Wrights Hill Fortress

Wrights Hill Road, Karori, Wellington

  • Wrights Hill Fortress, Karori, Wellington. A section of the 620m of interconnecting tunnels dug into the hillside. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Minicooperd - Paul. Taken By: Minicooperd - Paul. Date: 6/02/2014.
  • Wrights Hill Fortress, Karori, Wellington. Gun Emplacement. CC Licence 3.0 Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org.
    Copyright: Jaydenm. Taken By: Jaydenm - Wikimedia Commons. Date: 17/08/2013.
  • Wrights Hill Fortress, Karori, Wellington. One of two 185hp Ruston Hornsby diesel engines used to generate electricity to manoeuvre the guns. The small engine (under restoration) was used to provide power for airconditioning and electricity for the fortress. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Minicooperd - Paul. Taken By: Minicooperd - Paul. Date: 6/02/2014.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 7543 Date Entered 25th June 2004 Date of Effect 25th June 2004


City/District Council

Wellington City


Wellington Region

Legal description

Sec 13-14 Upper Kaiwharawhara District, Sec 15 Upper Kaiwharawhara District, [Part of] Sec 16 Upper Kaiwharawhara District, Wellington Land District

Location description

Access from the end of Wrights Hill Road (off Campbell Street), Karori, Wellington


Constructed on former farmland in the midst of the residential suburb of Karori, the Wrights Hill Fortress is part of the biggest land-based defence network ever to be constructed in New Zealand.

First conceived of in 1934, the enormous costs involved in its construction caused the continuous delay of the project until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 made defence a top priority for the Government. Designed to combat the threat posed by hostile cruisers carrying 8 and 11-inch armaments, the 9.2-inch battery served as the centrepiece in Wellington's defence network and provided cover for the Cook Strait and the Wellington harbour entrance.

The battery was conceived of as a three-gun emplacement, complete with magazines, pump chambers, war shelters, engine and plotting rooms and a miniature range building. The plans were based on those developed by the British War Office, but were cleverly adapted for local conditions by the Public Works Department, who converted the plans to create an underground defence fortification. Erected by private contractors Downer & Co. Ltd with the aid of the Public Works Department staff, intensive construction was carried out from 1942 but slowed as the balance of power shifted to favour the Allies from late 1943. The site was completed in a modified form in 1944, and its two guns were first tested in 1946, a year after the end of the War.

With the end of the war, the site was consigned for training purposes only. All work on the complex ceased by 1949, and it was officially abandoned in 1957. Much of the equipment was removed in the early 1960s and the site suffered damage from vandals. In 1988 community interest in the site remained strong. The Karori Lions Club began a cleanup of the area and in 1989 it was made a recreation reserve. In 1992 a society was formed to protect and restore the site and it remains an important and recognised part of New Zealand's military history.

The Wrights Hill Fortress is of national significance. A study of New Zealand's non-registered coastal defences identified the site as one of the most significant or best representative examples of coastal defence. The site has historical significance for the insight it provides into the New Zealand response to the threat posed by the Second World War. One the biggest land based defensive batteries ever erected in New Zealand, the site is also of great physical importance. Its rapid construction in the early 1940s stands as a remarkable feat of civil engineering, while the skilful adaptation of standardised plans to suit local conditions distinguishes the site from others constructed by Allied countries. Wrights Hill has social value as one of the best known of the numerous coastal defence fortifications constructed around New Zealand. Open days continue to generate large crowds of lay people and it continues to convey the seriousness of the threat posed to New Zealand security during the Second World War to all those who experience it first hand.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

In April 1997 members from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) and the Department of Conservation held a joint workshop at Antrim House, Wellington, on European Harbour Defences constructed between 1840 and 1945. At the workshop 72 coastal defence structures were identified. Following the workshop heritage consultant Michael Kelly was commissioned to research the sites and, using a thematic approach, recommend a select number the most significant and the best representative examples not already registered of New Zealand's historic coastal defences. 21 sites were selected. On 30 April 1998 the NZHPT Registration Group considered each of the 21 site and recommended that 14 of these for registration. Wrights Fortress was one of just three sites put forward in the Wellington Region as the most significant or best representative example of sites nationwide. Wrights Hill Fortress is historically significant. Its construction was prompted by the Second World War, and given priority when the arena of war shifted to the Pacific when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in 1942. Three 9.2-inch batteries were constructed to combat the threat to New Zealand harbours, two in Auckland and one in Wellington. These were the biggest land based defensive batteries ever erected in New Zealand and were part of a massive construction programme designed to secure the New Zealand coastline from attack. Work on the batteries commenced, with great haste, in 1942, and continued after the Japanese threat receded in 1944.

