These previously unpublished photographs of the Home Guard offer a rare candid view of an often-overlooked part of New Zealand’s experience during the Second World War. Far from being a safe sideshow, with limited resources these men bravely faced a genuine threat and were prepared to defend their homeland against enemy invasion.
I found these original snapshots in a second-hand bookshop. As a hobby, I collect orphaned photographs like these and research the stories behind them. One of the most striking of the photographs in this series shows a teenage boy in full uniform with a rifle slung over his shoulder.
We are used to seeing images of fresh-faced boys from the Hitler Youth fighting among the ruins of Berlin, but it seems even more jarring to see such a young Kiwi lad prepared to defend the hills behind Wellington, New Zealand. Who were the Home Guard? What were they doing at Makara? This is their story.
The sleepy settlement at Makara Beach is 16 kilometres northwest of Wellington, where steep hills and cliffs flank a stony beach. This is an inhospitable coastline with jagged rocks and little protection from the notorious northerly winds. The foreshore still bears evidence of a settlement of Italian fishermen, but that’s another tale. Further up the hills, the remains of a Māori Pa can be seen. This is an area steeped in history.
It is difficult to write about the Home Guard without paying homage to the iconic BBC series, ‘Dad’s Army’, where a motley crew of misfits defiantly stood as England’s last line of defence against Nazi Germany. When people think of the Home Guard it is often that image that comes to mind.
The formation of New Zealand’s Home Guard in 1940 was directly inspired by their well-known British equivalent. The Wellington coastline was about as far away as you could get from Nazi Germany, but that didn’t stop enthusiastic volunteers from signing up to defend these shores – just in case. In fact, unknown to the new recruits, there actually were genuine threats approaching New Zealand waters – German surface raiders were on the hunt in the South Pacific. They laid a minefield off the Hauraki Gulf, which sank two vessels, and later also laid minefields at the entrances of both Wellington and Lyttelton. They also sank the Turakina in the Tasman Sea, and captured and sank the Holmwood off the Chatham Islands and the passenger liner Rangitane three days out from Auckland.
There were some people who feared that one of these German raiders might pose a direct threat to the capital. At a St. John meeting in February 1941, Wellington’s Mayor, T. Hislop, gave the following warning:
“If you had a raider – just one – lying off here, not necessarily at Lyall Bay where it might have to deal with Fort Dorset, but off Makara, it could easily send in shells over the hills. A ship with eight guns would fire, depending upon the calibre, about 20 shells a minute – about 1200 in an hour. So, a quick raid of only an hour can land, with reasonable marksmanship, 1200 shells in this place.”
The sinking of ships in New Zealand waters certainly brought the war a lot closer to home – and perhaps it encouraged some men to do their bit by joining the Home Guard, but the imagined scenario of a German raider approaching Makara to stealthily fire shells over the hills seems far-fetched and of course never happened – the raiders were here to disrupt shipping and didn’t want to give away their presence and risk retaliation.
On 30 November 1941, the Makara Battalion of the Home Guard, made up of the Karori, Northland, Kelburn, Ohariu Valley and Makara units, celebrated their first birthday with a march from Kelburn to Karori Park, where none other than Prime Minister Peter Fraser was waiting to inspect their parade. He congratulated them on their discipline and numbers, acknowledging that the Home Guard was no “side show” and that more arms and uniforms would be provided to them as soon as possible. He also warned that they might soon have to deal with another threat that was looming over the horizon:
“At the present moment everybody can see that there is a very critical situation in the Far East, in the Pacific, in that part of the world where we are,” he said, and added that if the situation in the Pacific developed more ominously it would be something for those guiding the destinies of the country to feel and know that the people were responding to the call and playing their part.”
Evening Post, Volume CXXXII, Issue 132, 1 December 1941
If only Prime Minister Fraser knew just how prophetic his words were; on the following Sunday his feared ominous development occurred – the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. New Zealand was no longer safe. The Makara Home Guard had to prepare for the unthinkable – the possibility of an enemy invasion.
