It is well recorded that the Palmerston North Showgrounds were utilised as a military installation during the Second World War. Its most famous occupant being the Maori Battalion, which undertook its initial concentration and training at the showgrounds. But during the wartime period, the Palmerston North Showgrounds were also utilised at different times by the Manawatu Mounted Rifles, HQ 2 Brigade, HQ 4 Division, 2 ASC Coy and in the context of this discussion No 2 Sub Depot, NZAOC.
The wartime NZAOC
During the Second World War, the supply functions of the NZAOC in New Zealand were organised with;
- The Main Ordnance Depot at Trentham, with subunits located outside of Trentham at;
- HQ Ammunition Section, Belmont
- Ammunition Sections at Makomako and Waiouru
- Bulk Stores at Linton and Mangere,
- Artillery Sub Depot, Waiouru,
- Inspection Ordnance Officer Section, Central Military District (Palmerston North)
- Ammunition Repair Depot, Kuku Valley
- Ordnance Sub Depots in each military district:
- Northern Military District – No 1 Sub Depot at Ngaruawahia Military Camp.
- Central Military District – No 2 Sub Depot at the Palmerston North Show Grounds.
- Southern Military District – No 3 Sub Depot at Burnham Camp.
(note: Up to 20 August 1942 the District Ordnance Depots were known as Northern, Central and Southern District Ordnance Depots)
At the start of the war the Northern District Ordnance Depot (No 1 Sub Depot) and Southern District Ordnance Depot (3 Sub Depot) were both well established Ordnance Depots;
- The Northern District Ordnance Depot at Ngaruawahia Military Camp in the Waikato had opened in 1927 as a purpose-built Ordnance Depot. (also known as Waikato or Hopuhopu Military Camp)
- The Southern District Ordnance Depot, which although opening in 1921 had only received modern buildings in the early 1940s.
Although there was a Palmerston North Ordnance Detachment during the 1st World War, there is little evidence of a permanent Ordnance presence in Palmerston North during the interwar period, as an economy measure it is most likely Ordnance support to units in the lower North Island were provided directly from Trentham.
With the Mobilisation of the 2nd NZEF, Home Defence Forces and Territorial Forces, the Central Districts Ordnance Depot was established at the Palmerston North showgrounds early in 1942 with Lieutenant William Saul Keegan, New Zealand Temporary Staff (NZTS) appointed as Ordnance Officer, Central Military District and Officer Commanding, Palmerston North Detachment, NZAOC and NZOC attached on 1 March 1942
No 2 Sub Depot
The Palmerston North Showgrounds was a sensible place to locate the Central Districts Ordnance Depot. Situated between Featherston, Waldergrave, Pascal and Cuba Streets, the showgrounds were only a few hundred meters from the Palmerston North Railway yards, which were at the time located in what is now the Railway Reserve on Pioneer Highway. This would have provided easy access for the receiving of goods, not only the Main Ordnance Depot in Trentham but also from other suppliers from all over the country, and for the dispatching of goods to subordinate units all over the lower North Island by rail and road.
The showgrounds had some of the most significant covered spaces in the region with 5 exhibition hall under one roof and much hard-standing for vehicles and other defence stores. To house the Maori Battalion and other units, cookhouses, dining halls, accommodation (huts and tented) and ablutions had also been established.
In the early years of the war occupancy of the showgrounds was seen as a temporary arrangement with the Manawatu Agricultural and Pastoral Association retaining part occupancy of the facility. By late 1941 with war with Japan becoming a growing reality, it was decided that the military should have full occupancy of the showgrounds for the duration of the war.
After the 20th of August 1942, the Central Districts Ordnance Depot was Renamed as No 2 Sub Depot and was situated on the Waldergrave Street side of the showgrounds, in the five large exhibition halls, which were practically under one roof.
- Hall 1 was stocked with a vast quantity of clothing including boots, tunics, greatcoats underwear
- Hall 2 was stocked with tools, spare parts, and expendable stores. There was more hardware including tons of nails, wire, rope, paint, thinners and linseed oil that was stocked by all the merchants of Palmerston North put together.
