which were an unfortunate by-product of trench warfare and with the added advantage of mobility able to be deployed thee proved invaluable to maintaining the fighting forces health and hygiene.
Disinfector Delousing Chamber Videos
- Work of the NZ Medical Corps: In June 1917, when this film was shot by NZEF Official Photographer Lt H. A. Sanders, the New Zealand Division was in the line south of the River Douve with the front line forward of Ploegsteert Wood, in Northern France. At 15.38 on the viedo, it shows the operation of the New Zealand Medical Corps sanitary section. Men are seen entering the Divisional baths and handing their clothing and blankets to men running Fodden Lorry Disinfector with two Thresh Chambers which could each deal with thirty blankets an hour (twenty minutes in heating, twenty minutes in steaming and twenty minutes in drying). This was to kill the lice which infected most front-line soldiers and which were responsible for much of the disease and scabies found in the trenches. View Here
- US troops having their clothing deloused by steam during World War: Viedo clip showing Foden Lorry Disinfector with two Thresh Chambers in use with US Troops. View Here
Second World War 1939-45
As New Zeland did not have a large peacetime army, there was a reliance on the use on the use of contracts with commercial laundries to mee the laundering needs of the forces, a system which the British army referred to as “Dhobies”. With the arrival of the Main body units of the NZEF at Maadi Camp on the outskirts of Cairo in Egypt in 1940, responsibility for the base laundering requirements of the NZEF was provided by civilian contractors or “Dhobies”, in facilities constructed within Maadi camp under the supervision of the NZEF Hygiene Section. The downside of the Dhobie system was that it did not extend to them following the units into the desert and alternative laundering solutions had to be found.
Structured along British lines, the NZEF included as part of its organisational structure and war establishment Laundry and Bath units. An unfamiliar capability that the New Zealand Military Ordnance leadership had no experience in, there was much uncertainty if this was even an Ordnance responsibility of a Medical Corps responsibility leading to delays in the formation of the Laundry and Bath units. Confirmation that it was an Ordnance responsibility was received from the NZEF liaison staff in London on 15 November 1940. Discussion continued for much or 1941on the formation of the Laundry and Bath units, with the main concern being whether the units be formed, equipped and trained in New Zealand and then sent to the Middle East or formed from within the existing structure of the NZEF.
As the decision in the formation of the Laundry and Bath units continued the NZEF Order of Battle was updated on 17 April 1941 and included as part of the NZEF, a:
- Divisional Mobile Laundry and Forward Decontamination Unit, and a
- Divisional Mobile Bath unit.
Authority for the formation of these units as part of the New Zealand Ordnance Corps (NZOC) was granted on 31 August 1941, with the formation of the Mobile Bath unit set for 3 September 1941 and the Mobile Laundry and Forward Decontamination unit formation set for 22 September 1941.
With available equipment drawn from British Army stocks, equipping of the laundry unit would drag out until March 1942 when the balance of its transport and trailers were received. Finding the required number of personnel to man the units was a challenge, with available personnel drawn from the NZOC reinforcements and Training Group reinforcements. Remaining under the command of HQ Maadi Camp the Laundry and Bath Units undertook their training and familiarisation with the new equipment and when ready, were transferred to the command of the New Zealand Divison.
On 27 March 1942, it was suggested by the 2 NZEF DDOS that as the title of the NZ Divisional Mobile Laundry and Forward Decontamination Unit was rather long-winded and considering that the decontamination function of the unit was not functional, the units name be shortened to the NZ Divisional Mobile Laundry. The name change was published soon afterwards as NZEF order 935.
The Mobile laundry would have its operational baptism when it was deployed to support the New Zealand Division which was at the time deployed to Syria. Establishing itself at an old flour mill adjacent to the small village of Burj al-Arab in northwestern Syria, the Mobile laundry Unit would spend a week in May 1942 coming to grips with the new equipment it had only received two months previously. The unit was working with three shifts a day washing and drying over 7000 blankets and all the division’s winter clothing. By the end of the week’s operations, the unit was easily able to process two thousand five hundred sets of battle dress a day, with the assistance of three hundred and fifty locally employed civilians to carried out mending and ironing duties., By the end of this initial operation, the capacity of the unit had increased markedly.
