Stories of Secret Tunnels

Stories of Secret Tunnels

The following stories were acquired by Martin Butler during the writing of Tunnel Vision. They were either a matter of public record, or otherwise submitted by people wishing to assist with the continued investigation of North Head / Maungauika and the Torpedo Yard.

Note: The statements below are actual quotes and have been depersonalised.

  1. The sailor's story
  2. The student's story
  3. The sceptic's story
  4. The son's story
  5. The soldier's story
  6. The second student's story
  7. The supervisor's story
  8. The second soldier's story
  9. The sleuth's story
  10. The senior's story
  11. The second sailor's story
  12. The schoolboy's story
  13. The third soldier's story
  14. The scout's story

1. The sailor's story

I was in the Royal New Zealand Navy from 1956 to 1965 and quite regularly during the summer months of either 1957 or 1958 I used to go to North head with some of my mates from the Naval Base. After work we would take a few beers over there and have a bit of a party. On one occasion we had a torch with us and I remember shining it down a shaft which was about 25 feet deep and 3-4 feet across. At the bottom of the shaft was what appeared to me to be the wooden wing struts of an old aircraft down there. It didn’t mean much to me at the time and it wasn’t until I was contacted some 25 years later in 1983 by John Earnshaw that it became quite significant as to what I had seen.

We went over to North Head later in 1983 and we tried to locate the shaft but we couldn’t find it. It was somewhere below and to one side of a pair of gun emplacements overlooking Cheltenham Beach. It used to be overgrown with weeds and fennel but has now been cleared and grassed, some earth-works also appear to have taken place in that area making it even more difficult to locate the position of the shaft.

2. The student's story

While attending Pukekohe High School in the summer of 1953, I spent a week at North Head Barracks with the School Cadet Force.

During this time I entered the tunnels and saw a large room containing lines of light trucks. The light was poor, and fine details are impossible to recall. The trucks could not have used the tunnel that I used, so a larger access must have been there at the opposite end. The trucks were backed in, very close together and were larger than Jeeps, but smaller than the common G.M.C’s of the period. Hoops were mounted to the canvas canopies.

The barracks were at the top of the hill, close to the gun pit which had had the gun removed. The entrance we used to the other tunnels was from a lower gun pit which still had the gun in place. Some access was available from “air shafts?”, some of which had ladders on the side. There appeared to be a lot of tunnels, some not accessible because of locked gates. I did see steel doors as well.

I had time to investigate the tunnels after the camp was over, as I stayed behind with several others and one staff member to clean up. From the time and direction travelled I would consider the truck park to have been low down the hill on the western slope.

I could not assess how many vehicles I saw because of limited visibility, but I got the impression of a very large room. The period of time I spent in there would have been about an hour. We had been warned by our C.O. (Major Maich) not to enter the tunnels because of the presence of old unstable ammunition, though I did not see any sign of it.

3. The sceptic's story

From 1954 to 1957 I lived with my parents in Jubilee Avenue, Devonport. We later moved to Abbotsford Terrace until 1959 when we moved to Milford. During the time from 1954 to 1959 I often went to North Head and explored the tunnels.

I remember getting into the tunnels from a garden at the top end of Jubilee Avenue. There was a shaft with iron rungs set into the wall that went down about 20 feet. Another shaft was above the tennis court and had a metal cowl over the top of it. I removed the cowl and climbed down the shaft with the aid of a rope. Both shafts were about the same size, two and a half to three feet in diameter. The tunnels went in all directions and I would remain down there for 2 to 3 hours at a time.

There were numerous big rooms and iron gates everywhere, concrete stairs and ramps went to at least half a dozen different levels. I saw a lot of ammunition, some of it was in boxes and some was in racks stacked up to the very high ceiling. It ranged from small arms ammunition (S.A.A.) to large calibre shells. The large shells varied in size from Bofors to a much larger calibre. I remember taking home a box of .303 tracer ammunition that I removed from a larger wooden box that had rope handles attached to it.

There were quite a lot of these wooden boxes with the rope handles, I saw several stacks that were 4 to 5 feet high. I also saw a number of drums strapped to pallets, the drums were smaller than a 45 gallon oil drum. In one very large room that must have been 40 feet high, I saw some long crates and what appeared to be the tail section of an aircraft. I also saw a propeller lying on the floor. The last time I went into the tunnels was in 1959 and the things that I have described in this statement were still there.

