- Tonson, A.E.
- History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1982 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THE ENTRY OF THE JAPANESE into the war in 1941 brought unexpected communication problems for New Zealand, for there had previously been no major war in the South Pacific region. Britain itself had many problems and with merchant shipping being sunk and valuable transmitting equipment lost at sea.
New Zealand was forced to rely to a greater extent upon its own resources. While the navy made some use of the Post and Telegraph wireless station on Tinakori Hills at Wellington, with a naval section being established there with landlines leading to Naval Headquarters, a need for further naval transmitting and receiving stations still existed. The first move in this direction was the installation by navy radio technicians of a port-wave transmitter on North Head, in a disused former gun emplacement not far from the naval base at Devonport, Auckland, with its transmitter being remote-controlled from the base wireless telegraph station. This installation was initiated by Warrant Officer Telegraphist W.L. Brewer, RNZN, who had gained a DSM while serving in HMS Achilles in the Battle of the River Plate, for his initiative in routing radio messages through the British Embassy in Montevideo and in having radio aerials repaired during the battle. He became a MBE in 1948. As a prewar radio amateur with peacetime cruise service in the Achilles, as a telegraphist, it became my pleasure to assist at the time with the manufacture of the transmitter and its installation.
This station was later moved to One Tree Hill in Auckland, but in 1942, as the threat to the country diminished, the main set of four kilowatts was shifted to Waiouru. The Americans also made use of the naval transmitters until such time as their own were installed. Initial research into the suitability of Waiouru for radio operations had taken place in 1936 and a photograph of a timber reinforced tent which housed the experimental installation still hangs today at Irirangi in the passageway of frigate block.
The Naval W/T Station, Waiouru, as it was named, was in the centre of the North Island of New Zealand, situated at an altitude of 2,670 feet above sea level beneath the snow-clad slopes of Mounts Ruapehu and Ngaruahoe, and it could be an extremely cold place in winter. Mount Ruapehu was very active at the time with columns of smoke and steam and large boulders ejecting from its crater, so provision had been made for possible evacuation. A large area of the tussock-strewn countryside, extending for some miles, was covered with a web of wireless aerials, many of special design and mounted on tall wooden telegraph posts. Messages were flashed from Waiouru to all parts of the world by the multi-kilowatt high-frequency transmitters, with marine emergencies and routine service matters being handled, and the station became the clearing house for signals from the British Pacific Fleet, playing a vital role in the war in the Pacific. Direct links were established with Britain, Canada, India, Africa, Australia, the USA and French possessions, and eventually with Japan itself.
The first officer-in-charge at Waiouru during the war years was Warrant Officer Telegraphist E.H. Biggs, RNZN, who served from September 1942, being followed from August 1943 onward by Lieutenant H. Philpott, RNZN, later MBE, with Warrant Officer Telegraphist Brewer as executive officer. Officers in charge of Wrens were Third Officer M. Chesney and Fourth Officer Percival. The naval camp housed some eighty Wrens and seventy ratings, mainly employed as telegraphists and technicians, with the receiver and transmitter buildings being spaced some miles apart. Tens of thousands of coded messages were handled by the station from ships and radio stations in all parts of the world, being passed to and from coders and cypherers at naval headquarters in Wellington by means of teleprinter landlines. With high voltage involved, care was necessary when adjusting any transmitter, and one petty officer who miscalculated during the war years was lucky to survive electrocution, being resuscitated by a petty officer and leading rating also on watch at the time. Motorists travelling along the main highway between Ohakune and Taihape, the two nearest townships to Waiouru, were always surprised to encounter personnel in naval uniforms so many miles from the sea.