Soon the Home Guardsmen were hard at work at Makara Beach, digging defensive gun emplacements and trenches. During the summer months, New Zealand’s beaches are usually the domain of holidaymakers and sand castles, but through the summer of 1941/2 they had to make way for barbed wire and other anti-invasion measures. Occasionally the tension between civilians and military forces resulted in scandal, as was the case on one heated occasion at Makara.
“A DISGUSTING EXHIBITION”
“Complaints that a number of men of the Makara Battalion, Home Guard, went in for a bathe without clothing of any kind in the presence of women and children at a beach in the Wellington district last Sunday have been received from residents by the chairman of the Makara County Council Mr. J. Purchase.”
“Mr. Purchase said yesterday that it had been reported to him that late on Sunday afternoon men of the battalion decided to go for a swim, and though several had no bathing suits they stripped off in the full view of women and children who were bathing there and entered the water. The men ignored protests by bystanders and the women who were present.”
“Some time ago, he continued, the Makara County Council made the men’s bathing shed at this particular beach available to the Home Guardsmen, but on Sunday they made no attempt to use the shed. There were girls present from 16 to five years of age, and when these turned away in disgust the men deliberately confronted them, remarking that civilians had no right to be on the beach.”
“It was a disgusting exhibition and one that should be strongly dealt with by the military authorities.”, declared Mr. Purchase.”
“The officer commanding the Makara Battalion, Home Guard, to whom the statements of Mr. Purchase were referred before publication, said that it was possible that a few men might have bathed naked in the sea, but most of those who did bathe improvised suitable costumes. The men had been digging all Sunday, when there was a mean maximum temperature of 73 degrees in the shade, and it was not unnatural that some desired to cool themselves. Had not a number of civilians persisted in remaining in the vicinity of defence works there would have been no cause for complaint.”
Auckland Star, 31 January 1942
Some of my photographs show members of the Home Guard hard at work digging defences; sometimes with their shirts off, suggesting that they were working in the hot summer sun. I wonder if perhaps some of these men are the ones responsible for the scandalous skinny-dipping incident. They are laughing about something. Maybe one or more of these photos were even taken on that very day.
In February, the Japanese captured the British stronghold of Singapore and also bombed Darwin. It seemed that their expansion through the Pacific was unstoppable. To make matters even worse – the prime of New Zealand’s armed forces were on the other side of the world locked in the struggle with Nazi Germany. It is hard for most of us to imagine what it must be like to face the possibility of an enemy invasion – but that is the reality that New Zealanders faced in 1942. All of these photographs of the Makara Battalion of the Home Guard were taken during that year – although in most instances the exact dates aren’t recorded.
The surnames of some of the guardsmen are written on the back of the photos – I’ve noted these where that is the case. If you recognise any of the names or faces and would like copies of these images then please let me know.
The Home Guardsmen’s work at Makara Beach included removing two-metre high sand dunes to prevent their use as cover during any Japanese landing. They also constructed some concrete-lined trenches; the remains of some can still be seen today. One of the photographs in my collection shows what might be a similar trench at Te Ika-a Maru Bay. High in the hills above, two six-inch guns were installed at Fort Opau.
A large number of Home Guardsmen were veterans of the First World War, too old to serve overseas again but not the geriatrics that one might imagine – many were in their forties and fifties – they were husbands, fathers, business owners, farmers and labourers.
Initially, they were volunteers, but in 1942 compulsory service was introduced for those between the ages of 35 and 50. Alongside them were teenagers; too young to join the armed services but still keen to do their bit for the war effort. Many of these youngsters already knew how to handle firearms and had picked up other useful skills in Boy Scout troops or Cadet units. In the event of invasion, the men and boys of the Home Guard were willing – if necessary – to do whatever it took to defend Wellington; they would’ve been outgunned, outnumbered and without adequate air cover, but they were prepared to stand and fight.
Some of the Makara Battalion prepared not only for the first response to any attack but to then also fight a guerrilla war behind enemy lines. A special ‘Guide Platoon’ was formed with men that knew every gully and ravine in these hills and planned to make the most of that advantage. They even planned to use disused mine shafts (from the often forgotten gold rush on Wellington’s doorstep – yes, that’s another story too) as hiding places and supply depots. This guerrilla unit was largely the brainchild of Lieutenant Harold ‘Pip’ Bollard, a solicitor and former member of the Victoria University hockey team.
