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THE STORY OF OUR ACK-ACK

World War 2 Air Defence of Auckland

by Major Martin Blampied who commanded the 65th Battery, 15th Anti-aircraft Regiment, N.Z. Artillery

On Monday, September 4, 1939, I reported to Captain Steve Weir, adjutant of the 12th Anti-aircraft Battery. He and his men were getting Auckland's two 3-inch mobile anti-aircraft guns up the side of Mt Victoria for placement on the summit. There was no hint then that the before the war threat to New Zealand receded in 1944, there would be 46 heavy anti-aircraft guns and 36 Bofors light anti-aircraft guns in position around Auckland and that the city would be classified a "first-class defended port."

It is a matter of pride to the thousands of men and women who manned the guns and instruments that from September 4, 1939, to the end of the war a 30-second state of readiness was maintained on each gun-site. When a real or practice alarm was sounded, the competition between crews resulted in a race to man the guns. The only exception to the continuous 30-second state of readiness was early in 1942, after the fall of Singapore. Our two 3-inch guns were taken from Mt Victoria and shipped, complete with battery complement, to Fiji, where the risk of attack by the Japanese was considered grave. For three months the rest of the ack-ack brigade (to which we had expanded since Japan's entry into the war) was engaged at points in and around Auckland, digging gun pits for our new 3.7-inch guns. By a sad twist of fate, it was during this period that a hostile plane from a submarine flew over Auckland undetected.

3.7-in at Whangaparoa3.7-in gun at Whangaparoa.

In 1939, the 12th anti-aircraft battery on Mt Victoria had some years of territorial experience behind it. The men occupied the underground passages built for an old 8-inch gun that had been in position since the 1890s but had never been used. The Manual School on the slopes of the hill was taken over as a mess hall, and the battery's officers had the use of the dental clinic. Some of our personnel slept in the half-open shelters in the school playgrounds.

Mobile searchlight detachments were an integral part of the battery and were located behind the Takapuna Grammar School and at Parnell Park. As well, detachments of the National Reserve (1914-1918 men) manned Lewis guns in the vicinity of the oil tanks, wharfs and other vital points. These were our total anti- aircraft defences when war broke out. In retrospect it was only a token force, but the expansion that came later meant that Auckland was provided with adequate protection by highly trained personnel.

The morale of the battery was very high under Capt Weir (who was afterwards to achieve fame as an artillery general in Egypt and Italy) and Capt Arthur Rawle, a very keen young territorial battery commander who was later killed in action in Libya. Within a few months after war was declared, the First Echelon was formed and many 12th Battery men, including the two commanding officers, left for overseas. The battery's new commander was Major Edgar Elliott, a veteran of World War 1, who later commanded the Heavy Anti-aircraft Regiment with the rank of Lieut-Colonel.

By the time it became evident the war was likely to be of long duration, the makeshift accommodation on Mt Victoria was inadequate, and the defence authorities, after much pressing by Major Elliott, built a comfortable series of camp buildings which remained our headquarters for the rest of the war.

In the period before Japan entered the war the only significant change was in personnel, but Japan's sudden marauding in the Pacific zone, altered the situation entirely. Our Government showed commendable energy in the steps it took to defend this country against direct attack, and at the same time it had the wisdom to leave our "Ball of Fire" division in the Middle East. At this time, the decision was made to expand our anti-aircraft defences to 46 3.7-inch heavy guns and 36 Bofors quickfiring 40 m/m guns.

The siting of the heavy guns was an urgent task and as they arrived they were placed, in sets of four, at Belmont, Bayswater, Northcote, Orakei, Outer Domain, Epsom Showgrounds, Ponsonby, Chamberlain Park, Te Atatu, Hobsonville and Whenuapai. Two mobile guns were also kept in reserve. Each gun was bolted to a concrete base 10 feet thick. The concrete work for each set of gun emplacements cost 10,000, and the sets of four guns each cost 48,000. It has been estimated that the total cost of each gun-site, with its accommodation for 120 personnel, would be not less than 150,000.

The majority of New Zealanders at the time thought that the United States had provided us with this defence equipment, but every piece, down to the last screw, had come from a hard-pressed Britain. Even today this will surprise many people.

Auckland's one ack-ack batttery expanded to a brigade overnight and the new organization brought many problems. To overcome them two important decisions were made. The first resulted in borrowing expert ack-ack staff from Britain, and towards the end of 1942, when about half our guns were installed, Colonel W. Rowbotham arrived to command the brigade, bringing with him three officer instructors and a dozen warrant officer instructors. All these people had been on English ack-ack gun-sites during the Battle of Britain and were able to bring our efficiency up to something approaching what had been learnt the hard way against German bombers.

One thing that surprised us "amateur" officers was the lack of "spit and polish" discipline that we expected to find in these Regular Army experts. For example sentries on gun-sites were to pay no saluting compliments to officers and unnecessary teaching of theory was frowned on. All that mattered was the very complicated task of bringing accurate fire to bear on hostile aircraft as soon as was humanly possible.

The second decision was to recruit women to operate the instruments on each gun-site. Women had already proved their worth at this task in Britain and, although the prospect was viewed initially with some alarm, a few month's experience with our woman gunners on predictor height-finder and radar cabin soon convinced us of their superiority in operating these delicate aids to accurate gunfire.

