Regrets, I have a few, some which I now shall mention… (Or: Why I Left London, Returned Home and Became a Looney!)

Whilst I was living in London I kept planning to go up to Hempstead Heath. Not because I wanted to say ‘Close to the meat’ but rather because I wanted to find some damned hills in London and clamber all over them. I’m an Aucklander; we don’t believe in going for walks unless they strain the thighs and buttocks. More importantly, my entry point to Conspiracy Theories is all about hills. Well, one hill; it is called North Head and it is the focus of my story.

North Head, more properly known as Maungauika was formed forty-thousand years ago. When the Maori arrived it became a settlement for members of the local iwi, Tainui, and up until the eighteenth century, and the arrival of the Europeans, the only fighting was tribal. With the Europeans came a new culture and they brought with them new ideas and new threats. Whilst the Maori had had only themselves to fight against, the Europeans were at war with multiple enemies.In the 1880s the primary threat to New Zealand was felt to be the Russians. Trenches were built across the face of North Head and over the top of these were placed unused railway irons which then had concrete poured over the top, creating tunnels that lead to a variety of guns. North Head, like many of the volcanic cones in Auckland, became a coastal defence. Over time the Head was modified or rebuilt, first with the Great War of Nineteen Fourteen and then with Britain’s fear that a war in both Europe and the Pacific was a possibility in the Nineteen Thirties, and, of course, during the Second World War. It was held by the Army, then by the Navy and is now looked after by the Department of Conservation, who keep it in its peaceful state.

As a military base North Head played a role in the military history of Auckland, a story that is interesting in its own right. For my purpose, however, we must turn away from the wars themselves and focus on North Head’s other story, a story of planes, a story of ammunition and a story, most importantly, about tunnels.In 1916 William Boeing and G. Conrad Westervelt build two seaplanes, known as Bluebill and Mallard. In retrospect these two planes are important, not only because they are now known to be the first Boeing aircraft but also because these two planes were were also the first example of Boeing selling aircraft overseas, and the place they sold them to in October of 1918 was a flying school located in Auckland, New Zealand.

The Walsh Brothers, Leo and Vivian, bought Bluebill and Mallard for their ‘New Zealand Flying School,’ partly for use in training pilots at the end of the the First World War but primarily for charter work (and joy-riding) . By 1924 the “New Zealand Flying School” was closed down, and the New Zealand Army surveyed the chattels, burning those planes which were no longer thought to be useful . The surviving equipment was shipped across the harbour to Torpedo Bay in the coastal town of Devonport where they spent much time taking up space on the parade ground. Come 1934 most of the surviving remains of the New Zealand Flying School were burnt on a nearby beach and the remaining items were placed in storage somewhere within the military complex built within the hillside of North Head.Time passed.Sometime in the early 1950s it was decided that a memorial to Leo and Vivian Walsh should be constructed to celebrate the pioneers of powered flight in New Zealand. Such a memorial would need to be paid for, and it was thought that if Mallard and Bluebill were still extant then the Boeing Corporation might well pay good money for them. Enquiries made and yes, the Corporation would pay good money for the seaplanes.

Sir Leonard Isitt, the valuer of the assets of the Flying School, along with Major George Salt, who was in charge of the Naval Yard in Devonport both had supporting stories indicating that the planes were sealed up in a tunnel in North Head. Whilst some of the planes had been surveyed were known to have been burnt, an analysis of the remains from that site indicated that the Boeings were not amongst the assets destroyed. The question that remained, then, was ‘Where were the planes now?’

The search stalled when it was discovered that if the planes were found that the Government would take any monies earned from their sale. It was only twenty years later that something was said to make people once again ask questions about the state of the Boeings and where they might be.Around the 1970s a naval rating entered the offices of the “North Shore Times Advertiser,” a local newspaper, and told a remarkable story.

North Head, by this time, was a park that, aside from the summit, which the Navy still controlled, was accessible to the public. According to the story the naval rating told the extant tunnel complex was only part of a far larger, more extensive, complex that went deep within the hill.The naval rating, when first assigned to duty on North Head, had entered the tunnels through a gun emplacement on the summit and made his way through various tunnels and vertical shafts that lead to a horizontal tunnel that lead to the sea level. Within these tunnels were several large iron doored chambers, all closed, and several crates with aircraft markings upon them. When the rating later returned to North Head after being assigned sea duties he discovered that the gun emplacement that he had entered the complex through had been converted into a water tank and that the other tunnel entrances had been sealed with concrete. Despite the fact that the summit (and thus the 8 inch gun emplacement which had, indeed, been converted into a water tank) was still under military control and thus inaccessible to the public, the other entrances should have been accessible to the public, but there was no sign of these entrances at all. Compounding this problem was a complete lack of any proper maps for the complex; the maps had been known to exist but had disappeared enroute to the National Archives in Wellington. If there were more tunnels on North Head than the existing structures indicated, then why were they hidden and what was inside of them? These two quite separate questions became, for many the rationale for a new, and very different story about North Head, a story that differed considerably from the official accounts of the Head and its role.

In 1976 John Earnshaw arrived in Auckland, New Zealand. A documentarian, Earnshaw heard about the Boeing Seaplanes and became interested in their fate. Interviewing not only military personnel but also local residents he collected information that supported the naval rating’s claims. North Head, in their recollection, was a far more extensive complex than had been previously thought. It possibly extended down to below sea-level. It was possible to travel from the summit to the shoreline without ever seeing daylight. It contained within it (at the time of military occupation at least) crates that were thought to contain aircraft parts. If this testimony was accurate, and the stories did seem to corroborate each other, then the lack of access to these tunnels needed to be explained? Why were we being denied access to part of the military base? Could the Boeings still be in storage somewhere within the Head? John Earnshaw was determined to find out and to produce a documentary about their discovery.