Working in support of the NZ Division the Mobile Bath an Laundry units would deploy forward to assist in the control of typhus in Lybia, and would also provide welcome relief to soldiers in the forward areas such as a Whangarei soldier in the NZ Divisional Cavalry who wrote home in a letter to his parents that. “We are now back out of the firing line at long last. We were up there far longer than any other New Zealanders, and from all accounts have done a good job of work. We did not think we had done much ourselves, but we have had several letters from different Generals congratulating us on our work—and they ought to know. Yesterday we had a hot shower from a mobile bath unit. It was grand and a lot of dirt was shifted: that was the first real wash we had had for just on nine weeks. I had a couple of rough sponges in about a mugful of water at different times but that was all. I didn’t have any clothes off for over five weeks”
In June 1942 the necessity of the decontamination functionality was questioned as finding the additional fifty-two Other Ranks was proving to challenge and unless the unit would be required for service in the near future, that the enabling of this capability be delayed. In August 1942 the utility of both the Bath and laundry was questioned. It was felt that the effectiveness of the units was dependent on the location of the Division and the availability of water. Since the unit’s inception, they had only provided four months of service to the Divison, and the indications were that they would be no more effective in the future. Given the narrow front found in North Africa, it was decided that laundry services could be provided by RAOC facilities or local contracts. Bath services could also be provided by RAOC assets, natural sources, existing or temporary installations constructed as required and the NZEF laundry and Bath units would be disbanded.
The Laundry equipment due to its specialist and technical nature was intended to be returned to British Ordnance for a full credit to the New Zealand Government for its full cost. The Bath equipment would be retained as a New Zealand assets and stored at the NZ Base Ordnance Depot in anticipation of future employment in other theatres.
Forty-Seven other ranks from the Laundry Unit and eleven other ranks from the Bath Unit were transferred back to their respective Depots on 22 August 1942. The two Officers and twenty-five Other Ranks of the laundry Unit and the Other Ranks of the bath unit were to be transferred to other branches of the NZOC, with the understanding that if the capabilities were to be regenerated, they would be released to train personnel and have the unit functioning in a matter of days.
The NZ Divisional Mobile Laundry Unit, and NZ Divisional Mobile Bath unit were both formally disbanded on 30 Sept 1942.
With wartime conditions causing difficulties in obtaining new stocks of battledress, blankets, greatcoats, shirts and woollen underwear it was considered utilising the mobile field laundry to provide economies by renewing part worn articles. Therefore, on 30 Sept 1942 as the NZ Divisional Mobile Laundry Unit was disbanded the NZ Bas Laundry was established as a unit if the NZEF.
Taking over equipment of the disbanded Div Mobile Laundry unit the NZ Base Laundry was located at Maadi camp in Cairo Egypt, with an establishment of one officer and 20 Other Ranks. It was estimated the over a twelve-month period the following items could be processed through the Base Laundry for Non-Divisional and Divisional units of the NZEF;
- Battledress – 120000 pieces,
- Blankets – 100000pieces,
- Greatcoats 20000 pieces,
- Shirts and swollen underwear – 180000 pieces.
With the fall of Tripoli in January 1943, the NZ Base Laundry Unit received an additional ten personnel and deployed a laundry section from Maadi to Lybia, a distance if 1600Miles (2574.95 Kilometers). The forward section would wash and replaced much of the NZ Divisions clothing and bedding. It had just become established when the division was hurriedly moved to continue the campaign. However, many men of the NZ Division had been re-equipped with clean battle-dress which had been brought forward to do this, and the withdrawn battle-dress was washed and mended ready for further use. The Base Laundry Unit would continue to support the NZ Division as it went into a period of refit and reorganisation following the Axis defeat.
The NZ Base Laundry Unit was disbanded on 30 September 1943, and the following day the NZ Mobile Laundry was formed as a unit of the NZEF. During October 1943 the NZ Division, including the NZ Mobile Laundry Unit moved secretly from Egypt to southern Italy, and on the 18th of October 1943, the NZ Mobile Bath unit was formed in Italy as a unit of the NZEF.
In November 1943 the NZ Division ADOS stated his intent to place the Mobile Bath Unit under the Officer Commanding of the Mobile Laundry Unit, allowing both units to be administered economically.
The NZ Mobile Bath Unit was disbanded on 16 February 1944 with the, and the NZ Mobile Laundry Unit renamed as the NZ Mobile Laundry and Bath Unit. The New Zealand organisation of its Laundry and Bath units brought the New Zealand organisation into line with British Army War Establishment II/293/1 of December 1943, as a Type B: Mobile Field Laundry and Bath Unit, and became known as 2NZ Mobile Laundry and Bath Unit (2NZ MLBU). 2NZ MLBU served with distinction in support of the NZ Division throughout the Italian campaign, often with detachments providing support to units on the front line. 2NZ MLBU was disbanded as a unit of the NZEF on 8 December 1945.
Mobile Laundry Equipment
Mounted on 9 Trailers, the mobile equipment of the laundry consisted of;
- Four Trailer Type A – This was the washing trailer which carried the following equipment;
- 1 X Bradford Rotary washing machine,
- 1 X hydro extractor,
- 1 X soap boiler,
- 1 X ventilation fan,
- hot and cold water, steam and electrical equipment.