I remember seeing a large tunnel at Torpedo Yard that was in the side of the cliff, it had double grilled gates over the entrance and was big enough to drive a truck through it. I can’t believe that the entrance at Torpedo Yard is not there anymore. I also find it hard to believe that the tunnels cannot be found as it is a rabbit warren down there.

4. The son's story

At the time I was born in 1934, my father’s position was that of magazine caretaker and munitions testing for the Royal New Zealand Navy. His area of responsibility extended to and included Mt Victoria, Fort Takapuna and North Head.

My late mother recounted memories to me of large underground magazines at North Head and of being taken through tunnels there which had at least one exit overlooking a small beach, which from her description, was on the Cheltenham side of North Head.

Comments were made to my brother by my father, that if ever the explosives were to detonate at North Head such was the quantity that it would take half of Devonport with it. The magazines that my father was talking about were obviously areas that are no longer accessible today.

The question it raised in my mind is that if only the Army had munitions stored at North Head as claimed, why were Naval employees engaged to look after it?

5. The soldier's story

In 1955 I did my compulsory training (CMT) on North Head in the 9th Coastal Regiment. Later I was transferred to the 12 Heavy AA Battery stationed at Fort Courtly and when it was closed down I transferred to 1st Locating Battery stationed at Fort Courtly.

I spent between 12 and 13 years in the territorial force holding the substantive rank of Sergeant and for two years acting TSM. While stationed on North Head I explored all the tunnels I could legally gain access to (not locked) many tunnels were locked, keys to these were held in the telephone exchange which was manned 24 hours a day and situated in a concrete bunker at the very top of North Head. I was often rostered to relieve the sole operator which meant I would have to sleep in the bunker. A few personnel illegally took keys at night to explore the locked tunnels.

I will not repeat what they said was in some areas as it was hearsay. Not all locked tunnels had keys to the locks. An officer in my presence was told they were not available to anyone. Over the years I have been back to North Head many times. I find that the hill has changed greatly; tunnels I remember have gone, eg. A shaft at the top of the hill close to the telephone bunker, which went straight down 20ft (approx) with steel D shaped hand and foot holds set in the walls to climb down, at the bottom was a locked tunnel. At the bottom of the hill were the O.R.S huts right behind the public housing facing the naval base (west). On the next level up, a sharp bend in the road, on the (south) or city side was the O.R.S mess, this was the right hand side. To the left hand or (north) Cheltenham Beach side was a storage shed or motor transport behind the road led into a tunnel with iron grilled gates with a large chain and padlock. It is no longer there.

As a member of 12th heavy AA and first locating battery I specialised in radar, I was also responsible for maintenance on six portable 17 KVA lister diesel generators. I spent a lot of unpaid spare time maintaining these generators. One day in the early 1060’s Sgt Bill Scott asked me if would look at a diesel generator at North Head that was leaking oil. He took me to an underground generating room, we went in through a locked tunnel on the south west side of the hill. About 15 feet on the right in the tunnel was the room. It was not a large room but big enough to hold 2 17 KVA 3 cylinder lister generators painted green and one large diesel generator painted grey (it might have been a cummins) can’t remember.

The floor was painted rust red colour, the walls grey it was like an operating theatre, (this was not the large generator room closer to the city side which is still there. The tunnel went on behind the generator room, this again was locked, I could see partly into another room through what I would call an air vent 30” x 12” (approx) hole in the concrete, I could see what looked like boxes. I asked Bill what was in there, he said he did not know, he had a bunch of keys, I said lets see if we can unlock the gate. He hustled me out and told me not to talk to anyone about the generators or area. I think he said it was back up for the main generator room. To this day I still feel I was not told the truth. The generators were 240v AC capable of a fair amount of power, 9th coast were connected to the navy, was it their installation.

4 or 5 years ago I went back to North Head to find that generator room. It's no longer there. The longer I stood in front of the public toilets I was sure I had found the entrance but who can be sure after 34 years, one thing I am sure of—it once did exist 34 years ago.

