War­time work­ers sworn to se­crecy

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS -

It’s been 70 years since they worked in the top-se­cret Auck­land Com­bined Mil­i­tary Head­quar­ters dur­ing World War II.

Even then it was only a pass­ing ac­quain­tance.

Naval lieu­tenant Alan Say­ers was in the main com­mand room while Women’s Aux­il­iary Air Force (WAAF) Gwen Stevens was in the ad­join­ing air force fil­ter room de­ci­pher­ing in­for­ma­tion from radar sta­tions strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned round the coast.

Ev­ery­one in the build­ing was sworn to se­crecy for 50 years.

Stevens, now 92, thought no one else in that war­time build­ing was still alive un­til she heard from Say­ers, 98, af­ter he heard about her through his­to­rian San­dra Coney’s book On the Radar.

A catch-up was ar­ranged at Alan and June Say­ers’ home by Auck­land Wa­ter­front chair­man Sir Bob Har­vey and wife Bar­bara, who hap­pens to be Stevens’ niece.

Sir Bob Har­vey’s mother Mar­garet Con­nolly also worked as a WAAF phone op­er­a­tor at the Sea­grove aero­drome on the Manukau Har­bour and later for the Cen­tral Com­bined Head­quar­ters in Welling­ton.

‘‘The main op­er­a­tions room, manned by of­fi­cers of the navy, army and air force, was on watch day and night mon­i­tor­ing ships and planes over the up­per North Is­land,’’ Say­ers says.

‘‘Mes­sages came in via cypher from radar sta­tions, ships and var­i­ous other sources and any­thing un­to­ward was im­me­di­ately dealt with.

‘‘New Zealan­ders of to­day would be sur­prised at how close we came to en­emy at­tack and how many ships were sunk around our coast by en­emy raiders, in­clud­ing the RMS Ni­a­gara that went to the bot­tom just three hours out of Auck­land. Then there was the liner Ran­gi­tane off East Cape and the Tu­rak­ina off New Ply­mouth.’’

The Ja­panese bombed Dar­win in Fe­bru­ary 1942 and the threat of in­va­sion was im­mi­nent. So an un­der- ground bunker ca­pa­ble of with­stand­ing the im­pact of 250lb bombs was built along­side the cur­rent build­ing to give pro­tec­tion from aerial at­tack.

The huge com­plex, ac­ces­si­ble down steep flights of stairs, was used for Civil De­fence pur­poses af­ter the war and still ex­ists in the grounds of the Auck­land Univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion fac­ulty in Ep­som Ave.

Say­ers’ meet­ing with Gwen Stevens will be men­tioned in his forth­com­ing book Dead­line, due out later this year. The 300-page work will fea­ture sto­ries and pho­to­graphs from his­toric events that Say­ers cov­ered dur­ing his ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist.

He was also an out­stand­ing sports­man.

At Auck­land Gram­mar he was the sec­ond fastest school­boy quar­ter-miler in the Bri­tish Em­pire.

He later rep­re­sented Waikato in rugby and still holds a New Zealand rugby league record of seven tries in a sin­gle game.

Fond re­union: Alan Say­ers, 98, meets Gwen Stevens, 92, more than 70 years af­ter they worked

in the Auck­land Com­bined Mil­i­tary Head­quar­ters dur­ing

World War II.

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