The following story was first published in New Zealand’s Northland Age on 26 July 2018. Many thanks to Editor, Peter Jackson, for allowing it to be reproduced.
Jack Kemp (Kerikeri, left) and Dr Bill Guthrie (Oruru) ‘somewhere in Northland’ enthusiastically uncovering the recording the little-known places associated with Northland’s World War II defences.
The initial phase of the research project aimed at developing a heritage inventory of Northland’s World War II military places has been completed.
Seventeen military camp sites in the Bay of Islands have been identified from official records and other sources, and information about them recorded, an important first step for volunteer Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga researchers Jack Kemp and Dr Bill Guthrie.
“The Bay of Islands was an important part of what became Fortress Northland, and a central part of New Zealand’s defence strategy,” Mr Kemp said.
Whangaroa Harbour was identified in 1942 as a likely place for the Japanese to land an invasion force. Photo: Ray Wiblin.
“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 Whangaroa and the 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,” he added.
“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, was structured as a sub-command under 1 Division, giving Barrowclough greater control of his large domain. And he needed all the help he could get according to Mr Kemp.
“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,” he said.
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. 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 Harbor,” Mr Kemp added.
“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 established a stronger defence force on land centred on protecting the Bay of Islands, a safe defended area that was known as The Box, from the Paihia foreshore to Waitangi, the site of Cactus Camp, west along Mt Bledisloe, then south along Haruru Falls Rd to Puketona Rd and back to Paihia.
The 4th North Auckland Regiment erected its camp at Waitangi, and weapon pits were hastily dug for the battalion’s support artillery, which eventually included four six-inch Howitzers.
Waitangi played a central role in the defence plan for the Bay of Islands, and by extension New Zealand, he said. For the troops who manned The Box, routine and hard work were the norm, including digging pits, wiring 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. And 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,” Mr Kemp said.
“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 establish an overhead telephone line from Russell to Okiato. One soldier recalled testing the line by sending a current through it while, some miles away, a technician was tying the wires over the cross arms.
“The subsequent jolt nearly knocked him off his pole, and he jokingly became quite concerned about his ability to father children in the future,” he said.
There was good reason for the extensive preparation. According to the Devonport Navy Museum, a Japanese submarine was operating off the coast of New Zealand in early 1942, with its spotter plane flying over Wellington, and later Auckland. It later headed north.
Northland observers spotted an aircraft carrier off Cape Brett at 4am one day, but an RNZAF reconnaissance plane subsequently identified it 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,” Mr Kemp added. “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.
By June 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.
Meanwhile the heritage inventory research had already proved to be invaluable according to Heritage New Zealand’s Northland manager, Bill Edwards.
“Jack and Bill are constantly discovering new information,” he said. “This has ranged from 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.”
Anyone with any information about military places in Northland during World War II, or other related information, can contact Mr Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: +64 9 407-0471