6. The second student's story

Early in 1953 while attending Pukekohe High School I went with the Army Cadets to North Head and we stayed in the Army buildings there for about a week. We were told to keep out of the tunnels, but some of us decided to go exploring after dark anyway. I found out later from some of the other Cadets who were caught throwing rocks down the vent shafts that the Army went berserk because of all the ammunition that was stored down there.

The first time I got into the tunnels was down through a ventilation shaft that had been covered up, the shaft had a metal ladder fixed to the side which I climbed down. The next time I went in was where I came out from, which was a partially concealed iron gate on the side of the hill.

It is like a huge military warehouse down there, some of the storage areas were great big caverns and some of the tunnels you could drive a truck in them. Other smaller tunnels went in all directions and some led to smaller rooms which had wooden boxed stored in them. I spent quite a few hours exploring the tunnels with a torch during the time I was in camp at North Head.

I saw numerous military vehicles parked down there, they were not all in the same place, nor were they all the same type. Some of them looked like those ‘Ford Bomb Tenders’ and others looked like the ‘Dodge’ four wheel drive trucks with the canvas top, I’ve seen some of these since. I also saw what I would describe as ‘gun carriages’ – like a 25 pounder. A couple may have been put together – there was boxes of bits for the gun nearby including wheels.

The aircraft wings that I saw were made of wood and covered in canvas. They were all packed in wooden frames like an open pallet and were on the floor of this very big cavern. In the same area were some huge packing crates and several smaller ones. There was heaps of wooden boxes stacked almost up to the roof, some had rope handles that were about 4 foot long and bout a foot wide, they could have been ‘Bren Gun’ cases when I relate back to it now.

It was like a giant Pak ‘N’ Save with boxes on racks and on the floor. There was also a lot of places that I couldn’t get to because of big iron gates that were chained an padlocked. I have been into a lot of tunnels and huge chambers and seen things that the authorities appear don’t know about.

7. The supervisor's story

I joined the Royal Navy in 1943 and later transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1952.

I first went to North Head in August 1958 with Lt Commander E.H. Biggs R.N.Z.N. when he told me that the Army were vacating North Head and the Navy were taking it over. The Communications School was to be located there and we selected buildings to be used for that School and also for the Port Wireless Office.

I was one of the first instructors at the new school and I had several postings to North Head before I left the Navy in 1970.

The Army still occupied some of the buildings at that time including the long one at the top that later became the Navigation and Radar School. In 1959 this building became the Operations Centre for a combined Army/Navy exercise to test the Auckland Harbour defences.

This was a night-time exercise with the Navy providing two Loch Class Frigates that were to penetrate the defences, and a number of Harbour Defence Motor Launches to stop them doing so. The Army were to defend the harbour and searchlights were placed in positions along Tamaki Drive, Bastion Point and around North Head.

The Army were also to send in S.A.S. “raiding parties” to land and disrupt communications and so aid the Frigates trying to break on to the Harbour.

Radio Communications between the Operations centre and Bastion Point were very clear, but because of the terrain no radio contact could be made with the searchlights at the base of North Head. Therefore the Army Signallers laid telephone wires down through the old communication tunnels from the top of North Head down to each of the searchlight positions. Because of the possibility of these wires being cut by the S.A.S. “intruders”, junior ratings were detailed to be messengers to go to each searchlight platform if and when required.

To ensure that the messengers were familiar with the route that they would take, I personally conducted them down through the respective tunnels to the individual searchlight platform that they were to go to from the entrance behind the Radar School.

At the top of North Head and behind the Radar School is an old gun pit that was later sealed and turned into a reservoir. In the gun pit itself or close to it was an iron ladder that went down to another level. One lunch time I and another instructor decided to climb down it to see where it went to. There was a room below the ladder and from here we were able to walk back under the wooden Navigation and Radar School building where we came across quite an extensive accommodation area. There was a large mess hall with passages leading off it that went to the sleeping accommodation areas, it was all completely underground.

There were other entrances to the tunnels, a large one was at the end of the tennis court adjacent to the Saluting Base, where we often played cricket. Another entrance was in the bank below the Navy fence near an Army house where Corporal Ernie Dighton R.N.Z.A. lived for many years with his family.

On the wall of the Regulating Office was a plan of the North Head tunnels showing the different levels etc. The Regulating Chief at that time was the late Doug Bickley R.N.Z.N.

8. The second soldier's story

I served in the Royal New Zealand Army for 28 years from 1950 to 1978.