One of the Makara Home Guard’s most ambitious exercises was a dress rehearsal of the expected invasion. On 23 August 1942, one company of men were to play the part of the Japanese and make an attack somewhere on the coast between Te Ika-a Maru Bay and Sinclair Head. Two other companies wearing white armbands were tasked with defending that area – with no prior knowledge of exactly where to expect the attack. During this exercise, the defenders had one key advantage – air supremacy. A lone RNZAF Tiger Moth from Rongotai Air Station was to act as aerial reconnaissance; and in the passenger seat was none other than Lieutenant Bollard, chosen due to his excellent knowledge of the terrain. After spotting the ‘enemy’ and reporting their position, the Tiger Moth was to slow their progress by dive-bombing them.
The exercise area was split into six parts. The Tiger Moth was tasked with searching a sub-area and then flying over the defenders’ headquarters at Karori West Park, where it was to communicate with the ground by circling the same number of times as the number of the sub-area and then waggling its wings if the enemy had been spotted. They were then to drop a written note confirming their observations.
The day before the exercise, Flying Officer John Kirkcaldie, Officer Commanding, No. 2. Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Flight, briefed Pilot Officer Elliott on the task he was to perform for the Home Guard. At 0800 on Sunday, 23 August 1942, the two were to meet at the aerodrome so Kirkcaldie could give his final instructions, but Elliott didn’t show up. Instead, Kirkcaldie, who had to leave for Gisborne, left a written note for Elliott in the Authorisation Book, for him to read when he signed it before take-off. It advised him to cancel the flight if winds reached over 35 miles per hour.
At 0900 hours the exercise began. Somewhere in the hills behind Wellington, an invasion took place and a company of Home Guardsmen started moving inland. At the same time, over at Rongotai Aerodrome, the Tiger Moth was supposed to be taking off – but there was still no sign of Pilot Officer Elliott. Lieutenant Bollard waited patiently until 0945 hours when a taxi arrived at the aerodrome and Elliott emerged, hurriedly dressed, and finally, the Tiger Moth took off, heading westward to spot the ‘enemy’.
At 1010 hours they circled the park once, instead of twice, and dropped a message that simply read “NO SIGN AREA 2. ITS BLOODY ROUGH BELIVE ME.” The Tiger Moth then headed in a south-easterly direction. The next sub-area it was to search was No. 6. The Tiger Moth was seen and heard by several witnesses over the next 50 minutes but there were no more messages delivered to Karori Park. At 1120 hours Captain Wheely phoned Rongotai to find out if the plane had landed. It had not.
What started as an invasion exercise quickly turned into a search and rescue operation. At 1500 hours hundreds of Home Guardsmen were sent out across the exercise area, with many staying in the field overnight and continuing the search the following day. There were further ground searches through until 28 August, and then again on 30 August. Aerial searches were conducted by the RNZAF, covering not just the immediate area of the exercise but also as far north as Kapiti Island, but sadly there was no trace of the missing aircraft. The search was abandoned and the next of kin advised that they shouldn’t hold out hope any longer.
The Court of Inquiry found that the cause of the accident was an error of judgement on the part of the pilot in continuing the exercise in adverse weather. He hadn’t signed the Authorisation Book before take-off, so never received the note left by his commanding officer advising him to cancel the flight if the wind was over 35 mph. Reports indicate that the wind was between 30 and 40 miles per hour on the ground and between 35 and 50 miles per hour further up.
The loss of Lieutenant Bollard was a terrible blow not just for his family but also for the close-knit men of the Makara Battalion. On 6 September 1942, they attended a memorial service for him at St Mary’s Church, Karori. During the service, Rev. Kempthorne said, “As a Home Guardsmen, Lieutenant Bollard had done his part in the cause of freedom and liberty just as much as those who had gone to the fields of battle overseas.”
As the year progressed, the threat of Japanese invasion slowly faded away. The Battle of the Coral Sea stalled them and the Battle of Midway shifted the balance of power in the Pacific. There was an invasion of Wellington, but thankfully it was the Americans and not the Japanese. By the end of the year, it was obvious to most New Zealanders that the direct threat of an enemy invasion had passed. One of the last images in this series of photographs shows C Company of the Makara Home Guard on parade at 8:30 a.m. on Christmas Day at Te Ika-a Maru Bay.
