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Royal New Zealand Air Force



Early in 1939 New Zealand was notified of the development of a ‘secret device connected with air defence’ which was sufficiently important to warrant the despatch of a physicist to the United Kingdom to study it. Accordingly the Director of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Dr E. Marsden, was sent to England.

He arrived at the end of April and was attached to the office of the New Zealand Liaison Officer, Squadron Leader Wallingford, at the Air Ministry. With Wallingford he studied the new equipment, and the two made a joint report to the New Zealand Chief of Air Staff covering its technical and operational aspects.

As a result two radar sets, one a ground unit and the other an airborne unit, were ordered by the New Zealand Government. The sets were sent to New Zealand, and Marsden also brought back with him a large number of drawings and specifications. From these the DSIR was able to make plans for the local production of sets.

The first ground set, which had been ordered by Marsden, was used by the Electrical and Wireless School at Wigram for training, until the outbreak of war with Japan, when it was transferred to Fiji and installed on Malolo Island, near Nandi, in January 1942. The first ground radar set operated in New Zealand was constructed by Messrs Collier and Beale of Wellington from drawings and specifications of an early Admiralty-type set. It was installed by the DSIR at Fort Mototapu in the Waitemata Harbour.

As New Zealand, in the early years of the war, did not possess the fighter aircraft necessary to intercept attacking air forces, the development of a ground radar warning system was considered unnecessary. Consequently the RNZAF confined its activities in connection with radar to the development of airborne rather than ground equipment. The original airborne set which Marsden had brought with him from England was used as a pattern on which another set was designed by the staff of the DSIR, and fitted to a Waco aircraft in April 1940. The aircraft and set were later handed over to the Electrical and Wireless School for further experimental work and to assist in the training of maintenance personnel. Twenty airborne sets were manufactured by the Post and Telegraph Department and were fitted in the Vildebeeste and Oxford aircraft which carried out general reconnaissance duties round the coast.

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In the middle of 1941, when the threat of war with Japan was becoming more evident, priority was switched to ground radar, and from then until the end of the war maximum effort was directed to the erection, maintenance, and operation of air-warning systems, both in New Zealand and in the Pacific.

In March 1942 a sub-committee of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in London recommended that New Zealand should establish fifteen COL (Chain Overseas Low-flying) stations, seven TRU (Transportable Radar Unit) stations, and five GCI (Ground Control Interception) stations.

The only station operating at that time was one in the Auckland area. A second station on the Coromandel Peninsula was to have been completed by the end of 1941 but the equipment, which was being constructed in New Zealand, was unsatisfactory and the station did not become operational until July 1942. Four other stations, two near Auckland and two in the Wellington area, were also to have been completed by the end of February but development was delayed through lack of equipment.

It had been intended originally to manufacture as much as possible of New Zealand's radar requirements in the Dominion, but the essential components, particularly valves, had to be obtained from abroad, and many difficulties were encountered in getting them. It became obvious that dependence on New Zealand-built sets was not a practical proposition, and consequently it was decided that complete units should be ordered from Britain. Most of the equipment required for the air-warning system in New Zealand was ordered in May 1942 after receipt of the recommendations of the London Chiefs of Staff Committee.

By August three stations were in operation in the Auckland area and giving satisfactory results; and three more in the North Auckland area were being fitted with their technical equipment. Four stations in the Wellington area were in various stages of completion, and sites were being selected for another six stations in the North Island.

Three radar flights were established to administer the units which were formed or planned. No. 1 Flight, with headquarters at Whenuapai, embraced all units in the Auckland area; No. 2, at Rongotai, was responsible for stations from New Plymouth to the Clarence River; and No. 4, at Wigram, was to administer those in Canterbury and Otago. Later in the year the flights were expanded into squadrons, No. 60 Squadron replacing No. 1 Flight, and No. 61 No. 2 Flight. No. 62 Squadron was to form at Wigram to take the place of No. 4 Flight, but the radar warning system in the south was not developed, and the number was allotted instead to the squadron which formed at Guadalcanal in August 1943.

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As with other aspects of New Zealand's defence the completion of the radar system was dependent upon supplies from overseas, and it was not until the chief danger of invasion had passed that the organisation was functioning satisfactorily. By May 1943 there were sixteen radar units operating round the coast of New Zealand, most of them in the North Island. They were nearly all in remote parts of the country, cut off from the amenities of civilisation. Each unit had to be a small self-contained community, dependent on itself for its own well-being. Personnel were RNZAF, including WAAF, and in some cases Navy.

Shortly afterwards the air-warning system was reduced, partly because of the improving war situation and partly to release personnel for the manning of RNZAF radar units in the forward area.

Although New Zealand was not subjected to air attack, and the units were therefore never called on to perform their primary function, they did sterling work in other directions. Their major commitment was to assist the Navy by plotting all ships round their respective areas of the coast, and when vessels were reported in unexpected positions aircraft were sent out to investigate. In addition radar units, especially in the Auckland and New Plymouth areas, were often responsible for locating overseas aircraft which had lost themselves in bad weather and for guiding them in safely to a landing.

On one occasion a hostile aircraft, launched from a Japanese submarine, did make a reconnaissance flight over Auckland. It was plotted by radar units in the Auckland area, but for some time the plots were disbelieved. By the time it was recognised as an enemy plane, it had returned to its mother-ship and was safely out of harm's way. Enemy submarines were also reported on one or two occasions by radar stations at various points round the coast and aircraft were sent to search for them, but none was ever found.