Parliament’s wartime air raid shelters
In the early 1940s Parliament’s well-maintained grounds lost their usual manicured look. Although the pōhutukawa trees and statues remained undisturbed, the lawns were turned into a mass of mounds and trenches—so much so that one observer likened the area to a scene from the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War.
This work was part of the measures taken to protect the civilian population during the Second World War. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, followed by the British surrender of Singapore just a few weeks later on 15 February 1942, had raised deep concern about the possibility of New Zealand being attacked by Japanese forces. The most likely scenarios were air raids and bombardment of coastal areas from naval vessels.
The Government, through an Emergency Precautions Scheme, encouraged local authorities to take measures to protect civilians. People were to be encouraged to disperse to areas like hills and gullies where natural cover was available. It was also recognised that people who worked in the central business districts of the main centres would need shelter near their workplaces, in the event of daytime attacks.
Earthworks commenced in Parliament grounds in February 1942. A major focus of activity was the front lawn. By July of that year large, wood-lined trenches covered with a layer of earth were able to hold some 1,800 members of the public. Private shelters to hold a further 300 people were also built for MPs and parliamentary staff. Some of these shelters were sited at the rear of the buildings. The number of shelters scattered about the grounds finally totalled 21. The covered shelters had locked entrances and would have been lit by candle. They had seating along the sides, but poor drainage would have made them unpleasant in wet weather.
The open trenches in the grounds were removed in early 1943 as the threat of a Japanese attack waned, and a mechanical digger was brought on site to remove the larger public shelters in February 1945.
Digger removing air raid shelters, February 1945. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/4-001857-F