- Hall 3 was stocked with a lot of camp fittings, crockery, cutlery, sheets, blankets other types of household linen by the thousands.
- Hall 4 and 5 contained practically every type of Army stores required including Rifles and machine-guns.
- Flammable goods, such as paints, turpentine and kerosene kept in steel drums were initially stored in the main buildings, and it was not until 1943 when suitable buildings with concrete floors and iron walls and roofs were provided.
- Explosives and Ammunition were also stored at the showgrounds until 1943 when construction of the Makomoko ammunition area was completed.
As the buildings were filled to capacity, often with stock stacked to the ceilings, two nightwatchmen were maintained to provide security and a fire picket during the silent hours. Close liaison was maintained with the Fire Brigade, and inspections carried out on many occasions to examine the fire hazard. The Army’s first aid equipment was in good order and consisted of buckets, bucket pumps and hoses, and fire extinguishers. The method of storage was the best under the means available to the Depot, with flammable goods stacked between non-flammable products in an attempt to provide fire breaks in the event of a fire. The Fire Brigade made many recommendations about the reduction of the fire hazard, and these recommendations were always acted on. Guidance for the installation of an automatic alarm system was not made by the fire brigade because it was considered that the precautions taken at the time were adequate.
No 2 Depot maintained surge accommodation outside of the showgrounds, including
- Part Worn Clothing stores in Rangitikei and Church Streets
- Engineer dumps at two locations at Fielding
The total value of all stock at the depot at the end of December 1944, was £1,100,000. ($NZ 90,845,402.49 in today’s currency)
The Establishment of No 2 Depot as of 17 August 1942 was set at 3 officers and 81 Other ranks organised as follows;
Due to wartime manpower constraints, the posted strength would never entirley complete the establishment.
Posted strength was One Officer and 66 Other ranks.
30th of October 1943
the establishment had been increased to 3 Officers and 95 Other ranks, with a posted strength of 2 Officer and 88 Other ranks.
29 February 1944
the establishment had been increased on 1 November 1943 to 3 Officers and 92 Other ranks, with a posted strength of 2 Officer and 83 Other ranks.
5 April 1944
The big blaze
On the 31st of December 1944, the Palmerston North fire brigade superintendent, Mr Milverton was tracing faults to the city general fire alarm system. The fault had been located at the Show Grounds and was determined to be caused by vibration caused by heavy motor traffic, as a temporary measure until the fault could be rectified, it was decided to cut out the Show Grounds loop from the alarm system. The military authorities were advised of the steps taken, and the alarm boxes were marked ‘Out of order’.
At around 2130 hrs Sergeant W. C. Luffman, Senior NCO of the Showgrounds guard conducted his patrol and found nothing amiss. On the next scheduled patrol at 1030 hrs in the cookhouse, a copper used for the heating of water was found empty and red hot with the gas under the copper alight, and as a result, a piece of wood on the wall was alight. Turning the gas off, Sgt Luffman went to the main gate and instructed a Private Wagstaff to assist him. Utilising a stirrup pump, they extinguished the burning timber. Satisfied that they had put the fire out, Private Wagstaff filled the copper with cold water and felt the iron around the site of the fire, finding it quite cold. The stirrup pump was refilled and left near the copper as a precaution against repetition.
Conducting another patrol at 1135 hrs, Privates Wagstaff along with Private Collins the Ordnance night watchman were instructed to examine the wall in the neighbouring Ordnance Store opposite to where the fire had been. Sergeant Luffman went back to the kitchen, finding conditions normal and no sign of fire and satisfied that all was well, Sgt Luffman returned to the guard house. Reaching there about 1155 hrs meeting up with Private Collins who reported no issues on the ordnance side of the wall.
Waiting at the guard house until midnight and wanting to contribute to the new years’ festivities by blowing a siren at the gate. On going outside Sgt Luffman saw a glow in the sky near the Ordnance Depot. Unsure if this was from the Ordnance Depot, he rushed into the guard house to telephone the fire brigade, only to receive no reply, as the alarms had been disconnected due to a fault earlier in the day there was no way to contact the brigade.
