Written by Paul Charman

What to do with those largely forgotten World War II-era tunnels, and all the other treasures on the Ministry of Defence land at the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula?

Nobody seems to want the two underground fortresses - more than 1km of tunnels and rooms in total - cut into a hill dominating this New Zealand Defence Force land more than 70 years ago.

As a property comprising live firing ranges, the 158ha military base at Whangaparaoa, now called the Tamaki Leadership Centre, rightly remains off-limits to the public.

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The Defence land overlooks the Tiritiri Matangi Wildlife Sanctuary -- many birds from the island visit. Photo /Paul Charman
The Defence land overlooks the Tiritiri Matangi Wildlife Sanctuary -- many birds from the island visit. Photo /Paul Charman

The land, which is also a native bird sanctuary, is now part of a Waitangi Settlement between the Crown and the Marutuahu Collective.

The Ministry of Justice says negotiations are well advanced, the Crown having offered the NZDF land to the collective as part of a "sale and leaseback" arrangement.

In other words, the armed forces - which now uses Tamaki Leadership Centre for general training and small arms firing - plan to stay put and pay rent to the Marutuahu tribes.

The Defence land overlooks the Tiritiri Matangi Wildlife Sanctuary -- many birds from the island visit. Photo / Paul Charman
The Defence land overlooks the Tiritiri Matangi Wildlife Sanctuary -- many birds from the island visit. Photo / Paul Charman

As for the Marutuahu Collective, I've been unsuccessful in obtaining any of their thoughts regarding the unique property and its possible future, should the military ever move on.

But due to the value of this land (likely hundreds of millions of dollars on today's open market), plus public interest in its historic and ecological significance, surely they'd have something to say.

I have no inside knowledge regarding the likelihood of the Defence Department ever abandoning its base on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula.

Maori deserve recompense

Nobody is saying that - should the deal go ahead - the property, or parts of it, will get carved up as sections for the very rich, as the stunning coastal views might indicate.

But having seen the military abandon bases including Papakura, Hobsonville and Wigram in recent years, it would naive to imagine that there's no possibility of this.

After all, operating a firing range which demands the co-operation of boaties to get out of the way on live firing days, has its issues.

Here let me digress to stress I'm no supporter of what I call "The Don Brash Doctrine", which I define as the perpetually sour position some Pakeha take, to the effect that Maori are being given "too much of the cake".

In my view, having suffered great injustices over many years - which has seen them dispossessed of ancestral lands - Maori are entitled to recompense.

So when, as now expected, the tribes eventually take over ownership of the Whangaparaoa land, it would naturally be their right - should the military ever pull out - to do just as they wish with it.

Just leave us the crowning glory of this property - the gun emplacements at highest point of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula - to become an historic reserve like the one at North Head.

Let the millionaires move in if that's the plan - just leave some space for families to visit and have picnics.

The Defence land at Whangaparaoa boasts million dollar views across the Gulf. Photo / Paul Charman
The Defence land at Whangaparaoa boasts million dollar views across the Gulf. Photo / Paul Charman

'Saker' and 'Salamander'

This hill is the spot where big 9.2 inch guns were set up to draw a bead on the expected ships of the Japanese Imperial Navy.

But, along the lines of beating swords into ploughshears, it could become a place where kids get to run around to experience some of the wonderment of youth.

Visit North Head on any weekend, and you'll see what I mean.

Tourists visiting the 9.2 inch gun battery tunnels at Stony Batter, on Waiheke Island, which DOC closed down about two years ago. Photo / Paul Charman
Tourists visiting the 9.2 inch gun battery tunnels at Stony Batter, on Waiheke Island, which DOC closed down about two years ago. Photo / Paul Charman

In a city now short of parks and recreational options for families, North Head's combination of beautiful harbour, plus ancient gun emplacements, creates a wonderful environment for them to enjoy.

One of the underground fortresses on the land is a network of tunnels which once housed Whangaparoa's 6-inch battery.

With the kind permission of Defence officials, I've walked through these several times over the past 30 years, but no more.

They never were too flash, with a lot of water in the lower reaches.

Damage was apparently done when removing a rain cover at the top of the complex many years ago, in order to install a training gun.

Now I'm told the 6-inch battery has had to be sealed off as it's just too dangerous to move through safely.

But nearby is another network of tunnels in pristine condition.

This network, which still has working power and air reticulation, once housed the Peninsula's radar-guided 9.2-inch battery.

Sadly this battery's two enormous radar-guided guns, nicknamed "Saker" and Salamander", were removed and scrapped many years ago.

But up till recent years its many underground rooms were used to store ordnance for the Navy.

Mines of Moria

Since being decommissioned as an explosives store, this complex has only been entered sporadically for training exercises.

Along with a sister 9.2-inch gun battery at Stony Batter on Waiheke Island - which the Department of Conservation sealed off a couple of years ago - these tunnels are the most elaborate of the coastal defences our Public Works Department constructed right across New Zealand during World War II.

I would describe the vast staircases in the Whangaparaoa tunnels as resembling Mines of Moria, from Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring.

Originally built to save the cost of constructing mechanical lifts, their vast staircases are fascinating; they just seem to go on and on.

Families enjoy picnics and browsing through tunnels at North Head. Photo / Paul Charman
Families enjoy picnics and browsing through tunnels at North Head. Photo / Paul Charman

Inside the tunnels there's accommodation for the gunnery crews, plotting and engine rooms, storage areas and magazines to store ammo.

Once these fortresses were guarded by a rifle company - comprising machinegun and mortar platoons - who acted as sentries in the pillboxes built at their entrances.

However, Whangaparaoa apparently was never a popular posting, being regarded as too cold, wet and far from Auckland.

The guards are said to have become so tetchy that they fired across the bows of pleasure craft which strayed too near the "top-secret" wartime military base.

Secret weapons

Later on, during post-war era when soldiers were posted to Whangaparaoa for training, it's said girls from the district were bused in to attend dances staged there.

According to a local newspaper report the tunnels came into their own during these occasions, as an area popular with courting couples.

The Whangaparaoa military base also housed New Zealand's only "secret weapons programme".

Named "Project Seal", this research aimed to develop a "tsunami bomb", for use against the Imperial Japanese Army.

Cadets training at the Tamaki Leadership Centre. Photo / Supplied
Cadets training at the Tamaki Leadership Centre. Photo / Supplied

By letting off powerful explosive charges at the right depth, the idea was to create nine-metre-waves capable of inundating enemy units stationed on low coral atolls.

A dam was set up on the military land at the Whangaparaoa base where this method was tried out with hundreds of experimental charges being let off.

Early in the war the project was taken seriously by America's top Pacific commanders and it got another spin in the late 1940s, during the early Cold War era.

But historical writer Peter Cooke, who examined results, declared that the science behind Project Seal "was close to quackery".

These historic sites - the scene of so much quirky history - probably deserve more attention from Auckland Council and Heritage New Zealand.

As it is sometimes used for weapons firing, the Whangaparaoa Defence land is off limits to the public. Herald Photo
As it is sometimes used for weapons firing, the Whangaparaoa Defence land is off limits to the public. Herald Photo

In the last 20 years the historic weatherboard buildings of the former Whangaparaoa Military camp, comprising barracks and mess rooms, were quietly demolished and replaced with modern facilities.

This is a shame, as the World War II-era buildings there would have made a first-class backdrop for an historic movie or TV series.

In my view it's high time to strengthen what remains.