RNZAF Station Te Pirita

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RNZAF Station Te Pirita was to be largest New Zealand World War II airfield, located south of the inland mid Canterbury town of Hororata. Designed to accommodate United States Army Air Forces heavy bombers, it was in fact never used.

Construction[edit]

Hurriedly built in late 1941 to 1942 after the Imperial Japanese Navy's sudden attack on Pearl Harbor, Te Pirita was, at the time, New Zealand's largest airfield. Due to enemy Japanese forces closing within reach of air attack of the North Island, the New Zealand Government commandeered large tracts of land in the farming district of Te Pirita for use as a 'secret' retreat base. This was to be the first in a network of bomber bases to be built in the Canterbury region.

The airfield was constructed in record time using seconded civilian and New Zealand Armed Forces engineers. Three enormous heavy earth compacted runways up to 2000 meters long were laid in prevailing wind directions of the region. The runway surfaces were laid with wattle tree seeds for strength. The base was designed to handle large numbers of USAAF Boeing Flying Fortress and Consolidated Liberator bombers.[1]

Initial Use[edit]

Commissioned by the RNZAF while still under construction in 1942, the airfield was initially used for air training. At least one B-17 Flying Fortress landed on the runways to test vectors. As the tide of the Pacific War turned in 1943 due to Allied victories in Guadalcanal and Papua New Guinea, the airfield was no longer an essential requirement and construction of revetments, hangars and barrack blocks were halted. Plans for other bases in the region were scrapped, although basic administration facilities remain and armed guards continued to patrol the site. The base closed in late 1943 but was held in reserve for the duration of the war. The runways were kept intact and tidy by regular mowing of their unique wattle grass.

Hidden Fuel Depot[edit]

Well away from the site of the base, but equally important was the construction of the airbase's aviation fuel bunker, the largest in the country which was located at Bankside, beside the north bank of the Rakaia River next the Main South Line Railway. Well camouflaged by pine trees, the in ground, steel roofed cylindrical concrete bunker was served by a cleverly hidden rail siding. The actual fuel capacity was estimated at 700,000 imperial gallons. The bunker also served the nearby and more visible RNZAF Norwood satellite airbase.[2]

Abandonment and remains[edit]

Eventually the airfield was abandoned and left to mother nature. The wattle 'grass' soon grew into bushes and then into full size trees. This allowed the airfield site to be easily spotted from the air as late as 2006 with perfect runway layouts created by the overgrowth. Intensive sheep farming returned to the region and most traces of the base began to disappear. In the early 21st century a Dairy boom took over most of the flat mid-Canterbury region and Te Pirita was no exception. By late 2010, three large 'rotary' method dairy farms now sit over the site of the airbase and most of the wattle tree-sown runways have finally vanished, even from Google Earth.[3] However a keen eye can still make out the general layout of the runways due to the well made formations and some still-standing clusters of trees.[4]

The opposite can be said for the huge fuel bunker at Bankside. After years hidden in a small stand of its camouflage pines, and after suffering years of indignity being used as a local rubbish dump (its roof removed for scrap), the bunker site has been completely cleaned up, and 'exposed'. The trees being cut down in 2008. The local council is turning the huge bunker into a historic site with interpretation and information boards explaining it as well as Te Pirita airbase's existence during a very dark period in World War II. The bunker is located on Breadings Road, just past the Terrace Road intersection, however the site is closed but can be viewed through the fence.[5] A good Google Earth view is also available.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wings over Cambridge, Te Pirata, accessed November 2012.
  2. ^ Wings Over New Zealand|World War II RNZAF Bases|Fuel Stores
  3. ^ Google Earth|New Zealand
  4. ^ Hororata Museum|picture Archives
  5. ^ Canterbury Regional Council