By the end of the following year, the orders came to start the process of removing all the barbed wire and refilling all the trenches that they had spent the previous years digging. Summer was on its way and Wellingtonians wanted their beaches back.
In 1945, as the war drew to a close, the Makara Home Guard continued to hold regular gatherings; sometimes hosting military speakers, exhibiting films on the war effort or putting on entertainment for the public. Then on 21 June, a discovery was made in a gully in the vicinity of Te Marama Station. A nineteen-year-old farmhand had climbed down a bank to find out why his dog was barking and refusing to heel. The missing Tiger Moth had been found at last.
“In view of the turbulent air conditions arising from the strong gusty north westerly wind and the hilly nature of the country it is considered likely that while proceeding up the gully in which the accident occurred the pilot encountered down draught conditions which forced him into a position in which there was insufficient room to carry out any manoeuvre other than attempt to climb out of the gully against the down wind. The fact that the aircraft flew into rising ground up the gully approximately into the wind and hit at a shallow flight angle is considered to support this theory.”
‘Accident Involving Aircraft NZ1432, Memorandum for The Honourable Minister of Defence, 27 June, 1945’. RNZAF Accident Reports – DH 82 – NZ 1432. Archives NZ
The remains of the two men were recovered – and they were finally given a proper burial. The Makara Home Guard again turned out to support Bollard’s family and to pay respect to their fallen comrade. Pilot Officer Elliott was also given a final farewell.
On 15 August, New Zealanders celebrated the announcement that Japan had surrendered. The long and bloody war for the Pacific had been won. Two months later, Wellington Fortress Commander, Colonel L. W. Andrew, V.C, addressed the men of the Makara Battalion one last time.
“Some of us wondered what might have happened had the Japanese attempted to land in New Zealand. Well – it would have been a nasty mess, but it would also have been a grim fight….In operating in your area, with its many hills, you showed the value of the training to which you had given keen attention. Your standard of fitness compared more than favourably with that of the territorial battalions. I look back with pride upon my short period with Fortress Command, and I think that we were producing something when the balloon went down… It is wonderful to look back upon those fortunate – or unfortunate-days of service, just as it is to see you men here together in a really democratic spirit. You joined in a spirit of helpfulness and you worked in together all the way. Keep it up, gentlemen! We need it in this country.”
18 October 1945, Evening Post
Makara Beach hasn’t changed too much since that summer when the Home Guard furiously dug trenches and prepared for an invasion that thankfully never came. The sand dunes are still gone, the hills are still steep, there is even still some evidence of the trenches, although most have long since been filled in. Now there are turbines along the tops of the hills, harvesting the power of the notorious wind. There is a lovely café – and it is still a great place to enjoy a stroll along the beach. So, if you are looking for somewhere near Wellington to explore then perhaps consider a trip over to Makara Beach, where you can enjoy the windswept beauty and at the same time remember the boys and men that were willing to make a stand here in defence of our capital. Skinny-dipping is still frowned upon.
If you’d like to read more about the activities of the Home Guard at Makara then I highly recommend ‘The Makara Guerrillas’ by Greville Wiggs in ‘The Stockade’ Issue Number 29, and the excellent biographical book ‘Ghosts of Makara’ by Bernard Diederich. To learn more about the Home Guard and the coastal fortifications of New Zealand I recommend ‘Defending New Zealand – Ramparts on the Sea 1840-1950s’ by Peter Cooke. All of the above were referred to during research for this article, as were the Archives New Zealand file on NZ1432 and numerous newspaper articles courtesy of Papers Past. I’d like to thank Doug Dillaman for joining me on the field trip to Makara Beach, and also the kind locals who helped me find some of the spots where the original photographs were taken.
Lastly, I’d like to dedicate this article to my Gramps, who passed away last year at his home in Wellington. As a teenager, he served with the Home Guard in Taranaki and I greatly miss hearing him tell stories from those distant days.
© Lemuel Lyes