Home    History index

Coast Artillery Defences

by Captain AJ Baigent, MBE, RNZA

This is a transcript of a 1959 broadcast. Captain Baigent joined the RNZA in 1928 and was an expert on coastal artillery. He served in Italy in WW2 and in the post-war occupation of Japan. On his return he was seconded to the Fiji Military Forces and served with various coast artillery units. Back in NZ, he became District Officer and Quartermaster, 10 Coast Regiment and later Adjutant until his retirement in 1958. Captain Baigent held several executive posts with the New Zealand Permanent Force Old Comrades' Association, and died in March 1993.

In the beginning...

At the time of the Russian War Scare in 1885, the first Forts in Wellington were constructed. These were situated on the extreme inner limits of the harbour overlooking Kaiwharawhara and Ngauranga. In 1886 Kaiwarra Battery was renamed Fort Buckley and in 1892 Ngauranga Battery was renamed Fort Kelburne. Fort Buckley was completed early in 1886 and its armament consisted of two sixty-four pounder muzzle loading guns which had been converted from naval guns. Fort Kelburne had two fixed six-inch breech loading guns. Although no fixed defences have been recorded earlier that that, reports mention that excellent shot and shell practices were carried out by the Wellington Artillery Volunteers in 1870. The guns in use at that time were 24-pounder garrison guns on iron carriages and twelve-pounder howitzers.

There were two artillery volunteer units in the District in the early seventies - the Artillery Corps in Wellington and the Country Corps in the Hutt Valley. This included an Artillery unit which with the reorganisation of the forces in 1883 became the Petone Naval Artillery Volunteers, and the Wellington Naval Artillery volunteers were formed from part of the Artillery Corps. Both those units were part of the Garrison Corps - and both became well known and respected as the Units responsible for floating and fixed defences in the Port of Wellington. It is worthy of note that one report on New Zealand's defences in 1885 stated that Naval Artillery Volunteers in every Port were a credit to the Colony and a favourite branch of the volunteer force.

Torpedo Corps

By 1887 a Garrison Permanent Artillery was operating in Wellington in addition to the Wellington and Petone Artillery Naval Volunteers. This permanent artillery was formed in the main from members of the Armed Constabulary who were being gradually withdrawn form the Native Districts in the 1880s. The Armed Constabulary were the original permanent militia in the country and had been formed to maintain law and order during and after the Maori Wars.

The Torpedo Corps was raised in 1880 and although their equipment did not arrive in the country until a much later date, they were trained in the techniques of manning torpedo boats, laying submarine electrical mines and later the running of engines and searchlights, known then as Defence Electric Lights. Due to the skilled nature of the work of this Corps it was comprised chiefly of men who in their civil occupations were electrical and mechanical engineers. Mines were harbour defensive weapons and torpedoes the harbour offensive weapons supplementing the fire power of the guns of the fixed defences. Four torpedo boats arrived in the country during 1884-85. These carried the spar torpedo and were distributed to each of the four main ports. The two North Island boats were later fitted with dropping gear for the Whitehead locomotive torpedo. These were carried on steam torpedo boats, tow to a vessel (one port, one starboard), and with the dropping gear available were released at a reasonable distance from the target. With the spar torpedoes one or two were carried. The torpedo was fitted with a charge to the end of a forty foot spar. The spar outrigged when at 200 to 300 yards from the target, then the boat ran at full speed toward the point of impact. The engines would be slowed about thirty yards away and the torpedo brought into contact without risk of the outrigger breaking off. The instant the torpedo struck the side of the target the charge would be fired electrically. Although not quite suicidal this system of attack was fraught with a great deal of danger.

Improvements to Fortifications

Fortification works were started at Fort Ballance about 1886 by men who had been Armed Constabulary. By 1890, guns of 7-inch calibre were emplaced there. By 1895, coast defences extended over the whole of the northern area of Watts Peninsula from Scorching Bay to Shelly Bay. At Fort Ballance there were two seven-inch guns, two six pounder Nordenfeldts and one six-inch disappearing gun. At road level there were two sixty-four pounders which had been moved from Fort Buckley. The old concrete remains of the Battery can still be seen near the end of the road between Scorching Bay and Mahanga Bay. There were two eight-inch disappearing guns installed, one at Kau Point and one at Point Haswell. Not long after this the fixed defences were further improved and extended in the area with the emplacement of a third disappearing gun at Point Gordon, overlooking Scorching Bay, the removal of the seven-inch and emplacement of a further six-inch disappearing gun at Fort Ballance and the addition of a six-pounder Nordenfeldt at each of the Batteries at Kau Point and Point Haswell. This had improved the defences to a remarkable degree. At the same time two further single gun batteries are mentioned - The Garden's Battery above the Botanical Gardens with one seven-inch muzzle loader and Ireland Bay where a six-inch breech loading gun was emplaced. Volunteers had to be taken to most of these points for their training by boat.

