On bush-covered, peaceful Mt Victoria today there is no evidence that it was once an integral part of Wellington’s World War II defences. And yet, from 1942 to 1945 it was one of a system of heavy anti-aircraft installations, including Tinakori Hill, Mt Victoria, Johnsonville, Point Halswell, Somes Island and Pol Hill in Brooklyn. All that is left now of the four-gun battery with its massive concrete gunpits and command post, is a plaque on a bench placed by the gunners who used to man the site.
The Mt Victoria installation was very similar to the one at Point Halswell, so to get an impression of what it would have once looked like you can go to Michael Biggs’ website on Wellington’s Coastal Defences. [Information from Michael Biggs, Wellington’s Coastal Defences, http://www.geocities.com/kelburn.geo/index.html, 2006]
The installation was built by the Ministry of Works and the young men who enlisted for the war effort. One of these was 21 year old Vic Newman from Christchurch. By natural inclination, he would have been a conscientious objector but considered it selfish to shame the family by taking such a stance. He arrived in Wellington in 1941 and went straight into training in Trentham. In August that year it was decided to put heavy anti-aircraft batteries on the hills surrounding Wellington to form the basis of the city’s defence as the Japanese pushed south. The control of the batteries was to be exercised through a combined HQ built under the Dominion Museum. The first was installed on Mt Vic with two regiments, the 28th Heavy AKAK and the 29th Light AKAK and a searchlight unit. When Vic emerged from Trentham, he joined the 28th Heavy Anti-aircraft Regiment and was sent to Mt Victoria, which was also the regimental headquarters. Another group of the Heavy and Light AKAK regiments was split off and sent to Tinakori Hill.
The troops worked all day building the concrete gun emplacements and bunkers for ammunition. They were on four-hourly standbys, day and night; one watch was on guard. Practice call-outs were held throughout the night. Vic Newman was based on Mt Victoria for a short time, living in a two-man hut on the hill. He was then sent over to Tinakori Hill, although the AKAK batteries on Mt Victoria were manned until the end of the war.
Vic’s memories of Tinakori Hill are that it was always in the cloud and damp – the soldiers used to send their clothes over to Mt Victoria to dry. Rations were sent to Tinakori from Mt Victoria, too. The main meal for soldiers digging gun emplacements was one cubic inch of smoked fish, one slice of bread and one cup of tea. Food sometimes ran out on Tinakori Hill. Vic was one of a number of soldiers who didn’t believe it was reasonable to expect men to do the physical labour of digging gun emplacements on such small rations and led a strike for more food. The soldiers waited till they were up on the guns, then refused to carry out maintenance. The soldiers were arrested, threatened with court martial and put under guard in their huts. The District Commander was sent from HQ to investigate and decided the men had a valid case. He ordered hot meals for all and, in due course these were served to the ‘freed’ soldiers by their former guards!
After the war, the Mt Victoria emplacements were quickly seen to be an eyesore and in 1946 the Council investigated their removal. It decided total demolition was not necessary, but that the Government would be required to fill in the area between the emplacements to serve as a look-out area. A plan was drawn up by the City Engineer but, while one emplacement was partially back-filled, the full plan was not carried out. No further demolition steps were taken until 1969, when (after Tinakori had been demolished) the Council asked the Ministry of Works to investigate the demolition of the Mt Victoria site. While the design of the emplacements was similar to those on Tinakori Hill, however, the site was far more difficult. The hillside was steeper, with less room for machinery to manoeuvre, explosives could not be used because of the proximity to housing and there was no suitable area nearby for disposal of the rubble. The works would also have to be carefully managed to keep concrete from damaging the adjacent road or houses.
A site for the disposal of the rubble was eventually found half a mile away in a gully near the fever hospital off Alexandra Road. The Ministry of Works started demolition in May 1970. The work proved far more costly than originally estimated, because the Council requested that the five concrete bases also be removed, but finally every sign of the gun emplacements was removed