In 1986 it was agreed between Mallard Films, John Earnshaw’s company, and the Crown that any relics found in North Head would be shared. Thus the way was opened for an investigation of North Head by 1987, and a set of Army engineers began the task of exploring various possible entry points to the hidden tunnel complex.

This investigation faltered after two weeks for two reasons. One reason was that the engineers did not receive the necessary permissions to excavate a possible tunnel behind the wall of a water tank on the summit, the other being the unusual smell of moth balls that some of the drilling had released.The smell of moth balls is akin to the smell of naphthalene, the scent given off by decaying, or sweating ammunition. Old ammunition, left to decay, becomes unstable and like nitro-glycerine, it is prone to explode if disturbed. Could it be that the reason why the tunnels were no longer accessible was due to the fact that the Army, when they vacated North Head around 1947-1948, left ammunition in the “safety” of blocked up tunnels?

The story was seemingly rendered plausible by the claim that the Army, when leaving North Head, might well have decided that instead of transferring the ammunition to another complex might have decided to sell the brass casings of the shells to scrap metal merchants and left the ammunition itself in the tunnels, which would have then been blocked up, or hidden, to make sure that no one could get access to it.If the Army had left behind ammunition then there could be a plausible reason as to why the additional tunnels were no longer accessible, and this was a matter to do with safety. Such tunnels would not be safe to enter and nor would they be safe to find via excavation, since such explorative work could set off the ammunition, leading to possible extensive damage not only to the hillside but also to the residences built on the lower slopes of North Head.

The Army, of course, denied the claims. Major Reginald M. Nutsford, who was District Officer of the 9th Coast, closed down the various fortifications when the coastal defences (such as North Head) were disbanded. He had audited the ammunition contained within North Head and said that all ammunition was accounted for by the time the Army left. Still, the smell of naphthalene was present when the engineers had drilled holes in the tunnel walls, and this tale of hidden ammunition could also account for some of the anomalies in regard to North Head, like those missing maps.

Things became even more complex: When the story of the other tunnels of North Head first surfaced properly in 1970 enquiries made to the Armed Services indicated that any tunnels not currently accessible on the Head had been lost. A report was uncovered from the flying school’s archives that found that the likely fate of the Boeings was their destruction in 1924 before they got to Devonport, let alone North Head. The planes were said to be in dilapidated condition and of obsolete type and not of interest to the Government of the time. Yet Sir Leonard Issitt and one of the Majors stationed at Torpedo Yard both thought that the Boeings survived the culling of the Flying School and made it at least to Devonport. An analysis of the remains where the other planes were burnt in the 1930s indicated that the two Boeings were not amongst them.I haven’t even mentioned the UFO/Harmonic connection.

I grew up with this furore happening around me. North Head was exciting to me as a child; I remember one visit where I saw workmen walking out of a side tunnel that I had never seen before. I now know that this was part of one of the excavations but at the time I thought I had seen proof positive of a cover-up. It was only natural that, with time, I should become interested in strange events; I know of a lot of other people of my generation who became Forteans by virtue of living in Devonport (which has a fairly interesting history beside that of North Head; first hanging of a Pakeha, bear pits, the location of one of the fabled canoes, et al).

Which probably brings us to the question: Do I believe? To which I answer: Probably not. Logistically, the existence of additional tunnels in North Head is unlikely, for I’ll probably one day express. I know enough about testimony to understand how it can be flawed and I’ve seen the so-called witness reports and the corrobation isn’t as high as some would like to think it is. Still, it is possible that there are tunnels in the Head that are being kept out of sight, whether deliberately or by accident I wouldn’t like to say. I’d like there to be addiitonal tunnels in North Head; the story of North Head would be all the more remarkable if the conspiracy where true. If it blows up tomorrow due to all that decaying ammunition then I will only be slightly surprised.

If that does happen I hope that one of the seaplane carcasses lands on my roof. I’ll be rich beyond my wildest dreams.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.

5 comments:

  1. Pingback: Pacific Empire » Blog Archive » The Libertarianz - a vast right wing conspiracy?
  2. Hi Matthew
    There are photos that I have seen ,from the 40’s and 50’s showing tunnel entrances that are no longer there.I believe there are hidden tunnels there,but dont know how vast they are.
    A decent eartquake would sort out the hidden ammo theory.
    Cheers

    1. I suspect you mean photos like this and this.

      The various DoC investigations have looked at those areas and analysed the photos, and it looks as if the structures we think we can make out in the images are artefacts of shadow and the like; when you do a site survey of the area you don’t find the loose fill (and the like) which would indicate that a tunnel has been covered up.

  3. Matthew
    I have re read your history of North Head.It is very accurate.I have been trying for years to find an old map of the place,even at National Archives in London,but to no avail.Have you ever come across one?People I have spoken to say that a tunnel entrance existed in Torpedo Yard,next to the Old Chippys Shoppe,but was covered up in the 60’s or 70’s.This was where the 2 Boeings were probably taken into the Hill.It would be great if one day they were found.
    Cheers.

    1. The missing maps of North Head are, indeed, a mystery; they were transferred to the National Archives and subsequently lost. I’m told the National Archives are not exactly well-organised when it comes to that kind of paperwork and the most likely story is that the maps/plans have been misfiled and will turn up unexpectedly one day when someone checks out some other item and finds the maps included with it.

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