War in the Hauraki Gulf

Find out about the surprising history behind some of the Hauraki Gulf's best loved landmarks.

It’s hard to imagine as you look at the sparkling waters of the Waitemata Harbour, the ferry boats and pleasure craft zipping through the waves and the bright colours of the islands – but once upon a time, the Hauraki Gulf was prepared for war.

In fact, conflict has been part of the Hauraki Gulf for centuries – battles between Maori iwi (tribes) are legendary and in many cases resulted in the names we call key landmarks today. For example Rangitoto Island means bloody skies – or in full, Ngā Rangi-i-totongia-a Tama-te-kapua ('The days of the bleeding of Tama-te-kapua'). Tama-te-kapua was the captain of the Arawa waka (canoe) and was badly wounded on the island, after losing a battle against the Tainui iwi.

Here are some of the places you’ll find historic remnants of war in the Hauraki Gulf.

Devonport & North Head

Devonport has been the main base for the Royal New Zealand Navy since 1841. These areas were strategic military strongholds since the 1860s, During the 1880s the ‘Russian scare’ convinced many New Zealanders that Russia was planning to invade and lookouts and guns were set up on both peaks, as well as on Bastion Point across the harbour. A minefield was also laid across the harbour floor from North Head to Bastion Point but was removed in 1907.

During World War 1, German prisoners of war were held at the base of North Head, and during the Second World War, the Fire command for all the coastal batteries from the Bay of Islands to Waiheke was housed there. After the war most of the guns and fortifications were removed, but today you can walk through some of the tunnels – just make sure you bring a torch.

Tamaki Drive

Defence guns and searchlight emplacements were also installed along scenic Tamaki Drive during WWII, to deter and protect against a Japanese invasion. Picturesque Mission Bay is one of the most visited spots along Tamaki Drive. It was here that New Zealand pilots were trained to fly amphibious aircraft in World War 1.

Rangitoto and Motutapu

During World War II these two islands were crucial to Auckland’s harbour defences. Rangitoto had a range of structures including observation and signal posts on the summit and mine storage at Islington Bay. Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps were some of the dedicated team who were barracked at the military camp on neighbouring Motutapu (along with US and NZ troops) and covered the night shift on Rangitoto, monitoring ship movements further out in the Gulf.


This sandy haven was the scene of a tale worthy of a spy novel! During World War I a prisoner of war camp was situated here, and for a time housed the famous German nobleman and naval officer Count Felix von Luckner (also known as the Sea Devil) after he was captured in Fiji. He hatched a cunning plan to escape by pretending to put on a Christmas play and using the theatre props to steal the camp commander’s boat! He was eventually recaptured.

Waiheke Island

At the eastern end of Waiheke Island, Stony Batter Historic Reserve is worth a visit to see the tunnels and gun emplacements dating back to World War II. Two hundred men worked in secret for two years to build this complex, with guns capable of firing 172kg shells up to 32km out to sea.

Further afield

Defensive minefields were laid in the Hauraki Gulf during WWII, forming a barrier between some of the outlying islands and those closer to Waitemata Harbour. They have since been removed, of course! Today as you cruise out through the Waitemata Harbour and around the islands these turbulent times are literally a thing of the past, with nothing to do but relax and enjoy the surroundings that early Aucklanders worked so hard to protect.

Visit Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf on an overnight cruise with Hauraki Blue Cruises.

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