Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Co. Ltd was formed in August 1916, and purchased land for a flying field 3 months later. The Company was chaired by Sir Henry Wigram, who had tried to have a state-backed flying school established and when that attempt failed, decided – along with his fellow directors – to establish their own. By the end of December that year, 40 pupils had enrolled to learn to fly.
The first flight was made by instructor Cecil M. Hill (pictured at left) on 7 May 1917, and by 1919, 182 pilots had been trained.
In 1923 the government decided to take over the company and run the airbase under a military umbrella: in June the base was officially handed over and renamed Wigram Aerodrome. Sir Henry Wigram continued his support: donating £2500 to the Government for the purchase of an aeroplane – a Gloster Glebe fighter – and gifted a further 81 acres of land in 1932.
Over the years the Wigram Aerodrome has been part of not just local, but national history as well:
The Museum opened on 1 April 1987, and the Base itself closed to commercial air traffic in March 2009. The final Wigram Air Show was held the previous month.
He was a carpenter, a sportsman – a boxer – went to Christchurch Normal School (local boy), his photos show a nice face, and he wasn’t married. Just an ordinary kiwi bloke, maybe. But he did extraordinary things.
Henry Nicholas enlisted in February 1916 with the 1st Canterbury Battalion, and landed in France in September 1916. With his Regiment was involved in fighting at The Somme, Messines and Polderhoek, (Belgium).
It was from the action at Polderhoek on 3 December 1917 that he was awarded the Victoria Cross for “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty… exceptional valour and coolness”. He destroyed an enemy strongpoint that was inflicting heavy casualties and overpowered a sixteen-man enemy garrison, capturing four wounded prisoners and an enemy machine-gun.
While on leave in England in mid-1918 he was invested by the King, the first solder in his regiment to be awarded the V.C., and he returned to France in September 1918, promoted to sergeant.
The Regiment had the duty of holding the town of Beaudignies, near Le Quesnoy. A skirmish on 23rd October with a German patrol cost Nicholas his life, and earned him the Military Medal.
Imagine a concrete lined room, hazy with cigarette smoke and lit only by a few shaded lamps which hang from the ceiling. In the centre, women in uniform surround a large table, atop of which a map of the Canterbury region is spread. Occasionally one of the women might adjust her headset and then, using a stick similar those wielded by croupiers at gambling tables, move a marker into a new position on the map. From a gallery above, officers look down in silent concentration. A runner enters the room and wordlessly passes a note to one of the officers. Then, from over the radio, a frantic voice breaks the tense atmosphere.
“Godley Battery has fallen. Japanese troops have taken Lyttelton.”
Defence of the South Island
For many nights the residents of the hillside suburb of Cashmere had been woken by the sound of blasting accompanied by ground tremors. The war was in its third year and New Zealand was under the threat of an invasion from the Empire of Japan. Throughout most of 1942 black out practices had become a common occurrence in Christchurch. Those living on the hill simply assumed that the military was conducting yet another clandestine operation.
The New Zealand military already had a presence in Cashmere. In July of that year the Government had commandeered Cashmere House, the property of John Frederick Cracroft Wilson, to act as Combined Headquarters Southern Command.
Built in 1909 to designs by Samuel Hurst Seager, Cashmere House was set in a depression atop the Cashmere Hills. Reached via a long driveway which wound its way up the hill, the house overlooked an expanse of trees, lawns and gardens. Within, the house contained more than thirty rooms, enough to accommodate the different departments of the Air Force, Navy and Army that were required to oversee the defence of the South Island. Yet while it provided adequate office space, a civilian house was not designed to withstand the threat of aerial bombardment, nor was a house of that size likely to remain unnoticed by any invading troops.
In preparation for its war with Germany, Britain had established subterranean control stations so that the nation’s defence could be coordinated during aerial bombardments by the Luftwaffe. Anticipating the Japanese invasion, Southern Command adopted the same approach. No sooner had the military taken over Cashmere House than it started the construction of what was intended to be a secret, underground command bunker.
To the northeast of the house two separate adits (passage tunnels) were dug into the hillside. Throughout the excavation, the soil and rock was taken via a purpose built rail and disposed of in a nearby valley. Initially proceeding southward, the adits then curved westward, so as to offer protection against external explosions. From there the adits opened into a large U shaped chamber which had been excavated from the bedrock.
Pre-stressed concrete ribs, constructed at a Public Works Department factory at the Birches near McLean’s Island, were used to brace the chamber. To set them in place a specially designed machine was manufactured at a workshop in Temuka. It was not necessary to set all the ribs in place, only those that were needed to stabilise the caverns. As a result most of the walls remained natural rock
A communications tunnel, intended only for the use of officers, was built to connect the chambers to Cashmere House. The tunnel was accessed from the basement in the house and descended on a slight gradient to the chambers. A ventilation shaft set at the midway point in the tunnel provided fresh air to the chambers.
