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 second 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 examine the primary Mobile and Bath equipment used by the New Zealand Army from 1941 to 1996
The provision of laundry and Bath functions in commonwealth armies is an Ordnance Corps responsibility, and the role of Laundry and Bath Units was to; 1
- Decontaminate men and their equipment after a gas attack.
- Laundry and bath facilities to forward units.
- Laundry facilities for supported Medical Unit.
Second World War 1939-45
As New Zeland did not have a large peacetime army, there was a reliance on the use of contracts with commercial laundries to meet the laundering needs of the forces, a system which the British military 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.[2
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 1941 on 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.3
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)4 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 1941.5
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 staff 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 70000 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 carry out mending and ironing duties., By the end of this initial operation, the capacity of the unit had increased markedly.6
Working in support of the NZ Division the Mobile Bath and Laundry units would deploy forward to assist in the control of typhus in Libya,7 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”8
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. The decision was made that the NZ 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 total 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 eleven 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 Base Laundry was established as a unit if the NZEF. 9
Taking over equipment of the disbanded Div Mobile Laundry unit the NZ Base Laundry was located at Maadi camp in Cairo, Egypt,10 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 Libya, a distance if 1600 Miles (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.11 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 in North Africa.
With the New Zealand Divison preparing to move into its next tactical role in Italy, the ADOS of the NZ Diviosn made a proposal for the NZ Base laundry accompany the Division with the Laundries role to be;
- To undertake the washing of the main items of clothing on issue to personnel, and
- if conditions permit the laundering for a hospital.
With the existing establishment of 1 Officer and 20 Other Ranks, it was envisaged that the washing for the complete NZ Division could be done twice monthly. For the rate to be increased to four times a month the establishment would have to be increased by 10 Other Ranks. This increase would allow the machines to be run for two shifts a day doubling the current capacity. The ADOS proposal was accepted and the NZ Base Laundry Unit was disbanded on 30 September 1943,12 with NZ Mobile Laundry with a strength of 1 Officer and 36 Other ranks formed as a unit of the NZEF on 1 October 1943. 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. 13
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 and the NZ Mobile Laundry Unit renamed as the NZ Mobile Laundry and Bath Unit. The New Zealand reorganisation 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.14 2NZ MLBU was disbanded as a unit of the NZEF on 8 December 1945.
Mobile Laundry Equipment 1941-45
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 Clarkson steam 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
A short video showing a Canadian Ordnance Corps Laundry unit in action in Northwest Europe 1944/45. Canadian Army Newsreel No. 3
Mobile Bath Equipment
The Mobile 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.
A short video showing a Canadian Ordnance Corps Laundry unit in action in Northwest Europe 1944/45.
Mobile Bath Video
A short video showing a Mobile Bath unit in action in the Western Desert. Mobile Bath Unit (Western Desert)
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,
- 5 Laundry Sub-Sections and
- 5 Bath Section Sub 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:16
” 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 2017
1 “Administration within the Division,” in Administration in the Field (London: War Office, 1951).
2 A.H. Fernyhough, History of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps 1920-1945 (Royal Army Ordnance Corps, 1958), 121.
3 2nzef – Organisation and War Establishments – Ordnance – Field Item Idr20107590 Record No Da 1/9/Sd81/21 (Wellington: New Zealand Archives, 1941).
4 The New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps was the permanent Corps in New Zealand and the NZOC the tile of the Expeditionary Force Ordnance Corps.
5 2nzef – Organisation and War Establishments – Ordnance – Field
6 “Mobile Laundry,” Auckland Star, Volume LXXIII, Issue 109, 11 May 1942.
7 “Fit Division,” Otago Daily Times, Issue 24908, 6 May 1942.
8 “Divisional Cavalryman’s Adventures,” Northern Advocate, 25 June 1942.
9 2nzef – Organisation and War Establishments – Ordnance – Base, Item Idr20107591 Record No Da 1/9/Sd81/22 (Wellington: New Zealand Archives, 1941).
10 Major J.S Bolton, A History of the Royal New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps (Trentham: RNZAOC, 1992).
11 “Clothing for NZ Troops,” Press, Volume LXXIX, Issue 24011, 28 July 1943.
12 2nzef – Organisation and War Establishments – Ordnance – Base.
13 2nzef – Organisation and War Establishments – Ordnance – Field
14 Robin Kay, “From Cassino to Trieste,” in Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–45 (Wellington: Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs 1967).
15 WWII reenacting, “Mobile Bath and Laundry Unit Raoc,” in WWIIReenacting (2006).
16 RAOC, “Anzuk Ordnance Depot,” RAOC Gazette, January 1972.