To ease the position a six-inch breech loading gun was mounted at Mt Cook (known as Buckle Street) for the purpose of teaching gun drill. A vessel called the Ellen Ballance, length overall 75 feet, 42-44 tons gross and speed 7 knots, was undergoing alterations for submarine mining work and for training torpedo boat crews. In 1896 the Torpedo Corps became No. 2 Service Company the Submarine Mining Branch of the Permanent Militia. No. 1 Service Company from the Artillery Corps was formed at the same time. Naval Artillery Volunteers in the four main centres remained affiliated to Harbour Defence works in the four main ports. By 1898 the Naval and Garrison Artillery consisted of an Artillery Branch manning guns etc and a submarine mining branch. The Petone Navals were at that time made responsible for the Artillery defence works of the inner harbour. As they had no seaworthy vessel their submarine mining responsibilities were taken over by a newly formed corps of the Star Boating Club. Although a change to more modern guns had been made, muzzle loaders were still being fired during practices in some parts of New Zealand as late as 1901. The system of Defence electric lights was extended and the No. 2 Service Company were trained and made responsible for them.

Twentieth Century

By 1903 the SS Janie Seddon arrived from England and was put into use as a submarine mining vessel. The Janie Seddon will be well remembered as she was in use during the tow World Wars and was the Examination Vessel for Wellington Harbour in the 39/45 war.

In 1903 the permanent militia became the Permanent Force and at that time No. 1 Company became RNZA and No. 2 Company RNZE. The engineers provided replacements for the Captain and Engineer of the Janie Seddon in 1906. These appointments had been held by civilians.

It is noted in the records that the first heavy gun practices competition held throughout the Dominion in 1901 was won by Wellington Naval Artillery Volunteers. In 1906 a New Zealand Garrison Artillery Challenge Shield was competed for the first time and was won by the Petone Navals with Wellington Navals second. This was from all accounts a tough trophy to win as points were scored or lost for every feature of efficiency in the Units competing. In 1907 the RNZE portion was abolished and became the Electric Light Section of the RNZA. This EI Section had the responsibility of running the Defence Electric Lights, providing Engineers, Stokers, Firemen and deckhands for the harbour vessels. In 1909 the Electric Light Section in Wellington was converted into a Gunnery Company with its own Electric Light Section. In 1926 Electric Light Sections were abolished and RNZA became one Regular Corps with no specific sections.

Two further guns were emplaced at Fort Ballance in 1909 or 1910. These were twelve-pounder quickfiring guns. The first emplacements for six-inch mark 7 guns were built at Fort Dorset and these guns were emplaced in 1910. During the 1914-18 war the twelve-pounders were mounted on mercantile vessels and were installed finally at Fort Dorset in 1921.

No. 3 Company the Wellington Navals had by that time become the 15th Coast Battery. No. 5 Company the Petone Navals had become 17th Medium Battery with mobile 6-inch howitzers and the No. 9 Company, which was the Electric Light Company from the days of the Torpedo Corps Volunteers, became the 19th Medium Battery also with howitzers. It was after the 1914-18 war that Fort Ballance and other associated batteries were finally disbanded. All Coast Defence was then concentrated at Fort Dorset with its Engine rooms, searchlights, guns, rangefinders, etc manned by 15th Battery personnel. Compulsory training was carried out until the Depression in late 1930 when it gave way to a further system of volunteers. In 1937 the defences were further increased and improved with the installation of the latest type of 6-inch guns at Palmer Head. These guns are capable of firing up to ranges of over 20,000 yards. Better instruments were available for rangefinding and position-finding and a system of Fortress rangefinding was introduced to obtain accurate data for targets at extreme ranges. Instruments for predicting the future positions of the target were also installed. The fortress system could provide the necessary data for individual batteries in the area. For close defence work, searchlights were installed at palmer Head. A system of Coast Defence training was introduced in 1937 to give concentrated training to a Special Reserve of the Territorial Force. The training was carried out over a period of three months and a number of drafts were put through. Some became regular soldiers and are still serving. The scheme proved very worthwhile and was a great asset from the point of view of trained personnel to man instruments, searchlights and guns in the precautionary period immediately before the war, and to have the batteries fully manned on the outbreak of war.

Radar was installed in 1941 and this very modern method of sighting targets providing data to guns and allowing long range shooting to be carried out during the hours of darkness became a complete substitute for the fortress system of rangefinding.

The 15th Battery became the 10 Heavy Regiment in 1940, and the 10 Coast Regiment in 1944. In 1942 preparations were made to install 9.2-inch guns at Wrights Hill. The installation complete with the underground system of operating engines, hydraulic pump chambers, magazines and fire control instruments was not completed until 1945. In 1944 a further 6-inch gun was emplaced at Palmer Head to make that a three-gun battery. A 6-gun battery was installed at Fort Opau at Makara. Training lapsed but equipments were maintained during the period 1944 to 1949 when Officer and NCO training was again commenced in preparation for the CMT scheme which began in 1950. Altogether fourteen intakes were trained in Coast Artillery in Wellington and this built the Regiment up to its peacetime establishment.


Coast artillery in New Zealand has now completed a cycle of almost one hundred years and at this juncture is to be placed on a care and maintenance basis with the strong possibility that it will never again be required to defend our major ports. This history is confined to the Wellington area but similar progress has been made in Auckland, Lyttelton and, to a minor degree, Port Chalmers.

AJ Baigent, 1959

Return to top

Early Artillery in Wellington    |    Coastal artillery units of World War 2
Guns around New Zealand    |    History Index    |    Home