Initial plans drawn up by the Public Works Department show the extent of the military’s aspirations. The plans show that the northern wing of the chamber was to house an office and separate rooms for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, along with a telephone exchange and cypher room. The southern chamber wing was to house another cypher room and a room for teleprinters. The two wings were connected by a western chamber and a further corridor.
The western chamber was intended to consist of two levels. The northern end would be the combined operations room. The southern end was the plotting room. Ladders would provide access to the upper floor. There, a gallery would allow observers to watch the movement of air force units being co-ordinated on the plotting table. It was proposed that the bunker would also contain kitchens, bedrooms and toilet facilities.
Work on the chambers continued until April 1943 when the war in the Pacific turned against the Japanese and the threat of an invasion was no longer considered a possibility.
Fire and concealment
By the end of 1944 the Army and Navy services had already vacated Cashmere House, leaving only the Air Force to occupy it. In November, plans were arranged for the Air Force to hand the building and its grounds back to the trustees of the Sir J.C. Wilson estate by the start of December. Yet before this could take place, on 12 November 1944 at 11:40pm, the building caught on fire. Although the fire was eventually brought under control, by 2am much of the building had been lost. The cause of the fire was never discovered.
By January 1945 details of the caverns had been leaked to The Press. The resulting article was accompanied by photographs which showed not only the district engineer of the Public Works Department inspecting the interior of the chambers but also the machines used to construct them. As it was still wartime, the defence force refused to discuss the existence of the caverns and no further information was made public. The tunnels were sealed and the owner of the property bulldozed the entrances to discourage any members of the public from attempting to enter them.
Following the conclusion of the war in September 1945 the existence of the caverns soon faded from public memory. Sworn to secrecy, those who had assisted with the construction or who had served as guards at the Cashmere property never spoke openly about what lay hidden beneath the grounds of the former house. As generations passed, even incoming members of the military seem to have remained unaware that such a project had ever been undertaken.
A chance discovery
The caverns may have remained hidden from the public for longer were it not for the retirement of a nurse at Princess Margaret Hospital. In 1987, while attending a farewell function being held for his mother, TVNZ reporter Jeff Field was told of the caverns by the hospital gardener.
Intrigued, he visited the Ministry of Defence library where he found the aforementioned Press article. Since he was due to take up a new role, Jeff assigned the investigation to another reporter, Bill Cockram. Following the 1944 fire, a new house had been erected on the site of Cashmere House. Upon visiting the owner, Bill Cockram learned that the building was experiencing problems with drainage. As such, the owner was interested to discover what lay beneath his house and gave Bill permission to proceed with his investigation.
Given that the former grounds of Cashmere House had been redeveloped, the only sign that anything lay hidden beneath was the protruding end of a pipe which marked the location of the ventilation shaft. After breaking the seal with a jackhammer, Bill next contacted Tim Williams of the Canterbury Caving Group. Together, with fellow caver, Bud Chapman, a television crew, and the property owner, they abseiled down the ventilation shaft and entered the caverns.
It was the first time that anyone had done so since they were sealed.
The television crew filmed the experience and the resulting documentary was screened as part of The Mainland Touch. Bill Cockram’s discovery, coupled with the release of the documentary, led to renewed public interest in the caverns. In December 1987 the Heathcote County Council’s planning committee even considered listing the bunker as a historic place.
The university moves in
The University of Canterbury, however, already had a vision for the caverns. Initially their ring laser laboratory which measured variations in the earth’s rotation was set on the top floor of a building on the Ilam campus. Yet such a location meant that the experiments were constantly being disturbed by wind, heat, and the movement of people. After considering the military tunnels in Lyttelton and a seismological station at Gebbies Pass, it was eventually proposed to make use of the caverns.
So it was, for the first time since they were excavated from the earth, the caverns came to be formally occupied. Yet rather than being used to co-ordinate a desperate defence against an enemy invasion, the caverns became a temporary home for numerous PhD students and international scientists who joined together to perform research that might benefit humanity.
In 1995 the Christchurch City Council took ownership of the caverns and in the following year the university installed the CII ring laser. The university continued to use the caverns as their laboratory, installing new equipment, and producing new results. Open days were also held for those members of the public who were curious.
Although they were built to withstand the impact of an enemy bombardment, the facility was rendered unsafe by the Canterbury Earthquakes. They have remained closed to the public ever since.
A recent addition to our digital collection: Letters and memorabilia from the Clarkson family. This small collection of letters and memorabilia from Frank (William Francis) Clarkson to his sister Margaret Clarkson (Garton), 1918 and a letter written by Emerson Clarkson, Palestine, to his sister Lydia, in 1917.