From 1950 to 1952 I was stationed at North Head with the Northern Districts Signals Troop. Opposite the building that we occupied was a tunnel entrance, it could be seen fro the balcony of the building – this entrance is no longer there. Another tunnel entrance was off the road leading to the Army house at the base of North Head, most of this building has since been removed – the remainder is used by the Park Ranger. The tunnel was off the left side of the road, this one has also disappeared.

At the summit of the hill is an old gun pit, between the two existing entrances which run off the pit was a third entrance which went down a very steep ramp. I ventured down this tunnel about 50 yards, the only illumination being a box of matches. I didn’t reach the end of the tunnel and returned when the matches ran out.

In 1984 I went to North Head with an army friend Peter Rhodes, who was also stationed there and Mr Earnshaw. Peter and I were looking for a large square mouthed tunnel entrance which was about half way up the hill and on the eastern side. Almost at the same instant Peter and I pointed to the spot where the entrance should have been, it too had gone.

During the two year period that I was at North Head, I was also occasional involved with week end picket duty. This meant patrolling North Head for security reasons and also recording the temperature of magazines which had to be done every four hours. There were certainly more tunnels and entrances to tunnels at North Head when I was there in the Army.

9. The sleuth's story

In the early 1960s I explored the now sealed tunnels at North Head. Using a ball of string to enable me to find my way out again I ventured into a very large chamber. The entrance that I entered this complex of tunnels was on the Rangitoto channel side of North Head. I made several attempts to locate this entrance with Mr Earnshaw without success.

The large chamber that I entered contained large wooden crates, the size of a shipping container, large and small wooden boxes containing ammunition, large artillery shells, cordite canisters, bombs in racks along the wall and on the floor, I also remember seeing wings of an aircraft along one wall.

In 1988 Mr Earnshaw personally introduced me to the army officer in charge of the investigation and I described to him my experiences in the North Head tunnels. The tunnels that are open to the public are only a fraction of what lies beneath North Head. I know that North Head is a maze of tunnels.

10. The senior's story

I was born in 1948 and spent my childhood living at 9 Macky Avenue on the slope of North Head. From about 1955 I, with various friends began to explore the hill as the army was moving out. We were particularly fascinated by the tunnels, and had heard many stories from various sources including old soldiers of a vast underground system.

We entered all of the tunnels to which we had access, however some went into the hill further than we dared to go. I became very familiar with most of the hill, although our early access to the area around the saluting battery was limited by the army’s continued presence, and to the summit which was still occupied and guarded by the Navy.

One particular structure which fascinated me was a large underground garage we called the “tank shelter”. This was entered through a large vehicle sized door which faced west and was around the back of the hill, further than the tennis court and below that level. It was hard to find, being cut into the hill and the area outside the door was overgrown with flannel weed.

The road to it must have come from the tennis court area, but I recall that I could never satisfactorily work out a connection to the existing roading system. I think this is why we thought it had been used by tracked vehicles. The floor was greasy dirt, and there were signs which led us to believe it was used for maintenance. On entering the door a large chamber led in for about 60–80 feet. I remember on the left there was a collapsed area of the wall which had at the top of it an opening which led to another tunnel. I think one of my friends got into this and we believed it led to a large tunnel structure we never fully explored.

After about 40 feet from the door the tank shelter turned inward (north) and went a long way. It was about 30 feet wide, and still about 15 feet high. I think the ceiling in the outer part was flat, and I have a vague recollection that the shape changed in this part. This room ran into the hill a long way, so far that it became completely dark. I think it was off here that at least one other tunnel ran, and we certainly believed that this was the way to an old, deeper tunnel structure inside the hill

I have some recollections that the existence of these deeper tunnels was related to us by old timers. (Such old men used to frequent the bar of the Masonic Hotel on the corner of King Edward Parade and Church St and were often encountered on the way home from school). I remember information from the same sources about prisoners having been employed on the hill, which has since been confirmed. These men would have been born about 1872, so they could have been on the hill in the 1890’s.

I have some idea that one tunnel off the tank shelter was on an incline, and curved. I also seem to believe that there was a way from the tank shelter by tunnel to the summit Navy area. I have certainly entered the Navy area by tunnel but to my continued frustration I am not sure of the route. I have recently spoken to one of childhood friends whom I had not seen since we were 13 (Susan Deighton). She says she is sure we went together by this route to the summit, and she had done so many other times with her brother. This make sense to me, but in a way the confirmation contaminates my own memory.

