Se­cret war bunker digs up city’s past

The Wellingtonian - - Front Page - JES­SICA LONG

It’s a huge H-shaped struc­ture run­ning about 100 me­tres into a Welling­ton hill­side, be­neath al­most 20m of earth.

The bricked-up en­trance is just a few me­tres from a car park at the end of Wood­man­cote Rd in Khan­dal­lah – but hardly any­one knows it’s there.

The com­plex was built for the Royal New Zealand Sig­nals Corps in 1942 but it has long been sealed up, and knowl­edge of it was largely for­got­ten.

That was un­til Victoria Univer­sity mu­seum and her­itage stud­ies stu­dent Alexan­der Gor­don took a place­ment with Welling­ton City Coun­cil for his mas­ters de­gree.

He was tasked with iden­ti­fy­ing her­itage bunkers on the coun­cil’s land, and set about ex­plor­ing the re­gion for any ex­ist­ing struc­tures.

The quest led him to Wood­man­cote Rd, and the re­dis­cov­ery of the for­mer army com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­tre blan­keted by bush.

Gor­don said the re­dis­cov­ery was all thanks to re­search done by his­to­rian Peter Cooke, whose book De­fend­ing New Zealand: Ram­parts On The Sea 1840-1950s listed the World War II struc­ture’s lo­ca­tion.

The un­der­ground shel­ter was built to house the sig­nals corps in the face of en­emy ac­tion. How­ever, the tun­nels were re­port­edly very leaky and were never used for their in­tended pur­pose.

When Gor­don found the tun­nel was still stand­ing, he said it gave him a ‘‘per­sonal con­nec­tion’’ to the site.

‘‘It was ex­cit­ing, I sup­pose, to see such a large and vis­i­ble piece of his­tory just sit­ting in the bush.

‘‘It would be re­ally ex­cit­ing if it could be opened up again. Welling­ton has a wealth of WWII struc­tures that have sur­vived and they’re in re­mark­able con­di­tion.’’

Fur­ther re­search found the tun­nel was used, af­ter the war, as a physics and en­gi­neer­ing lab­o­ra­tory for earthquake re­search by the Depart­ment of Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search (DSIR).

In the 1980s, it was be­lieved to have been a train­ing site for local fire de­part­ments.

It was thought the tun­nels were bricked up some time in the 1990s, due to van­dal­ism and po­ten­tial risks to the pub­lic, Gor­don said.

Wrights Hill Fortress tour guide John Innes said he was one of the lucky few who knew about the tun­nel, hav­ing been taken through be­fore it was bricked up.

But he had for­got­ten about its ex­is­tence un­til be­ing re­minded of it this week. ‘‘The amaz­ing thing is that no­body knows it’s there. There’s places like this all over Welling­ton, some of them go­ing back to the 1880s.’’

He said the in­ter­est in Wrights Hill Fortress proved that open­ing up tun­nels such as this was worth it.

‘‘It was ex­cit­ing, I sup­pose, to see such a large and vis­i­ble piece of his­tory just sit­ting in the bush. It would be re­ally ex­cit­ing if it could be opened up again’’ Alexan­der Gor­don

and Bay of Plenty from their 21-acre block near Hamil­ton. In the past 20 years, the Au­gust rush for fresh flow­ers had tripled, Ian Rid­dell said.

The big­gest prob­lem was the weather. ‘‘There’s been years when we haven’t made it and come up short.’’

His mo­ti­va­tion was hope that cancer could be beaten. He also loves the flow­ers. ‘‘When you look at the bor­ing bulb ... the amaz­ing beauty that comes out of it, it’s be­yond be­lief re­ally.’’

PHO­TOS: PETER COOKE

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