Librarian Sue Colyer has inside knowledge of these letters:
I have always treasured these letters as they are all I know of these particular uncles. Sometime after Emerson returned from the war and the time he died in 1948 he quarrelled irrevocably with the rest of the family and his name was never mentioned again and everybody who might have known what it was about is now dead. I only discovered looking at his military record that he had received commendations in the field. He sounds like a man of action as in his letter he is grumbling about how boring it is behind the lines, how far they have to walk to get water for the horses and how they “all” prefer it at the front (yeah, right!).
Emerson Clarkson served from September 1914 to September 1919, in Eqypt and the Balkans and was awarded the British War Medal (1915) and the Victory Medal. He died in 1948.
One of his letters talks about practising fighting techniques such as bayonet fighting and live bomb throwing:
“…they are giving us plenty of work to refresh our memories before going back to the front line where we do nothing but patrols. We all think that being in the front line is a long way better than here.”
Poor old Frank, his younger brother, was killed shortly after these letters were written, but it is nice to know he had such a good time in England visiting rellies and clearly drinking too much. I would love to know what the advice was he sent to George (my father, and the youngest of the very large family). In January 2016 I was bemused to find Frank’s medals on sale on Trade me by an Australian vendor and have no idea how they got there but the family never had them as far as I know, although I do have a copy of his “soldier’s penny” – the bronze plaque that the next of kin of every British empire service person received.
Frank Clarkson was born in Christchurch in 1896 and died in France 27 March 1918. He enlisted in April 1915. He was wounded on September 1915, in the Dardanelles, then in October 1916 and again in 1917. Each time he convalesced in London and Boulogne and returned to the front. By 1916 he was fighting in France. At his death he was a Lance-Corporal with the First Battalion of the Canterbury Infantry Regiment.
Of more interest to me – as they were a huge part of my childhood – were their sisters, one was a school teacher and three lived very adventurous lives as nurses travelling overseas from the 1920 to the 1950s. They specialised in the private nursing of wealthy patients, including royalty, in Europe and the USA and eventually lived through the Blitz in London, nursed on ambulance trains in France in WWII, before returning to New Zealand and opening a popular cake shop on Strowan Road.
It’s been a bit of a wait, but – fingers crossed ! – soon we will be able to stand on the Bridge of Remembrance again. Of course, the surrounds don’t quite look like the photo above anymore. The repairs, painstakingly carried out by SCIRT, to the Bridge and Arch were completed in September 2015, but access wasn’t restored as landscaping work as part of the Te Papa Ōtākāro/ Avon River Precinct project has been carried out on the Bridge and the Park of Remembrance.
“Changes include removing the walls at the western end of the Bridge and the construction of a grand staircase, a new ramp creating a processional connection to the Nicholas Statue, and paving which links with the river promenade and in-ground lighting to highlight the Triumphal Arch,” Ms Wagner, the Associate Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister, the Associate Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister said late last year.
The repair work to the Bridge included replacing the original 4 metre piles with 27 metre ones, and reinforcing the historic arch with an 8.2 tonne beam. The work means that the arch, built from rock quarried in Tasmania, will rock rather than twist in any future earthquakes.
Human beings. We can be a bit disappointing sometimes can’t we? We’re often very easily swayed by things that are bright and shiny rather than other more meaningful things.
Take for instance the event we usually commemorate on 5 November, Guy Fawkes Day. Four hundred years ago in England a group of people plotted to blow up the King and Parliament. The plot was foiled and Fawkes (among others) was caught , tried and executed.
And this would probably be no more than a barely remembered fact from high school history class if explosives weren’t involved. Because we love a bit of a fireworks display, we choose to remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.
Parihaka, a very different kind of protest, doesn’t get as much attention even though it’s far more recent and took place in our own country.
The Māori settlement of Parihaka, Taranaki was home to around 2000 people. In the wake of the Land Wars many Māori had become dispossessed as the Government of the time had undertaken “confiscations” of land. A movement to resist this acquisition and occupation of Māori land had grown, but rather than warfare, peaceful means were used to undermine Government “ownership” of disputed lands. Surveyor pegs were removed, fences were built, fields were ploughed.
By 1881 the Government determined that this peaceful but disruptive protest should come to an end, so on 5 November a militia and armed constabulary of 1500 men invaded the settlement of Parihaka. They were met without resistance. The settlement, and its surrounding crops were eventually destroyed. The leaders of the movement Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi were sent south and jailed, as were a number of men, some of whom never returned.
So, in both cases the Government of the day is accused of injustice – one group chooses a violent protest, the other a peaceful one – but it’s the former that we commemorate. Hmmm. Interesting.
