Epsom’s top secret

19 November 2014
Bunker

“We didn’t have a toilet so had to climb three flights of stairs and in the blackout walk up to College. We had to carry gas masks wherever we

went....”

These are the words of Mrs Dorothy Allen (nee Ashton) who was a captain in the New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during World War II. Believe it or not from 1 October 1944 to 10 August 1945 Dorothy and many members of the WAAF were stationed in a huge underground bunker beneath the University’s Epsom Campus.

Drive through Gate 3 at Epsom today and on your right you will pass a large stone stairwell with a graffiti-scrawled metal plate covering its entry. Although it looks more like a huge jaded garden sculpture, it is in fact a reminder of the “combined operations centre”, designed to withstand 113kg bombs dropped from 3700 metres, that once existed below. Pause and poke your head over the concrete wall beyond towards the car park and there are two tall shimmering silver ventilation shafts, more visible reminders of Epsom’s “former life”.

Early on in World War II, the then Auckland College of Education (ACE) campus became New Zealand’s Northern Districts Combined Headquarters for army, airforce and navy, occupying over 45,000 square feet of space. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and Darwin, the perceived threat to New Zealand became so great Cabinet approved construction of a £52,000 underground headquarters beneath where the Epsom carpark stands today.

The bunker was to provide a 40-room refuge for key headquarters’ functions in the event of air-raid. It included a number of full height control rooms including one for the fighter sector, one for combined operations and one for gun operations. There were three cipher and teleprinter rooms adjacent to a communications centre, wireless and telegraph rooms, a direction finding triangulation room, various viewing galleries and offices (including one for the Commander in Chief), emergency generators, air filtration, locker rooms and toilet facilities. There were even wall-mounted maps, blackboards and canted plotting tables complete with model ships and planes just like in the movies.

But the bunker never served its urgent purpose. As the course of the war shifted, construction was halted in October 1943 and from then until 1945 it was used by women from the WAAF. It remained under military control for a further 20 years after the campus was handed back to the Education Board at the end of 1944. In the early 1960s the Auckland Regional Authority took over the facility as a civil defence disaster control headquarters for the northern region. One of those lucky enough to visit was current Dean of the Faculty of Education, Professor Graeme Aitken: “I visited the bunker in 1968 with my Form 6 class (Year 12) as part of a reward for us achieving UE accrediting,” he remembers.

By July 1976 the bunker was handed back to the ACE. Used for storage, it became a target for vagrants who gained entry on a number of occasions. In November 1982 a major blaze, likely lit by intruders, broke out in the bunker. A second, smaller fire occurred in 1988. While the upper level was largely destroyed some parts of the ground floor remain identifiable despite serious charring.

Since then the bunker has remained sealed and inaccessible. “It is sad that what I recall as something of an historic treasure is now shut away and abandoned and that an important part of our ‘home front’ history has been lost,” says Professor Aitken.

“Inside, sealed from view, are the charred remnants of remarkable investments made, but never called upon, to protect New Zealanders in both war and peace,” writes a former ACE student, librarian and historian Jeanette Grant. Her article, which informed this one, appears in the March 2003 Prospect, published by Epsom, Eden District Historical Society.

This article was first published in UniNews the University of Auckland news for staff