ANZAC Day Feature
By John Subritzky
Avondale was a major military training area in both World Wars. As horsepower was king, it was natural that racecourses were used as training bases.
World War I
The predecessor to the Maori Battalion, the Maori Pioneers, trained at Avondale before sailing to Egypt. They initially garrisoned Malta, before being redeployed to Gallipoli in July 1915. That was a brutal experience with the contingent being reduced from 677 officers and men to just 132. After Gallipoli, they went to the Western Front. In 1916 they were reinforced by Pacific Islanders, including Rarotongans, Tongans, Niueans and some Samoans. The following year there were sufficient Maori reinforcements for them to revert to being the Maori Battalion.
Louis Netana (Nathan) was a farm worker from Maropiu, north of Dargaville, near the turn off to Kai Iwi Lakes. He was 21 years old when he enlisted on 12 November 1914 at Avondale Military Camp. After training at Avondale, the NZ Maori Pioneer Battalion sailed for Egypt on the Warrimoo.
The troops had a sense of history because they were, as they put it, the first Maori War party to travel over the seas in centuries. They presented a document to the Captain of the Warrimoo, signed by all the troops. It included this statement: “The hundred and forty fighting men of Tu, the War God, have reached Terra Firma – Egypt, the land which was trodden by your ancestor Moses in the days of long ago.” The 140 referred to the ideal size of a war party.
Louis served in Egypt, Gallipoli, Mudros, Lemnos and the Western Front. He was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He returned home and had a family. He died age 72.
The NZ Tunnelling Corp of Engineers also trained at Avondale. These men included skilled miners and tended to be older than other troops. In France they were involved in underground warfare, trying to avoid the German tunnellers, while digging tunnels to set explosives under enemy lines.
Many Avondale people were involved in the war effort. The Robertson family of Rosebank had five members involved in WWI. Fortunately, they all survived. Most notable among them is Dr Susan Annie Robertson. It would have been quite unusual for a woman to become a medical doctor at the time. Also, N.M. Robertson served as a Sister (nurse).
World War II
This was a different experience for New Zealand because the rapid Japanese advance through the Pacific in 1941 -42 made the threat very real. Japanese aircraft flew over Auckland on two occasions. They were carried on and launched from submarines. Perhaps the threat is why there are few, if any photos of training at Avondale in WWII compared to the many photos from WWI. Avondale was not only an important training base, but it was also part of “Fortress Auckland”. There was an anti-aircraft position between the racecourse and the Whau river. An anti-tank trench was dug near Portage Road, from the Whau River to Green Bay, to interrupt any possible Japanese invasion from the north.
In September 1940, the 1st Battalion, Auckland Regiment started training at the racecourse. It was notable that a group of young women called the Independent Younger Set assisted in the canteen at the racecourse during the training programme. This was a group of young women from Remuera, led by Helen Staveley, which formed in May 1940 with the aim to help all charities, the Metropolitan Patriotic Society, and the Red Cross. The NZ Herald reported that the group was “also engaged in raising money in support of the Queen of the Seas for the Sick and Wounded Fund. When the Queen Carnival is over the members of the new organisation will direct their energies elsewhere for patriotic purposes.”
In October, the 1st Field Company, NZ Engineers, used the course for training. They engaged in bridge-building exercises across the Whau River and advertised that they would build bridges on private property within 20 miles of Auckland if “any patriotic owner” either supplied all materials or required timber to be felled and sawn and ready to lend for such training purposes. They cut down pine trees at Waikumete Cemetery for this purpose. By 26 October, it was reported that several bridges were being built. Conversely, the following year they gave demonstrations of bridge demolition to the Independent Mounted Rifles Squadrons at Avondale and Parau.
The Women’s National Service Corps camped under canvas at Avondale 29 Dec 1940 -7 January 1941. This was the first camp for women to be trained in war service. 150 women attended. It is interesting that this early training for women was here in Avondale. WWII opened up many more non-traditional roles for women due to labour shortages. It was a change that continued after the war.
In May 1941 a three-month intensive training course began for new members of the Territorials for home defence service. Another intake of 180 men occurred in July. Then, heavy rain caused most men to abandon their tents and return home. Part-time soldiers!
Construction of the camp proper began in July. A roadway was built between the main stand and Ash Street using scoria. Footpaths were constructed using ash carted in from the King’s Wharf power station and the Auckland Gasworks.
By this stage, the Avondale Jockey Club (AJC) could not tell how long their racing would be disrupted for, so they approached Ellerslie for permission to use their course. Ellerslie agreed and the September 1941 meeting was the first that AJC held at Ellerslie. Today, for other reasons, the premier races are held at Ellerslie.
In March 1943, a holding camp is established for Japanese POWs following the Featherston riot/incident. No-one is quite sure how that incident escalated so quickly, but with seconds 31 Japanese POWs were dead, with 17 more dying of wounds. One guard was killed. The Featherston camp was closed briefly while an enquiry was carried out. The POW camp at Avondale was in the area now occupied by the BP Station and McDonalds.
Then the Americans arrived at the racecourse for a short, one month sojourn. It cannot have been very pleasant for the 700 men in the middle of winter. They were there while the US Naval Mobile Hospital Number 6 (MOB 6) was being built. This is now the site of Avondale College.
Next in, we had the NZ Navy establish their own transit camp for naval personnel. This reflects the severe shortage of accommodation in Auckland under the influx of troops.
In January 1944, there was a shift to accommodation for civilians. The Public Works Department (PWD) camp was set up at Avondale, due to housing shortage in Auckland but a need for workers in essential industries. First draft of 50 single Maori men from Rotorua arrived 3 January and were housed west of the main grandstand near the racetrack. By the end of February, the number housed at the camp was 90, with another 20 expected in early March. By early 1945, 151 men were housed there and that was enlarged later that year for a further 80 men, taking over the former POW holding area.
Eventually the Workers Camp encompassed 3.5 acres, including 122 huts, two mess rooms, recreation hall, cook house, vegetable preparation room, washhouse, latrines, shower block and administration building. Each hut had electric light; separate dining facilities provided with contract catering. A large recreation hall was completed by March, the Maori War Effort Organisation handling “the social side of the camp life.” The men were taken to Westfield each morning in trucks and returned in the evening. They worked in the freezing works primarily, but also phosphate works and New Lynn tanneries and brickworks.
Things were winding down in 1945, but activity still continued until early 1948. In February 1945, the racecourse was used by Avondale Technical and Intermediate students, until the schools’ playgrounds were cleared of debris and rocks. Auckland City Council began negotiations to buy racecourse land off Racecourse Parade and at the western end by Whau River for recreational purposes. This was acquired by the end of the year, and a lease agreement arranged for central playing areas on the course, which continues until today.
Well after the war finished, plans began in July 1946 to shift the workers camp out. In December, work was completed in preparing the new Mangere workers camp, to replace Avondale. On 8 February 1947 the workers camp at Avondale was finally evacuated and the site could be restored for the racing club.
Official History of the Public Works Dept, Archives NZ files, Papers Past articles and parliamentary papers.
Lisa Truttman: https://timespanner.blogspot.com/2016/12/avondales-racecourse-and-second-world.html