But should you want to pay tribute to the fearless, peaceful protestors of Parihaka you have the opportunity. Lyttelton Community House invite you to attend their Annual Parihaka Remembrance service. This will be held on Thursday, 5th November, 10am at the Lyttelton Rose Garden – (Former Gaol site). From there you are also invited to attend a second service that will be held at the memorial stone next to the church at Rapaki at 11am. Light refreshments will be served afterwards. Please phone Christine on 741-1427 if you require further information.
The Nurses’ Memorial Chapel is one of the most precious historic buildings in New Zealand. It is also internationally important – being probably the only purpose-built chapel in the world which commemorates First World War nurses, and also one of only two public memorials in the English-speaking world to the little-known Salonika Campaign. Built in 1927-28, the chapel is now almost 90 years old. On October 23rd it will be 100 years since that tragic event that led to its construction.
It was on that day in 1915 that the transport ship HMTS Marquette was torpedoed by a German u-boat when nearing the city of Salonika (now Thessaloniki). On board was the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital, travelling from Alexandria. In total 167 people on board died, including 32 from the New Zealand unit; of these 10 were nurses from the New Zealand Army Nursing Service.
The loss of so many nurses was extremely shocking to the New Zealand public, and the fact that a medical unit was travelling on a transport ship rather than a hospital ship, which could have been much safer, is still controversial.
Three of the nurses had trained at Christchurch Hospital, and it wasn’t long before the idea of a memorial chapel was broached. After a period of fundraising, construction of the chapel began.
A crash at Wigram in 1953 remains the worst RNZAF crash in New Zealand history, killing seven men.
Two Royal New Zealand Air Force De Havilland Devons, the NZ1811 and NZ1810 from RNZAF Station Wigram, collided over Wigram Aerodrome. They had been part of the last section of a 27 aircraft flypast over Harewood International Airport (as Christchurch airport was then called) marking the 1953 London to Christchurch Air Race Prize Giving Ceremony.
When the formation broke up as the aircraft prepared to land back at Wigram, NZ1811 was struck on the wing by its “No. 2”, NZ1810. Both aircraft immediately lost control and plunged to the ground in a paddock at nearby Halswell, killing all aboard. This is still the highest loss of life incurred by the Royal New Zealand Air Force in a single New Zealand accident. They were:
Squadron Leader: Sholto R Duncan
Pilots: Flight Lieutenants Ebbett and Flight Lieutenant Ziesler.
Crewmen: Brian J Keogh, Eric Melrose, William Sharman, Russell Woodcock.
Now this terrible accident has been commemorated in Wigram by naming two of the new streets Edwin Ebbett Place and Erling Ziesler Lane
To read the original account in The Press of 16 October 1953 p. 10, you can visit the Central Library Manchester Street, and see the pages in microfilm – ask one of our lovely staff for assistance if you haven’t used microfilm before.
Following the 75th Anniversary of Wigram Air Base on 25 August 1992, it was closed on 14 September 1995.
Johnny Enzed is part of New Zealand’s official First World War Centenary History and is an in depth social history of our soldiers in the war. It takes a comprehensive look at what everyday life was like for them in Egypt and Gallipoli, on the Western Front and in Palestine, plus their experiences on voyages to the different fronts and during training in New Zealand and the UK. Many topics are covered including gas attacks and what happened to the wounded, food and smoking, and swearing.
In the talk Glyn will provide a flavour of the book, helping to bring to life the diverse experiences that New Zealanders went through during the war.
His letters and cards, which have recently been added to our digitised collection, span the period from 22 February 1940 to 18 February 1945 and offer a fascinating insight in the life of New Zealand soldiers in World War II.
We meet Kippenberger in Egypt, where he is in charge of the 20th Canterbury/Otago Battalion, and where he experiences “the most bitter disappointment of my life” as a result of the lack of involvement of his Battalion in the routing of the Italians from Egypt.
We then follow him to Syria, where he is commanding all the troops in the Aleppo area, including some French, Syrian and British soldiers, and where he is dealing with the local Governor and the French delegate.
You will imagine us on the Libyan frontier, sweltering in the desert, close to action.
Well we’re not, at the moment. We’re doing important enough work and having an interesting time, but living in near luxury. My H.Q. are in the Kasr el Nil Barracks. I occupy part of the old Khedivial palace, sharing two rooms with a Scots Guards Major, having meals on a mahogany table on the balcony above the Nile, a charming scene with moonlight on the river, candles & palms.
Censoring letters the other day I came on this. One boy writing to his girl friend described how he’d saved his water allowance for days until he had enough for a bath.
Pete Smart managed to get tight last night & for reasons clearer to him then than later decided to … stay the night [at a friends’ camp] & arrived back this morning …wearing a dishevelled & shame-faced look.
And, of course, some things never change, as this comment about the frustration of not taking part in the battle against the Italians in December 1940, demonstrates:
Only consolation is that the Aussies aren’t in it either.