Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Wrights Hill Fortress was built in the 1940’s as a long range coastal battery to protect Wellington city and environs from possible enemy attack and invasion from the Pacific in World War Two. The site was selected as early as 1935, but it wasn’t until March 1942 that authority was given for work to proceed on the construction of three 9.2 inch guns.
The British designed Fortress was adapted to New Zealand conditions and by October 1942 construction was being pushed ahead with top priority. Towards the end of 1943 when the situation in the Pacific had improved, the priority lapsed and its completion was carried out in more leisurely fashion. The whole project was kept secret and was referred to as Site “W”. A barbed wire fence surrounded the Fortress.
The extensive underground work started in November, 1942, by a firm of engineering contractors, Downers. They constructed the massive task of 2,030 feet (620 metres) of interconnecting tunnelling in just two years, worklng often three 8-hour shifts over 24 hours. When Downers became short of men in December 1943, the Public Works department helped out with men and machines. Two massive 185 horsepower Ruston and Hornsby diesel generators were installed to provide the power to manoeuvre the guns, and a smaller auxiliary generator was put in to provide power for lighting and air conditioning.
Two huge 9.2 inch guns were installed by the Army in 1944, after arriving by ship fom England. The whole gun weighed 135 tons, with the barrel alone weighing 28 tons. The order for the third gun was cancelled after an improvement in the Pacific war situation. The guns could fire a 380 pound (172 kg) shell up to 18 miles (30 km) across Cook Strait towards Tory channel, or up as far as Plimmerton. Each shell was about three feet (1 metre) long and was propelled by two half charges of 62 pounds (28kg) of cordite. The guns of course never fired in anger but were test fired, each with three rounds, in 1946 and 47 after the War. The Army reported later that the “proofings,” as they were called, were “most satisfactory”. Broken windows resulted at the Fortress after the blasts.
The Fortress was used for training purposes up to the mid 1950’s but a Government decision in early 1960 resulted in the guns being cut up for scrap and being sold, ironically, to the Japanese. The gun emplacements were filled with rubble and other equipment removed from the Fortress.
After years of neglect the Fortress complex was “rescued” in 1988 by the Karori Lions Club who opened them up to the public for the first time on ANZAC Day 1989. The Wrights Hill Fortress Restoration Society was formed a few years later and it has been actively restoring the coastal battery to its former state.
Thousands of voluntary hours and tens of thousands of dollars have been spent over the past twenty years on restoration work. This includes digging out gun pit number one, restoring the radio room, waterproofing inside the tunnels, rebuilding wooden walls, repainting and completely rewiring the Fortress. Work is also progressing on the engine room. A replica gun barrel, ten metres long, was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the installation of the guns at the top of Wrights Hill. The Incorporated Society’s aims are “to restore and preserve the Wrights Hill Fortress as an historical monument for the benefit of the community”. Membership is available to anyone for a small charge and money raised from membership and Open Days goes towards restoration costs.