- One Trailer Type B – This was a drying trailer and carried the following equipment;
- 1 x Rotary Dryer,
- steam, condenser and electrical equipment.
- One Trailer Type C – This was a drying trailer and carried the following equipment;
- 1 X continuous drying machine -The continuous drying machine was a line which went through a series of pulleys. Items to be dried were pegged to the line which was slowly pulled through a chamber which blew hot air in one end and extracted it at the other. No ironing was done,
- steam, condenser and electrical equipment.
- Two Trailer Type D – With two of these per unit these trailers provided hot water and hot air. It carried the following equipment;
- 1 X Clarksonsteam boiler,
- 1 X calorifier,
- 1 X cold water tank,
- 1 X feed water tank,
- 1 X oil storage tank,
- 1 X centrifugal pump,
- 1 X feed pump,
- piping, fittings and electrical equipment.
- One Generator Trailer – This was a standard generator trailer with;
- 1 X Fowler Sanders or Lister 22/24Kw Fowler Sanders diesel Generator
- 1 X switchboard
- 2 X distribution boxes
- Distributed amongst all the vehicles for water supply and disposal was;
- 2 X 205 litre (45 gallons) per minute pumps with motors
- effluent tanks
- water testing apparatus
- Four Trailer Type A – This was the washing trailer which carried the following equipment;
The Washing machine and Dryer trailers were positioned back to back alongside another pair. Platforms were mounted between the trailers, with a canvas canopy over the top, this can be seen in the picture below.
For operation the Mobile laundry required;
- firm standing with an area of 19 meters (60 foot) by 19 meters (60 foot)
- a water supply of 163659 litres (36,000 gallons) a day
- a good access road
- as much cover as possible although the laundry section was designed to operate in the open air
The Mobile laundry could wash 16000 blankets or 12000 sets of personal clothing a week.
Mobile Laundry Video
- Canadian Army Newsreel No.3: A short video showing a Canadian Ordnance Corps Laundry unit in action in Northwest Europe 1944/45. View Here
Mobile Bath Equipment
The Mobile Bath Unit consisted of two pieces of equipment;
- The Mobile Bath equipment, and
- The Disinfestor equipment.
The Bath Unit was mounted in a 1 ton 2 wheeled trailer, and consisted of the means to heat water and pipe it to the showers, and included;
- Hot water boiler,
- oil burner,
- semi-rotary pump,
- couplings and fitting
The showers consisted of;
- tubular metal shower trestles,
- five or six shower heads,
- pipework and fittings
The capacity was based on each man taking five minutes to shower,
- A Subsection could bathe 60 to 70 men in an hour,
- A section could wash 120 to 140 men in an hour,
The shower equipment was designed to be used in the open, but tents were provided for the showers, and for changing rooms if necessary. Commonly showers would be sited where changing could be in a building. A bath section requires a firm site 18 meters (60 foot) by 12 meters (40 foot) and a water supply of 38641 litres (8,500 gallons) of water a day.
The disinfestor’s purpose is to kill lice. In the austere base and field conditions field that soldiers had to live in the risk of infestation by lice was a constant problem. Bathing and the laundering of underwear was not sufficient to handle infestations and disinfecting of outer garments with steam was necessary to kill the lice and their eggs.
Mounted on the deck of a ton 4 X 2 lorry with drop sides, the disinfector equipment consisted of two disinfecting cylinders with an oil fired heater and a water supply mounted between the cylinders.
The disinfecting cylinders were designed with a hinged at their centre, allowing them to be pivoted 90 degrees to allow them to be loaded and unloaded while horizontal and then rotated until they were vertical for the disinfecting process. Clothing would not be wetted but placed into the cylinders dry, and when the process was completed was ready to wear almost immediately.
Truck 3-ton 4 x 2 Disinfector (Morris commercial)
Mobile Bath Video
- Mobile Bath Unit (Western Desert): A short video showing a Mobile Bath unit in action in the Western Desert. View Here
Postwar the 1950’s
The postwar New Zealand Army was committed to providing a Division for service in the Middle East, the RNZAOC Commitment to this was the provision of Ordnance Divisional Troops commanded by the Chief Royal Army Ordnance Corps (CRAOC).
The Order of Battle of the NZ Army in 1953, details that under the NZ Division HQ CRAOC the Ordnance organisation was;
- an Infantry Division Ordnance Field Park, and
- a Mobile Laundry and Bath Company, consisting of;
- An HQ,
- Five Laundry Sections and
- Five Bath Sections.
The Mobile Laundry and Bath Company intended to provide bathing facilities and wash soldiers underclothing. The laundry function was supported by carrying a stock of underclothing from which a set could be issued to each man after bathing. Cast off underclothing was then washed and returned to stock for subsequent reissue. Sewing machines would be provided as part of the Company’s equipment to allow “Stich in time” repairs as part of the clothing exchange process.
