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Story of Northland’s defence reveals hidden surprises

Jack Kemp and Dr Bill Guthrie, volunteer researchers with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, are undertaking a heritage inventory identifying Northland military places associated with World War II. The two recently uncovered a “mother lode” of information revealing the extent to which defence of the North Auckland Peninsula was regarded as a military priority.


The once-secret documents – including a series of detailed maps and papers relating to numerous military camps and installations – appear to have remained unopened since the end of the war when they were decommissioned.


“It’s well known that the defence of Northland was a military priority in the early years of World War II,” says Heritage New Zealand’s Northland Manager, Bill Edwards.


“What we didn’t know was the sheer scale and reach of this network of camps and defence facilities. The documents certainly reveal the full extent of these.”


After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, New Zealand became intensely aware of its vulnerability to Japanese attack – and Northland was seen as the most likely launch point from an assault on Auckland.


This fear was heightened when British naval strength – the great hope of New Zealand defence – was shown to be vulnerable with the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse days after Pearl Harbour. Hong Kong fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day 1941, and in February 1942 Singapore surrendered. Days later Darwin in Australia was bombed, and many feared Auckland would be next.


“Military attention turned to Northland, and efforts were made to strengthen the region’s defence. In the early months of 1942, New Zealand’s susceptibility to military attack was acute. One former member of the Home Guard stationed in Kaeo, for example, told the volunteers that they did a lot of  bayonet training in the early days of the war because they only had six rounds of ammunition,” says Bill.


Secrecy was also important.


Few people, for example, know about the small military camp that was established close to the Treaty House at Waitangi with its commanding view of the Bay of Islands, which is recorded in one of the archived maps.


Or the network of submerged sea mines at the entrance of Whangaroa Harbour. The mines could be triggered individually or all at once from an ingeniously camouflaged bunker at the mouth of the harbour, which still survives, and which has been recorded and photographed by Jack Kemp.


A little further south, in the Bay of Islands – which had been made famous as a haven for deep-sea fishing just a few years earlier by American novelist and adventurer, Zane Grey – artillery had been installed.


“The impact of this sudden threat of invasion can even be seen today in some of the north’s current infrastructure,” says Bill.


“Kaitaia airport, for example, was originally built for American long-range bombers that could reach parts of the South Pacific from their base in the far north. Kaikohe’s aerodrome was built for a similar purpose.”


Other vital elements of Northland’s military infrastructure, however, have simply faded away – like the airfield at Waipapakauri up the road from the Kaitaia airport. Once home to No. 7 General Reconnaissance Squadron, and one of the most important airfields in the country, it was completely fenced off from the public as a high-security defence area and even had dummy aircraft to mislead would-be attackers. The runway has now been taken over by pasture with little obvious evidence of its highly strategic past.


The maps and documents reflect another dramatic change that occurred in New Zealand six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.


From mid-1942, thousands of United States Marines arrived in New Zealand in preparation for the campaign in the Pacific and were stationed in camps around New Zealand. Northland was no exception, and camps sprung up at Warkworth, Maungatapere and Glenbervie near Whangarei, as well as other locations around the country.


During their time in New Zealand, the Marines underwent training in preparation for the battles they would fight in the Pacific Islands.


“Wartime censorship prevented newspapers from writing about the American presence in New Zealand until November 1942, and even after that the news was strictly controlled,” says one of the researchers, Dr Bill Guthrie, whose father served as a master sergeant in the United States Army Medical Corps in India.


“This culture of secrecy has probably influenced our own understanding of the existence of the Marines in New Zealand. The documents show that there was a very strong presence in the north – not just Warkworth – which, like a lot of other military activity in the north, was not widely known at the time.”


Many of the Marines saw service in Saipan, Guam, Guadalcanal and Bougainville. At Iwo Jima, infantry units took heavy losses.


The volunteers are keen to build up as complete a picture as they can of World War II sites in Northland.


“The history of World War II is relatively recent, though in some ways that makes it all the more vulnerable to loss. We can’t take it for granted, and instead have to be proactive and record as much information as we can about this important part of our heritage,” says Bill.


“This project has already turned up a lot of vital information, both in terms of archival material as well as information from personal interviews and other sources. We’re steadily fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together – though we’re still finding more pieces. It’s fair to say that the puzzle is much bigger and more interesting than we originally thought.”


Anybody with any information about military bases in Northland during World War II, or other related information, can contact Bill Edwards on or Ph 09-407-0471.


Caption: Covers of the secret reports for Ninety Mile Beach and Karikari Coast Watch.

Caption: Diagram of the camp at Ninety Mile Beach.

Caption: Volunteer researchers Jack Kemp and Bill Guthrie.


Timeline of the War in the Pacific:


Volunteer Heritage New Zealand Researcher, Jack Kemp, developed this timeline of key dates for New Zealand in World War II:


December 7, 1941: The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour.


December 10, 1941: The Prince of Wales and the Repulse are sunk by Japanese aircraft.


December 25, 1941: Hong Kong falls to Japanese forces.


February 15, 1942: Singapore falls to Japanese forces.


February 19, 1942: Darwin is bombed.


May 4-8, 1942: The Battle of the Coral Sea. This was a major naval battle between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy, including Air Forces from Australia and the United States. The battle has historical significance as it was the first action of aircraft carriers engaging with each other through their aircraft. The battle marked the first time since the start of the war that a major Japanese advance had been checked by the Allies.


June 4-7, 1942: One month later at Midway, severe losses of carriers prevented the Japanese from reattempting to invade Port Moresby from the ocean, and helped prompt their ill-fated land offensive over the Kakoda Trail. Two months later the Allies took advantage of Japan’s vulnerability in the South Pacific and launched the Guadalcanal Campaign. 


July 1943: Due to the success of the Allies’ campaign in the Pacific, New Zealand was able to relax its defence. In the spring and winter of July 1943, the Dig For Victory campaign began with the Home Guard contributing more with spades than rifles,  putting gardens into production.


April 1944: Labour shortages in New Zealand and increased wartime population in Britain saw the release of large numbers from the Armed forces for work in essential industries. For some civilians life was hard. Many of the ex-servicemen were wounded or suffering from battle stress.


May 8, 1945: VE (Victory in Europe) Day was celebrated.


August 15, 1945: The surrender of Japan ended World War II.


During World War II, New Zealand’s population was 1,746,000. Of these, 11,617 were killed and 15,749 wounded. New Zealand had the highest proportion of casualties per population of any Commonwealth country.