I saw the TV1 programme by Philip Alpers in 1994. I had done no more than drive up the hill once or twice since 1962. I rang DOC to offer my memories and spoke at length to David Veart. He asked me not to talk to anyone else until I returned to the hill and formed an impression of whether what I found correlated with my memories. I did this, and spent an afternoon re-exploring North Head.

In general what I found correlated with memories, in most cases with surprising accuracy. The extraordinary thing is that I cannot find the tank shelter at all, and the shape of the hill where it should be seems to have changed.

I have tried hard to be careful to isolate memories which are certain, and those which are vague. The existence of the tank shelter is 100% certain to me and I was absolutely sure of it before speaking to anyone else.

We heard stories of old aeroplanes in the hill, but never found them. Actually I seem to had gained the impression that they had been destroyed, I think just around from Torpedo Bay. All we found were searchlight parts, carbons and perforated zinc (which we used to make batteries in preserving jars) and coils of copper wire which we used for telephone lines and radio aerials. There was a gun on its side in one locked tunnel.

However, it is interesting to note that in 1958 we also heard that there was a gun buried under a steel plate on top of Mt Victoria. We found a way underground, but were blocked by a heavy steel door. There was an incident in which the door almost trapped one of my friends. This scared us, we decided to report progress to date to our teacher in order to obtain official support for the last step. The next day the council arrived and blocked up our entrance. Today the area has been uncovered and the gun is on public display.

11. The second sailor's story

I was in the Navy from 1953 to 1971 and had two postings to North Head, one in the mid 1960’s and the second time between 1970/71. In March 1971 I left the Navy. During both postings to North Head I often explore the tunnels which honeycomb the hill.

I entered the tunnels from several places – behind the radar school, near the saluting base (South Battery) and down on the track which runs round the bottom of the hill from Torpedo Yard to a small sandy beach this side of Cheltenham Beach.

The tunnel behind the radar school was off the existing ones adjacent to the static tank. This tunnel connected up with others at a lower level and eventually came out close to a beach.

A large square concrete tunnel entrance in the vicinity of the saluting base and beyond the flat area of the tennis court at roughly the same level, went straight into the hill at right angles to the road or track. It led into a very large room which would be at least 100 feet long and 30-40 feet wide, it appeared to be some sort of workshop area. Off this room several tunnels went in different directions, it was one of these that I went down. From this tunnel others led to various rooms, some contained boxes of different sizes and in some places it was impenetrable because of the heavy iron gates which were chained and locked. Behind some of these gates other rooms also contained crates and boxes. I came out of this tunnel much lower down in someone’s garden.

I came out in the garden, which was obviously private property, up a shaft with rungs set in the wall and out through a timber cover, the top of the shaft had a dwarf wall surrounding it. From the garden I recall seeing Phoenix Palms nearby and the jetty at Torpedo Yard, a few moments later I went back down the shaft.

The entrance to the tunnel off the track went in quite a distance, it was closer to the little beach than to Torpedo Yard and in the roof was a huge shaft. The shaft which was about 10 feet in diameter and 30 to 40 feet high went up to a room at another level. I remember shining the torch up the shaft and seeing the ceiling of the room – the shaft continued on up into the darkness.

12. The schoolboy's story

I went to Pukekohe High School and like most of the boys at the school I was one of the Army Cadets. In the summer of 1953 about 100 of us cadets went to North Head and we lived in the army barracks for about a week. I would have been about 15 years old at the time.

Several of us were told off by the army for throwing rocks down the ventilation shafts because of the large amounts of ammunition stored there. I remember one of the shafts had a rusty domed top that we pushed off to reveal the shaft that was 3 to 4 feet in diameter.

There used to be an entrance to the tunnels near the barracks at the top of the hill where I was living, this tunnel led down to other levels and eventually came out near the cook house about half way down the hill. The door where I came out was a wooden door and was bolted from the inside.