The Wrights Hill Fortress has architectural and technological significance as a skilful example of the adaptation of standardised plans to suit local conditions. Wrights Hill is the smallest and most compact of New Zealand's extant 9.2-inch batteries and is unique in that its war shelters are incorporated into the tunnel entrances. It is also the only one of the surviving 9.2-inch batteries to have its battery Observation Post as part of the underground complex.

Wrights Hill has social value as one of the best known of the numerous coastal defence fortifications constructed around New Zealand. The firing of the guns and the subsequent damage to windows in surrounding homes has become a constantly retold part of the story of the suburb. Open days continue to generate large crowds of lay people and it continues to convey the seriousness of the threat posed to New Zealand security to those who have no first hand experience of the Second World War.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

Wrights Hill Fortress represents the culmination of a long history of perceived threats to national security via New Zealand's extensive coastline, and the defensive measures put in place to combat these threats by the Government. The clustering of batteries and forts around main centres and key trading harbours reflects the importance of these sites to the country. From the 1880s, when the first batteries were erected to defend the country from an invasion by Russia, to the Second World War, the government concentrated its resources around the ports of Wellington and Auckland. The batteries reflect the rapid technological developments over time, which forced almost continuous upgrading and construction of forts around the harbour from the 1880s onwards. In the Second World War, with the development of cruisers capable of taking 8 and 11-inch armaments, the very real threat of an invasion by Japan prompted the largest defence programme ever undertaken. The three 9.2 inch batteries, including Wrights Hill Fortress, were the largest and most expensive part of the security measures developed. The fortress is vivid evidence of the extent of the perceived threat and the measures the Government considered necessary to defend the country.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The Wrights Hill Fortress is an integral part of New Zealand's military history and its response to the direct threat posed by the Second World War. Its construction was authorised because of the outbreak of the war and its design was prompted technological developments that allowed cruisers to carry 8 and 11-inch armaments. The site's history is intimately linked to the rise and fall of Japan as a key threat to the Allies in the Pacific between 1942 and 1944. Its construction was largely undertaken when the peril to New Zealand was at its greatest, and its completion was constantly delayed and scaled-down as the threat diminished as the balance of power was tipped towards the Allies.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place

Wrights Hill Fortress has a strong community association and commands high public esteem. This is strongly demonstrated by the extensive work community-based groups have put into the preservation of the site since 1988, when the Karori Lions Club began to clean up the area, and the establishment in 1992 of an incorporated society, the Wrights Hill Fortress Restoration Society, whose purpose is to restore the site and provide access and interpretation for the public. The society received a conservation award for their efforts in 2001. This evidence is further supported by the creation of the Wrights Hill Recreation Reserve in 1989, which set the land aside in recognition of its value as a public amenity. The site has been described as 'one of the best known of any coastal defence fortification in New Zealand', and since the site was first opened to the public in 1989, open days have been extremely well attended by interested members of the community.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

The site has considerable potential for public education. The only battery to be constructed in the midst of an urban centre during World War II, the site is readily accessible to the public. The efforts of community-based groups have ensured that much of the site can be explored on the four days that the Fortress is open to the public during the year. Careful preservation work, such as the restoration of the degrees marked out in the No.1 gun emplacement, and interpretation work such as the completion of a replica gun enables lay-persons to develop a real appreciation of the seriousness of the threat to New Zealand's coastal security during the Second World War.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

The Wrights Hill battery and the two others under construction simultaneously in Auckland were the largest, and most expensive coastal defence projects ever undertaken in New Zealand. Although based on standard designs produced by the British War Office, the battery plans were adapted by the Public Works Department to suit local conditions. The underground tunnel system, made possible by the Department's experience in tunnels created for the New Zealand Railway, makes the batteries unique. The rapid construction of these tunnels between 1942 and 1943 is a remarkable feat of civil engineering, has been described as a 'triumph over great adversity'.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape

Wrights Hill Fortress is part of a landscape of defensive measures undertaken to protect New Zealand from attack during the Second World War and an integral part of a long history of coastal defence fortifications. The 9.2-inch battery was authorised at the commencement of hostilities and given priority in 1942 when the threat from Japan appeared to be at its greatest. It was one of three such batteries constructed to protect the country's main ports and part of a comprehensive defence network hastily constructed to protect Wellington's harbour. It was designed to work in conjunction with batteries at Palmer Head, Opau, and Fort Dorset, and a minefield, boom and underwater detection devices, which were laid across the entrance to the harbour. It was also the latest in a long series of batteries constructed to protect Wellington from sea-borne attack, the first being those erected to protect the country from a perceived threat from Russia. Wrights Hill is therefore an important component of a long history of coastal defence and an integral part of the national response to that pivotal event of the twentieth century, the Second World War.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Public Works Department

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Public Works Department

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

In 1934 the British War Office advised the New Zealand Army that the whole of the Wellington harbour area could be protected from enemy attack by the construction of a 9.2-inch battery on 'point 1181 K6431', or Wrights Hill.

During this period the key threat to Wellington harbour was the increasing number of cruisers armed with 8 or 11-inch armaments being constructed by potentially hostile nations. Many of Wellington's coastal defence batteries were initially constructed during the 'Russian Scare' of 1885 and, although upgraded and added to, were no longer sufficient to protect the harbour from the increased range of enemy guns. The New Zealand Army and the War Office debated the best means of combating the perceived threat. On the one hand, two 6-inch 45-degree guns with range-finding equipment could be installed at Palmer Head and Dorset Point for approximately £95,000. On the other, two 9.2-inch guns installed at Wrights Hill would provide 'adequate defence of the whole harbour area' for £125,000. While the cheaper option was preferred and a battery was constructed at Palmer Head, the concept of a battery at Wrights Hill had been born. The Army continued to plan for the installation of the 9.2-inch battery. Detailed planning and costing was carried out, but in 1937 the Army's budget bid that would allow for its construction was rejected for the second time on the grounds of cost.

It was the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that finally provided the necessary impetus for the construction of the Wrights Hill Fortress. In 1939 the construction of 9.2-inch battery to protect Wellington was immediately authorised, as was the construction of an additional 6-inch battery at Opau, and the laying of a minefield, boom and underwater detection devices across the harbour entrance. Yet the immediate authorisation was not sufficient to ensure that work commenced at Wrights Hill, and British manufacturers who were unable to say when the guns would be delivered caused delays.

It was not until 1941, with the outbreak of the war in the Pacific that the Wrights Hill Fortress became a priority. Possibly named after early settler and Farmer John Fortescue Wright, the bush-clad Wrights Hill had been farmed since the 1870s, and was still being used as farmland when the army finally purchased it for the battery in 1942. Although based on standard plans for 9.2-inch batteries developed by the British War Office, the Wrights Hill Fortress is unique. Instead of creating an above surface structure, the Public Works Department saved both time and money by using their knowledge of tunnelling to create an underground battery. The battery's distinctive semi-circular tunnels are based on the design developed for the Tawa Flat railway deviation completed in 1936. At the same time as the Wrights Hill plans were being developed, similar plans were also being created for three batteries designed to protect Auckland and Lyttleton harbours. Of the four, Wrights Hill was to be the most compact.

The battery was to consist of three gun emplacements, each of which would hold a 9.2-inch Mk XV guns on an Mk IX mounting. An underground magazine, a pump chamber and a war shelter serviced each emplacement. Reflecting the inclusion of female personnel in the army, the war shelters each had provisions for female staff in the form of separate female toilets. In addition, the battery was to be serviced by an engine room, plotting rooms, battery observation post, and a radio room. Outside the complex were a parade ground, and a miniature range building, which, once constructed, contained the only miniature range equipment constructed in New Zealand during the war. Due to the ever-constant shortage of funds, the construction of the Wrights Hill battery was let to a private company, Downer & Co. Ltd, and tunnelling commenced in early 1942. By September 1943, the company was running short of supplies and labour and the Public Works Department was called in to assist and given absolute priority. By the end of 1943 all excavations had been completed, and concreting work was well advanced. Yet work on the project was impacted by both the costs and developments in the war in the Allies' favour. In early 1944 its labour force was diverted to other projects and the third gun order was cancelled in June that same year. Despite this, the civil engineering part of the project was largely complete by June 1944 and the No.1 gun was installed three months later, with the second gun installation being completed shortly after. Around this time the decision was made later that year to complete the battery to the minimum standard required. Despite this, work on the project was not finally completed until 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War.