The Company was structured to allow the use of double shifts. Apart from the normal considerations of accessibility to troops and hard standing then main siting consideration was accessibility to water. the Bath subsection as a requirement of 400 gallons (1800 Litres) per hour and a Laundry Subsection a requirement of 300 Gallons (1360 Litres) per hour.
At this stage, it unknown what equipment was used but some assumptions would be that it was either equipment from the 2nd World War or locally manufactured material.
The 1960’s and 70’s
In the 1960’s 1st Composite Ordnance Company (1 Comp Ord Coy), RNZAOC had two dedicated platoons for Laundry and Bath services;
- 5 (Laundry) Platoon, and
- 6 (Bath) Platoon.
Laundry unit, single, trailer-mounted. M-532
1 Comp Ord Coy, 5 (Laundry) Platoon, was equipped with the American Laundry unit, single, trailer-mounted. M-532. The M-532 was a self-contained trailer mounted unit which consisted of ;
- A 2½-ton capacity, 2-wheel trailer;
- A washer-extractor,
- A Tumble Dryer,
- A water heater,
- An electric generator,
- An air compressor, and
- water pump.
The unit was able to furnish a complete (wash and dry) laundering cycle at a capacity of 120 pounds (54kg) per hour.
Bath Unit, Portable, 8-Showerhead M1958
1 Comp Ord Coy, 6 (Bath) Platoon, was equipped with the American Bath Unit, Portable, 8-Showerhead M1958. The M1958 was a compact unit that included;
- A 20-gallon (75 litre) water heater,
- A 3/4-horsepower water pump,
- Two shower stands with four nozzles each,
- A 3-k.w. generator set,
- A 55- gallon (209 litre) fuel drum,
- moreover, all the necessary ancillary equipment including hoses and fires extinguishers.
The M1958 used approximately 960 gallons (3600 litres) of water per hour, which could be drawn from a tank, mains or a water source such as a river or pond. It is capable of providing continuing support for 3,000 troops.
The January 1972 edition of the RAOC Gazette made mention of the M1958 in service with the ANZUK Force.
” ANZUK Ordnance Depot” The unit has raised a Field Support Detachment, and under the command of Capt J Clarke supported by SSgt’s Ashdown and Shepard, it is supporting 28 ANZUK Brigade in the Mersing area of Malaysia.
The bath unit of the detachment is using an amazing American equipment which requires a brave man to peer though a peep hole until combustion. Fortunately, the unit has such a man in Corporal Smith of the RNZAOC”
and this from the February 1972 issue of the RAOC Gazette:
” The Bath section apparently run by Corporal Smith RNZAOC, succeed in bathing all comers and, in spite of water shortages, operated almost nonstop for twelve days.”
The 1980’s and 90’s
With the retirement of the Laundry unit, M-532 in the early 1980’s, leaving the Bath Unit M1958 to although in need of replacement due to support and maintenance issues, soldier on until the later years of the 1980’s. The last time I saw one in action was on the Triad Exercise of 1984 when I was operating on at Baggush Camp at Waiouru under the tutelage of WO2 Smith.
FW-37 Trailer Mounted Field Laundry Unit
The Replacement for the Laundry unit, M-532 was purchased in the early 80’s, it was the West German FW-37 Trailer Mounted Field Laundry Unit.
The FW-37 was a self-contained field laundry unit mounted on two trailers;
- Washer Trailer, the washer trailer consisted of;
- Two washing machines,
- Hydro extractor,
- Water pump,
- Two Diesel/Oil Burners,
- Hoses, electrical cables and other ancillary connections
- Dryer Trailer, the Dryer trailer consisted of;
- A single drying machine,
- One Diesel/Oil Burner,
- 3 Phase generator,
- Hoses, electrical cables and other ancillary connections.
The FW-37 and could be run by either mains power or by its own generator, Water could be supplied from a mains supply, water tank or local water supply such as a river or a pond.
Kerrick Shower Unit
As the M1958 Bath Units became worn out in the mid-1980’s, a replacement item was provided by Kerrick Industries. Utilising many of the M1958 Bath Units components, such as the hoses and shower stands the Kerrick was an electric powered, Kerosene fed unit.
Karcher Shower System
In the early 1990’s the NZ Army procured several Karcher Multi-Purpose Decontamination Systems (MPDS). Essentially a high tech Steam Cleaner the NZ Army systems were configured as either a;
- A shower system, or
- A decontamination System (used only by RNZE units, not RNZAOC).
The MPDS was an entirely self-contained system, powered by its own engine and able to suck water from a local source such as a river or from a holding tank fed by mains water. The shower system was capable of showering 15 persons at the same time.
Copyright © Robert McKie 2018
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