To try and get to the bottom level of tunnels we lowered one of the smaller cadets down a shaft on a rope, the rope wasn’t long enough so we had to pull him up again. We later found a way into the lower tunnels by going down a steep track on the side of the hill to the waterfront. Low down in the cliff I and 4 or 5 other cadets found an entrance. It was about 6 feet wide and had double iron gates on it, the gates were about 3 or 4 feet in from the cliff face and were locked. We pushed the gates backwards and forwards for quite a long time before the metal bar in the middle of the gates broke. The tunnel went in 20-25 feet before coming to a very large chamber.

It was in this chamber that I saw the cockpit of an aircraft and instrument panel, I remember one of the other cadets climbed into the cockpit. There was also aircraft wings leaning against the wall that were covered in a canvas like material, it looked like a Tiger Moth, it was that type of old aircraft. There was also some large packing crates in the same chamber.

Further inside the hill leading from this chamber were other tunnels that went in all directions, there were lots of rooms that had ammunition in them and in the same area lifts went up to other levels. Some of the boxes of ammunition were open and looked like hand grenades or mortar bombs. I didn’t explore all the tunnels that I saw down there because I didn’t want to get lost and only had a small torch. There is certainly a maze of tunnels under North Head.

13. The third soldier's story

I was a soldier (328171) in the New Zealand Regular Force Army from 25th August 1953 to 25th August 1958. During those five years I was stationed with the 9th Coast Regiment for 4¼ years and 1st Locating Battery for ¾ year at North Head, Devonport, employed mainly as a radar instructor with the rank of bombardier in the Royal New Zealand Artillery. For the last two years my wife and I were residence at North head living in an Army house situated half way up the hill adjacent to the saluting battery and 9th Coast Regiment Headquarters facing the domain.

Apart from the obvious gun and searchlight emplacements I can confirm that there are tunnels and magazines leading into the interior and honeycombing the hill and the following are but just a few examples of these facts.

Loaded armour piercing six inch (100lb) shells [are in] two magazines; one being situated on one extension of the first corner of the main road and the other on a secondary road past our house near some pine trees and both were facing Rangitoto.

There is a large tunnel entrance along from the saluting battery and past the tennis courts. This was large enough for a small truck to drive into and had steel gates about 10 feet in from the hill face.

At the top of the hill between the radar observation post and the gun emplacement / water tank there were steps going down into the interior past the gun emplacement and I personally went down about 20 feet.

14. The scout's story

I have had several experience infiltrating the various tunnels on North head. The first entry into the tunnels was during the years 1945 and 1946 and again during the early 1950’s following my return from England after the war.

I had found a way into North Head by crawling along a small horizontal ventilation shaft on the Rangitoto Channel side of the hill which led into a honeycomb of tunnels which in turn led to many large chambers and other connecting tunnels and access ways at different levels which I entered and explored on more than one occasion.

There were many tunnels leading from my entry point to various passageways and chambers at various levels. One of these tunnels led up to a large room that seemed like some kind of communications centre and in the room were some big tables, maps were on the wall and telephones were everywhere. It was possible to follow these underground passageways from the Northern side of the hill to exits at various other parts of the hill including an internal access to Torpedo Bay.

One very large chamber that I remember clearly, contained large long wooden crates (similar to shipping containers). By torchlight I could see there were aircraft wings stored on top of one of the crates and on racks protruding from the wall. The wings were of wooden construction and were covered in a fabric material.

There was also at least one radial aircraft engine over which I fell in the semi-darkness. This was the largest storage chamber that I found during my exploration of North Head. My entry to this chamber was from an internal tunnel among the maze of tunnels and was a considerable distance from my original point of entry.

There were other chambers which had large amounts of explosive materials, and munitions were stacked in racks and there were many boxes of .303 rifles and various types of loose and belted munitions. There were also large calibre bullets, artillery and anti-aircraft shells, some of the cases had been opened and their contents spilled on to the floor. There were other chambers which had cordite canisters and very large artillery shells, small bombs, detonators, flares, and hand grenades.

One tunnel gave access to several chambers that had large quantities of wooden boxes (with rope handles) that contained .303 rifles wrapped in waxed paper. Each box had 10 or a dozen rifles held in slots 5 or 6 wide and 2 rows deep. The boxes were stacked about 5 foot high and about 3 deep around the walls of the chamber which was about 12 to 15 feet square. Again, some boxes were open and there were rifles loose and strewn on the floor.

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