Luckily local citizens had seen the fire and notified the fire brigade, and Sgt Luffman soon heard the sirens of the approaching fire engines. As the engines arrived, they found the fire, which was in the building beyond the cookhouse, which was the Ordnance Store. It was well alight, and flames were breaking through the roof. Three motor engines would eventually respond, finding on their arrival that the fire had a good hold and it was not until midday that the last fires were finally extinguished. A row of six dwellings which faced Waldegrave Street, but backed onto the showgrounds and were dangerously close to the fire and the administrative offices of the A&P Association were saved but only after tons of water had been poured into and over them. Halls 1, 2 and 3 were lost but halls 4 and 5 remained intact. At the time it was the most significant fire that the Palmerston North Fire Brigade had dealt with.
Evidence submitted to the inquiry conducted in March 1945 by the Ordnance Officer in charge of the Ordnance Depot, Captain William Saul Keegan put the loss due to the fire at £225700 ($18,639,824.86 today’s value), with a considerable amount of stock able to be salvaged. Lost in the fire was almost the entire stock of around 1500 Charlton Automatic Rifles, a successful New Zealand conversion of the Lee–Enfield rifle into an automatic rifle, only a handful survive today.
There was some suspicion that the fire was deliberately set to cover up thefts from the depot, but these were discounted by Captain Keegan. In his evidence, he stated that the total value of all stock at the depot at the end of December 1944, was £1100000 ($90845402.49). Thefts from the Depot up to the time of the fire were very small, and the more significant part of the overall deficiencies was the result of miscounting. In two years and nine months, the losses from all sources amounted to £627 ($51781.88) For the same period, there was brought on charge surpluses to the value of £1600 ($132138.77), and thus surpluses outweighed the shortages by about £1000 ($82586.73). Captain Keegan detailed the accounting system of charging for goods and based on his knowledge of the store there could be definitely no suggestion that the fire was started to conceal shortages.
Detective F. Quin of the NZ Police gave evidence of the widespread and exhaustive investigations into the possible causes of the fire but was unable to produce any further relevant information which had not already been placed before the Court. No evidence could be found of sabotage, incendiaries, or any interference like that. No person could be found who had lit the copper found burning by Sergeant Luffman.
It was fortunate that the fire occurred in 1944, by when the Invasion threat had subsided, and the bulk of the Territorial Army, Home guard and other Home defence forces had been demobilised, so the loss of the stores was negligible to the ongoing operations of the Army.
Post War Reorganisation
Land at Linton for a Military Camp was bought by the New Zealand Government in October 1941, with the first units entering the camp in February 1942, with the first prefabricated huts built within 6 months and more permanent accommodation been built in the following years. The Main Ordnance Depot in Trentham soon established a satellite Bulk Store at Linton, which was run independent of No 2 Sub Depot.
2 Sub Depot remained at the Palmerston North showgrounds until 14 December 1945 when it functions were assumed by the Main Ordnance Depot at Trentham.
Reestablishment at Linton
On 1 October 1946, the Main Ordnance Depot Bulk Stores located in Linton Camp was formally reformed as No 2 Ordnance Depot. In addition to responsibility for units based in the Linton area, the new Depot would also assume responsibility for the Main Ordnance Depot Sub Units based in Waiouru Camp. The Suggested establishment as September 1946 was;
Over the next 40 years, No 2 Ordnance Sub-Depot would remain as the resident Ordnance unit in Linton Camp, undergoing the following name changes until the disestablishment of the RNZAOC in 1996;
- Central Districts Ordnance Depot, 1948 to 1968
- 2 Central Ordnance Depot, 1968 to 1979
- 2 Supply Company, 1979 to 1985
- 5 Composite Supply Company, 1985 to 1990
- 21 Field Supply Company 1990 to 1996
Copyright © Robert McKie 2017