Maungatapere’s Military Camps
Not many people are aware of the extent of the role Maungatapere played in protecting not just Northland, but New Zealand during World War II.
While most of our fighting force was overseas, there was a rising danger in our own back yard. German ships were patrolling the southern Pacific, and after the US naval base at Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese in 1941 there was concern about Japanese invasion. New Zealanders rushed to protect their country with the help of their US Allies.
Northland was identified by New Zealand military chiefs as the most likely place where an invasion force would land. So they immediately set about improving defences and creating ‘fortress Northland’.
The most likely scenario of attack envisaged by military command was the Japanese landing in Northland – probably in the Bay of Islands – and then driving south towards Auckland. The only way any invader could do that, however, was by using existing roads, as the valleys, unbridged streams and forested hilltops between the north and Auckland were impassable by vehicle.
Whangaroa Harbour, the Bay of Islands, Doubtless Bay and Whangārei Harbour were seen as likely targets and these places were either mined or had gun emplacements erected. Around Whangārei, 13 camps were established along with a hospital.
There were six large army camps at Maungatapere, four on Three Mile Bush Rd, Kamo along with Glenbervie, Kauri, Kensington Park, and Onerahi.
With incredible speed and efficiency, the Public Works Department built defensive structures all over Northland including airfields, radar stations, army camps, roads, communication and medical centres, gun emplacements and other vital infrastructure needed for defence - all of which operated under varying degrees of secrecy. Censorship meant that newspapers were prevented from writing about the camps. They couldn’t even mention the American troops presence in New Zealand until 1942, and even after that the news was strictly controlled.
Recent research by Heritage New Zealand has revealed evidence of 76 military camps across Northland alone. These camps housed the NZ Home Guard and 1st Division forces along with thousands of US forces preparing to launch their Pacific Campaign.
Artefacts that were displayed from WWII at Kiwi North (c) Northern Advocate, Photo by Tania White
The only possible direct route an invading force could move vehicles on was the Auckland-Kawakawa main road so defence was organised around that transport artery. As a result, a number of 1st Division military camps – command, logistics and defence – were clustered around the main highway to Auckland.
Maungatapere’s location at the crossroads of what is now SH14 and SH15 made it a strategic location as a chokepoint for defence, as well as a logistical hub for defence assets - in this case a small tank unit. Camps were clustered along SH14 which was part of the main road to Auckland at the time. In fact, in the 1930s the recommended route by the Automobile Association from Kaitaia to Whangārei was via Mangakahia and was named Highway 1.
Similar camps at Warkworth/Dome Valley were set up for the same reason as a key strategic location on the route south.
The Maungatapere camps stretched along one side of the road from above Kara Road, down along either side of the dairy factory and the school, to past the Maungatapere Hall. Official records show six camps were based here.
The Maungatapere camps were built under emergency in 1942 to accommodate hundreds of personnel and all their equipment including a small tank unit stationed at Camp M1 close to Newton Road.
Land from local farmers and property owners was requisitioned for defence purposes and buildings (many of them prefabs) were quickly erected to house the soldiers, including accommodation huts as well as storage and work buildings for large equipment.
This camp was occupied by the Auckland East Coast Mounted Rifles (AECMR). This was a tank Battalion of the 1 st (NZ) Division. This camp could accommodate 144 people.
Also occupied by the 9AECMR in July 1942. It was an area of about 8 acres along the highway frontage. This camp included squadron and ammunition stores, a workshop, tank shelters, a canteen, and accommodation for 348 men.
Sat next to M2 along the highway frontage beside the dairy factory, post office and store.
M4, M5 & M6
These three camps covered an area of 66 acres located southwest of Maungatapere School. The camp was occupied by the Waikato Mounted Rifles (WMR) from July 1942. Correspondence indicates that eight acres of the campsites were completely gravelled or concreted over.
While the camps were initially built for New Zealand Brigade troops, they were also used by various US units, including batteries of the 12th Marine (Artillery) Regiment and 3rd Marine Division (March- July 1943), as a training and staging point before they left for their Pacific campaign.
Research shows the camps at Maungatapere were smaller and less formal than many other camps, especially those built specifically to house American troops. This may be because the camps started out with smaller groups of territorial and home-defence forces and grew rapidly in a short amount of time.
Hidden From History
By mid-1943, Japan was no longer seen as an immediate threat to New Zealand, so the Public Works Department began the task of closing the assets associated with ‘fortress Northland’. These often disappeared as quickly as they were built.
The department quickly and efficiently disposed of the buildings and cleared the sites, in most cases restoring the land—which had been requisitioned for defence purposes—back to its original condition. This efficiency at decommissioning buildings and sites is part of the reason this war effort was largely lost to the public mind and history.
Due to wartime policy, the sites were dismantled and records of them were sealed or destroyed and only limited records remained. In 2017, Heritage New Zealand staff undertook a project to discover the history of Fortress Northland. They uncovered once-secret documents which had remained unopened since the end of the war.
In Maungatapere, several of the campsites are now covered by residential buildings and no real signs of the camps remain other than some concrete pads or the odd remaining building.
A shed housing a water pump for an American army camp under the taraire trees on the Lilley's property alongside Three Mile Bush Rd in the 1940s This is still visible today (c) Northern Advocate
If you are interested in learning more, there are some great personal accounts about life as locals during this time in Tales of Mountains and Memories which you can purchase online or you can find a copy at the library.
Heritage New Zealand has some great information about Northland’s role in World War II and have also put together a podcast about Fortress Northland and their research to find out about the camps as most records were destroyed.