It was one of just two of the 9.2-inch batteries to be completed to any extent technically. With the end of the War, Wrights Hill was relegated to training purposes only. Its two guns had been test-fired in 1946, and 1947, blowing out a number of windows in the surrounding suburb of Karori. These tests were the only time they were used. All work on the complex had ceased by 1949, and in 1951 all training at the complex ceased. Six years later the battery was officially abandoned and its equipment was scrapped. The gun pits were filled in between 1960 and 1962. In 1988 the Karori Lions Club took on the role of guardians of the site following years of neglect. Volunteers cleaned up the area, removing the rubble from the gun emplacements, restoring the tunnels and re-equipping the facilities so that the site could become safe for the public to visit. The Wrights Hill Fortress Restoration Society, formed in 1992, aimed to 'restore and preserve the Wrights Hill Fortress as an historical monument for the benefit of the community'. The site is now part of a recreation reserve and is open to the public at various times of the year to allow the old to remember, the not-so-old to understand, and the young to learn about the measures taken by the Government to ensure the safety of its citizens at a time of conflict in multiple arenas of war.

Physical Description

Situated over 1000 feet (305 metres) above sea-level at the summit of Wrights Hill in the residential suburb of Karori in Wellington, Wrights Hill Fortress is an extensive battery primarily constructed underground. Built across the ridge of the hill, and originally surrounded by a wire fence, the battery was located approximately 12 metres underground, to ensure maximum protection.

It consists of three gun emplacements, located approximately 180 metres apart, which were designed to carry 9.2 inch Mk XV guns on an Mk IX mounting. An underground magazine, a pump chamber and a war shelter serviced each emplacement. Each magazine was 20.4 m long, 6.75 m wide, and 3.75 m high, and divided into two areas to store shells and cartridges. The rectangular war shelters have been vandalised and most of their partitions have been demolished. To reduce cabling requirements, the engine room was located at the centre of the battery. The engine room was 15.3m long, 6.75m wide, 3.75 m high and featured two reinforced concrete exhaust shafts which were oriented vertically to the surface, and a single air shaft which provided air to the entire underground complex. Located near the engine room was the battery and fortress plotting rooms and command post. The plotting rooms, are, arguably, the most important areas in the fortress, but have suffered extensive fire damage to the timber framing and linings. A fourth war shelter was provided for staff using these rooms. The fortress also had a battery observation post (BOP) with an adjourning radio (now largely restored) room. The BOP provided a 100-degree view out to the east over the harbour entrance, and was used primarily as a Close Defence or Night BOP. The complex was connected by approximately 2000 feet (609 metres) of underground tunnelling over an area of approximately 3.37 hectares. Outside of the complex, is a parade ground, which was originally overlooked by a miniature range building (now largely demolished).

Notable Features

The skilful adaptation of standardised plans to suit local conditions distinguishes the site from other constructed by Allied countries.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1939 - 1944

1949 -
All installation work completed

1951 -
Alterations to Radio Room

1952 -
Asbestos sprayed on walls of engine room

1953 - 1954
Steel shutters fixed to war shelters

1955 -
Steel doors fitted

1957 -
Fort decommissioned

1958 -
Former battery workshop destroyed by fire

1959 - 1960
Guns removed

1961 -
Gun emplacements filled in

1994 -
Replica gun installed

Construction Details

Key materials used include reinforced concrete, timber, and brick.