WAAC Gunners
W.A.A.C. anti-aircraft gunners at Hobsonville in 1943.
They are (back row): Gunners B. Scott, M. Calder, S. Hogan;
(seated): Gunners A. Hattaway, J. Maben, W. Flynn, and K. McSherry.

The supply of personnel for a full brigade - limited as it was in the case of males to those not eligible for overseas service - gave our recruiting staff at district headquarters plenty of worries. This particularly applied to the tasks of finding men suitable for training as officers, and every recruit who had matriculated was interviewed.

In the middle of 1942 the first two of our 3.7 guns arrived in a freighter at Princes Wharf and I was ordered to spend all night aboard the ship to see that precedence was given to their unloading. We found the guns in a hold, standing 10 feet high on their mountings, and in a tight packing of bags of salt. That salt caused so much rust on the breech blocks that it took months of work by our gunners to restore a smooth surface when the guns were mounted at Belmont.

Gradually the brigade and its equipment grew and became a fighting unit. There were two regiments of artillery - the 15th Heavy Anti-aircraft Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Elliott, and the 22nd Light AA Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Clayton-Greene a solicitor from Hamilton who came over from the 9th Coast Artillery Regiment.

Belmont was the first active gun-site and was manned by about 70 men and 50 women. With 24-hour manning, each gun, predictor, height-finder and radar cabin had to have three reliefs as well as extra personnel for sickness and leave.

Practice, practice, practice, was the order of every day. Whenever a plane came in sight it was identified and followed with instruments and guns by the watch on duty, and in addition the Air Force provided flights to meet our special training requirements.

Our women gunners soon provided us with an object lesson in keenness. On the instruments their deft fingers quickly matched the dial needles with the ever-changing readings, giving the bearings of the plane being followed. Needle readings were transmitted to the men on the guns, enabling them to set the weapons to the same bearings ready for opening fire.

Belmont was well placed for firing over the Hauraki Gulf and on the day of our first practice shoot with live ammunition our target was a canvas drogue towed 1000 yards or so behind an old Vincent plane that flew over the ocean. When our British instructors arrived to show us the fine points of ack-ack gunnery, we felt apprehensive about our first practice shoot under their tuition. They told us their job was to criticize, and they were certainly good at that: First the officer instructors and then the Brigade commander pulled our gunners to pieces, but when it was all over the commander jumped into my car and said with a smile: "It wasn't a bad shoot, Blampied."

Some of the warrant officers were inclined to correct mistakes with their swagger sticks and on more than one occasion a woman predictor gunner was rapped over the knuckles for not operating the dials properly. When Colonel Elliott heard of this, he told the instructor that if it happened again he would be put aboard the next boat for England. Coming from the stark conditions of an English gun-site where there was no favour shown to man or woman, the instructor was startled, but he soon got into our ways.

One fact that emerged from the personnel training on instruments was that not one woman in 50 was interested in why or how the instruments worked. Day after day they were content to operate the predictor (the inventor of which was reputed to have lost his reason) without wanting to know about its interior. On the other hand our previous male crews, if of average intelligence, would have loved to pull it apart and have a closer look at its cams and linkages. (This was not allowed of course, since the predictors could only be opened by a qualified instrument repairer.) But the difference in outlook between the two sexes was remarkable; it was not a question of intelligence but of mechanical curiosity.

The development of Belmont as a fully operational post was gradually repeated on the other sites, although three of them were only partly finished when the war situation changed in our favour. For the mounting of the 3.7 guns at the various gun-sites, praise should go to Regimental Sergeant Major P. Stuart. This warrant officer was a builder in private life, but the job of handling several tons of gun and mounting, and getting it into place on its concrete base, was really a job for trained ordnance personnel. But RSM Stuart and his gunners did a wonderful job.

One of the main tasks of the Brigade Commander was to install an underground gunoperations room at Epsom. This was located alongside the air-operations room, so that the air defence commander and the anti-aircraft gun commander could study an approaching raid.

In this way the two commanders would decide whether to engage hostile raids with guns or lighter aircraft; obviously, both could not operate together. Our operations room was said by the Brigade Commander to be the equal of any in an equivalent British defence area. Under the commander's supervision, Post Office technicians installed many miles of wiring for the elaborate warning systems, and when finished and fully manned the room was an exact replica of the defence posts that proved superior to the thrusts of German bombers over Britain.

Towards the end of 1942, when Allied morale was low, Japan was a menace to Australia and New Zealand. But in New Zealand we were reaching the stage of being able to hit back if attacked from the air. Early in 1943 about half our guns and personnel were operational and by the middle of the year Auckland could claim classification as a first-class defended port.

That we actually had no hostile raids may suggest that ours was a wasted effort. But Auckland's immunity was by no means certain. Had the Allies failed to gain the upper hand in the Pacific in 1943, and if Japanese aircraft carriers had been free to roam the South Pacific by winning the Coral Sea battle, this port - as one end of a food supply line that was vital to Britain - was a logical target for carrier-based bombers.

At the beginning of 1942, the prospects for New Zealand looked grim when seen through the eyes of defence authorities both here and in London. And from this grim appraisal came the immense defence effort of which our anti-aircraft defences were a part.

Now little remains to remind us of the weeks and months of urgent tasks and problems met and overcome. The thousands of men and women who welded themselves into an efficient fighting force in double quick time can look back at those anxious years with satisfaction. Their job was well worth while.

This article first appeared in the NZ Herald, 1964. It has been provided by Hal Blampied, the author's son, himself a Battery Commander in 9 Coast Regt.

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