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WWII Northland heritage inventory achieves key milestone

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

A research project to develop a heritage inventory of Northland’s World War II military places has achieved a crucial milestone.

Seventeen military camp sites associated with the defence of the Bay of Islands have been identified from official records and other sources, and information about them recorded. The work completes the initial phase of the inventory.

For Jack Kemp and Dr Bill Guthrie, volunteer researchers with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, the completion of the Bay of Islands component is an important first step.

"The Bay of Islands was an important part of what became Fortress Northland, and a central part of New Zealand’s defence strategy," says Jack Kemp.

"Major General Harold Barrowclough, who headed divisional headquarters in Whangarei, had identified the Bay of Islands as the most likely place for the Japanese to land a main attack force, with simultaneous additional attacks at Whangaroa and Doubtless Bay a distinct possibility."

Barrowclough had grimly predicted that - based on the defence that was in place in early 1942 - if the Japanese attacked the Whangaroa and Bay of Islands simultaneously at 7am, they would take both areas by lunchtime, and face only limited resistance on their road to Auckland.

Although two brigades were at his disposal, he advocated for a third to be stationed in the Bay of Islands.

"The Auckland and North Auckland Regiments were established in response. Soldiers from both regiments were eventually stationed as garrison troops in the Bay of Islands throughout 1942 and into the following year," says Jack.

"The men were concentrated at Russell, Paihia, Waitangi and, to a lesser extent, Opua, with a divisional headquarters at Whangarei."

Fortress Bay of Islands as it was known, included both the Whangaroa and Bay of Islands areas, and was structured to act as a sub command under 1 Division. This gave Barrowclough greater control of his large domain. He needed all the help he could get.

"Early on it was realised that the combination of unreliable radio equipment, short supply of ammunition and inadequate messing arrangements for the soldiers seriously compromised their ability to fight effectively against any Japanese invasion force," says Jack.

Barrowclough began to establish his defence of the Bay of Islands in earnest constructing two six-inch gun batteries on Moturoa Island and Tapeka Point near Russell covering the Bay of Islands.

Further north, a six-inch gun was placed at Whangaroa, and fields of sea mines were laid at the entrance to both harbours.

"The fixed defences - which are still visible today - are tangible reminders of the sense of urgency that permeated New Zealand shortly after Pearl Harbour," says Jack.

"The fear of invasion was real."

In July 1942 the war office reported that Japan was capable of sending 10 divisions supported by warships and aircraft to invade New Zealand. As a result, the Bay of Islands Fortress was enlarged and strengthened.

As well as coastal defences, Barrowclough also established a stronger defence force on land centred on protecting the Bay of Islands - a safe defended area which was known as the Box. The area ran from the Paihia foreshore up to Waitangi - the site of ‘Cactus Camp’, westwards along Mt Bledisloe, then south along Haruru Falls Road to Puketona Road, and back to Paihia.

"The 4th North Auckland Regiment erected their camp at Waitangi, and weapon pits were hastily dug for the battalion’s support artillery which eventually included four 6-inch Howitzers," he says.

"Waitangi played a central role in the defence plan for the Bay of Islands and, by extension, New Zealand."

For the troops that manned the Box, routine and hard work were the norm - including digging pits, wiring of beaches and even planting fields of potato and kumara.

Troops soon became familiar with the road from Waitangi to Kerikeri as they regularly marched its full 35km. As if walking the roads wasn’t enough, many were also involved in constructing them.

"The ‘2 Aucks’ - the 2nd Auckland Regiment - were based at Russell township, and were put to work building a new road from Oronga Bay to Tapu Point. The road was later named ‘Aucks Road’ after its builders and retains its name today," says Jack.

"The troops also built a road linking Opua to Paihia under the supervision of the Public Works Department. Troops used picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, as machinery was unavailable."

To improve communications, signals personnel were also seconded to the north to establish an overhead telephone line from Russell to Okiato.

One soldier recalled testing the line by sending a current through it. Unfortunately, some miles away, a technician was tying the wires over the cross arms standing astride the wire at the same time the Russell exchange conducted the line test.

"The subsequent jolt nearly knocked him off his pole - and he jokingly became quite concerned about his ability to father children in the future," says Jack.

There was good reason for the extensive preparation in Northland. According to the Devonport Navy Museum, a Japanese submarine - I-25 - was operating off the coast of New Zealand in early 1942, with its spotter plane flying over Wellington, and a few days later, Auckland. It later headed north.

In another incident, the Northland based observers spotted an aircraft carrier off Cape Brett at 4am one morning. An RNZAF reconnaissance plane flew over the carrier, which it subsequently identified as American - much to everyone’s relief.

"During 1942 and much of 1943, New Zealand’s invasion alert system was set at 2 - which meant there was a danger of invasion, but not without five days warning," says Jack.

"In 1943 - after significant Pacific naval battles like the Coral Sea and Midway - the Japanese threat diminished, and the Alert level was lowered to 3; no imminent danger of invasion. By June of that year all divisional troops in Northland were stood down. A few months later most of the beach-watching posts in Northland were closed."

The invasion threat had passed.

The heritage inventory research has already proven to be invaluable according to Heritage New Zealand’s Northland Manager, Bill Edwards.

"Jack and Bill are constantly discovering new information," he says.

"This has ranged from the increased understanding of the central part Waitangi played in the Bay of Islands defence strategy through to the location of the camp of the 2nd Maori Battalion at Remuera near Ohaeawai. The inventory will become a very important information resource for researchers and other interested people in the future."

Anybody with any information about military places in Northland during World War II, or other related information, can contact Bill Edwards on bedwards@heritage.org.nz or Ph 09-407-0471.

Caption: Jack Kemp (left) and Dr Bill Guthrie - ‘somewhere in Northland’ - enthusiastically uncovering and recording the little known places associated with Northland’s World War II defences.

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