No. 1, No.2, and No.3 Gun Areas

Each of the gun areas includes a gun store, a pump chamber, a magazine, and a war shelter. ·The gun stores have a barrel vaulted concrete ceiling (No.1 gun store ceiling is covered with lime washed plaster). The walls are constructed from brick in

No. 1 and No.2 Gun Areas, and from concrete in No. 3 Gun Area

The floors are made from concrete and the doors are made of timber.·The pump chambers have flat, concrete ceilings with coated timber conduit lining. Cut steel H beams are embedded in the flat concrete walls. The floors are made of concrete and feature steel coverings over the storm water drains. The doors frames are of steel and the doors of sheet steel. The magazines each include a shell store, a cartridge store, and a cartridge store corridor. The shell stores have barrel vaulted concrete ceilings and are supported by steel beams. The walls are made from concrete or brick and the floor is made from concrete. The rooms have steel doors and the windows feature timber joinery. The cartridge store walls are made from brick, its ceiling from asbestos sheeting, and its floor is made from concrete. The walls and ceiling of the cartridge store corridors are made from cementitious sheet and the floor is made of concrete. The window frames are made from timber. The war shelter was made from reinforced concrete. Each includes two concrete toilet blocks, and a single ready room with walls and ceiling of concrete, a timber floor and window joinery and steel window covers.

Gun Emplacements

The gun emplacements were excavated out of the rock and lined with reinforced concrete. The shell recesses have steel frames and are lined with rubber. The foundation bolts for the guns, the rails, ring and ladders are made from steel. The fence on the No.1 gun emplacement is made of timber palings.

Battery Observation Post

Based on concrete foundations and constructed from concrete, the post features steel drainage covers in the floor, and double steel doors. The addition is timber framed, and clad in iron.

Radio Room

Ceiling of concrete with walls of concrete with timber match lining, doors of steel, and a timber strip floor.

Generator Room

No information available

Engine Room

The barrel-vaulted ceiling is made from concrete with timber conduit lining. Apart from a brick dividing wall, the walls are made from asbestos coated concrete. The floor is of concrete with steel drainage covers. The doors are made from timber.

War Shelter 3

Built of reinforced concrete, war shelter three includes 2 concrete toilet blocks with timber doors, a ready room with concrete ceiling and concrete walls lined with timber, a timber floor, and steel doors.

Oil Store, Fortress Plotting Room, Battery Plotting Room, Battery Plotting Room Store, Command Post

The rooms have barrel vaulted concrete ceilings, walls of timber and brickwork partially lined with pinex with timber framing, and concrete floors.

Tunnels and command exchange

The tunnels and command exchange room are made of concrete and have barrel vaulted ceilings with timber conduit linings. Service hooks project from the tunnel walls and the concrete floors are broken at regular intervals by storm water drain coverings of either timber or steel.

Miniature Range Building

The lower storey was made from reinforced concrete. The upper storey was timber framed and lined with pinex. The exterior was clad in weatherboards and the roof was made from fibrolite.

Parade Ground

Flat, excavated area cut into the hillside.

Water Tank

Reinforced concrete

Fresh Air Intake Building

Reinforced concrete

Completion Date

31st August 2004

Report Written By

Rebecca O'Brien

Information Sources

Archives New Zealand (Wgtn)

Archives New Zealand (Wellington)

Army Department Files, Wellington; 9.2 inch batteries, Central Military District 1942-46, AD 12/25/2/2; 9.2 inch batteries, general, AD 12/25/34; Wrights Hill Fort Record Book, AD 88/4.

Cooke, 2000

P. Cooke, Defending New Zealand; Ramparts on the Sea 1840-1950s, Wellington, 2000

Corbett, 1966

P. Corbett, 'World War II Defences At Stoney Battery (Waiheke Island) and Whangaparoa', Auckland, 1966

Corbett, 1997

P. Corbett, 'Coast Defences of New Zealand 1924-1945', a paper given at the Department of Conservation sponsored New Zealand Coast Defence Heritage National Workshop, 12-13 April 1997, Wellington

Grattan, 1948

F G Grattan, 'Official War History of the Public Works Department', Wellington, 1948, Public Works Dept

Kelly, 1998 (2)

M. Kelly, 1998. 'Post-Victorian coastal defence structures 1905-1945; Batteries and Camps, a significance assessment', 3 April 1998 (copy held by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust)

Mitchell, 1997

J Mitchell, 'Coastal Fortifications In New Zealand 1840-1925', A paper given at the Department of Conservation for the New Zealand Coast Defence Heritage National Workshop, Wellington, 12-13 April 1997 (copy held by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust)

Conservation Plan

Conservation Plan

'Wrights Hill Conservation Plan', Draft (2), September 1997.

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central Region office

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.