Castlecliff Beach

The Wreck of the Cyrena

The burgeoning interest in the revitalisation of the port in Whanganui brings to mind some of the more dramatic incidents that occurred within our once boisterous harbour. One unfortunate event involved the British Imperial Oil Company steamer SS Cyrena, skippered by Captain D R Paterson. On course to arrive on 25 May 1925, Cyrena was about to deliver 8,000 cases of oil in Whanganui before proceeding to Bluff, Port Chalmers and Lyttelton to deliver the remainder of the cargo. Like so many ships before, Cyrena anticipated an uneventful entrance into the Whanganui Harbour.

1. W-S-W-051n

The wreck of the SS Cyrena not far from the shore with the SS Mana alongisde.  Barrels and crated of cargo were taken off the ship and stored temporarily on Castlecliff Beach.  Ref: W-S-W-051n

There was no smooth sailing for Cyrena; the ship met trouble entering the harbour, running aground on what was then thought to be a sandbar. It was reported at the time that Cyrena could be re-floated without much difficulty, so work began to lighten the load. The salvage tug Terawhiti arrived from Wellington to help dislodge Cyrena and the steamer John arrived from New Plymouth to lighten its load of cargo. When this proved to be inadequate, several other ideas were floated to free Cyrena from a watery fate.

By 5 June a scheme was hatched to pump compressed air into the ship, which was intended to achieve a “greater degree of buoyancy.” Despite this not being very successful, another similar idea entailed attaching all the empties, the beer barrels from local hotels, to see what difference they would make when Cyrena was re-floated. After several unsuccessful attempts to rescue Cyrena, however, the final blow was delivered on 12 June by a large southerly swell which broke the ship in two, sending all remaining cargo into the sea.

2. W-S-W-062

The wreck of the SS Cyrena off Castlecliff Beach.  Ref: W-S-W-062

Crowds gathered on Castlecliff Beach to watch Cyrena slowly disintegrate into the sea as the flotsam of barrels, tins of oil and timber found its way to the shore. Patrols were set up to prevent looting and work parties were formed to salvage what they could from the shore.

The owners of Cyrena were ordered to remove the wreck as it was deemed an eyesore by local authorities. By 23 September 300lb of explosives were detonated near the boilers on board ship, ushering in the first phase of demolition. According to estimates, between £10,000 and £15,000 was spent in trying to save Cyrena, the equivalent of between $940,000 and $1,400,000 in 2016.

3. W-S-W-055o

The SS Cyrena beached at Castlecliff.  Ref: W-S-W-055o

How did it happen? The reason for the disaster was initially thought to be the result of a build-up of excess sand or mud from a recent flood. According to the newspaper reports there were anecdotal stories that it was not just a sandbar hindering Cyrena, but a log “approximately 40ft long and 3ft wide” that had made contact with the steamer. Further exploration revealed that there was a “formidable” obstruction lurking beneath the waves that was probably responsible for the damage that occurred. While there were some close calls, no one was hurt and Captain Paterson was exonerated of wrong-doing at a later inquiry, which called the wreck an Act of God. Newspapers at the time declared that “the name Cyrena will not be forgotten for a long time”.

 

Article by Milly Mitchell-Anyon, a Contract Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Local Defence during World War II

In the 1940s Wanganui was a city boasting a busy port that dated from the 1800s, and a sizeable airport which had opened in 1931. New Zealand was physically many miles from the theatres of war in Europe, but the threat of Japanese invasion brought the realities of war much closer to home.

Wanganui airport, south coast and Landguard Bluff Battery from the observation post

Wanganui airport, south coast and Landguard Bluff Battery from the observation post

By June 1940 Wanganui Airport was one of sixteen landing fields and four defence aerodromes in New Zealand, along with two RNZAF stations in Fiji and one in Tonga, which the Air Force had committed to defend. The Air Force, however, had few means of active local defence. Eventually it was agreed that the Air Force would defend its aerodromes up to the perimeter, and the Army beyond that. The Army was also responsible for defence works for landing grounds. The Public Works Department assisted with technical and on-site design and construction tasks.

By March 1941 the Director of Works for aerodrome defence called for a list of landing grounds within 30 kilometres of the coast, including at Wanganui. But by October it was decided that the port in Wanganui did not require fixed defences after all, being vulnerable only to small raiding force attacks for which an independent local infantry company already existed.

A cylindrical type pillbox at Castlecliff

A cylindrical type pillbox at Castlecliff

In February 1942 the situation had changed again as a result of the Pacific crisis, and defence of the local port became more urgent. Wanganui was allocated a US 155mm field gun, although senior defence officials decreed that the port could be adequately defended by a beach defence battery with light field guns alone. In any case, the US gun did not eventuate because by 1942 these weapons were in limited supply.

Construction of local coastal defence infrastructure finally got underway in 1942. A secret report from March of that year indicates that while the New Zealand Home Guard numbered around 11,000 personnel, only 800 rifles were available, so the structures were more to boost morale than to provide real defence should an enemy attack eventuate.

SS Port Bowen being unloaded from the port side after being beached (W-S-W-154)

SS Port Bowen being unloaded from the port side after being beached (W-S-W-154)

Twenty-eight gun emplacements, or pillboxes, were planned for Wanganui, although only around 15 were actually built. The project was delayed because metal baffles for the loopholes had to be cut at Eastown Railway workshops from plate salvaged from the SS Port Bowen, which had grounded at Castlecliff in 1929. The ship also provided steel for an anti-tank barrier at Lyall Bay in Wellington.

The term “pillbox” dates back to 1917 when it was first used for structures used by the Germans during World War I. Ten pillboxes are still visible locally: at Mōwhanau Beach, between Castlecliff Beach and the river mouth, and along the south coast. All are arrowhead types apart from one round design near Morgan Street. Two additional defence structures, including a gun battery, are also still visible at Landguard Bluff. All were sited so their fields of fire overlapped.

An arrowhead-type pillbox at Castlecliff

An arrowhead-type pillbox at Castlecliff

New Zealand pillboxes varied from a box design in the north to the familiar arrowhead (T49) design locally and a cylindrical design further south (although two cylindrical pillboxes were built locally). Arrowhead pillboxes had a central firing area with wings either side for living quarters. The cylindrical design was developed by Humes Pipes of Christchurch to support, and to benefit from, the war effort.

Construction of the Wanganui Battery at Landguard Bluff began in June 1942 and was completed later that year at a cost of £3950. A 5-inch US Navy type BL MkVIII gun on a MkXV mount was installed on the reinforced pad at the front of the facility. Camouflage works were completed the following summer.

A Barr and Stroud 3m FT29 rangefinder was installed for aircraft observation. Barr and Stroud was a Scottish optical engineering firm (in the late 1950s they built Scotland’s first computer).

The interior of an arrow-head type pillbox

The interior of an arrow-head type pillbox

The Wanganui Battery was manned between 1942 and October 1943 by one army regular for every three Home Guards, and later, by a skeleton crew. By November 1944 the gun was dismounted and returned to store and the Battery was abandoned.

By March 1943 Wanganui had spent £50,000 on defence, including obstruction of the airfield by driving posts into the runway and laying barbed wire to secure local beaches.

Fifty-four roadblocks in the form of large concrete blocks were installed locally, along with 120 road or rail blocks throughout the wider district, including at Gentle Annie, Whangaehu Rail Bridge, Ūpokongaro, and the Aramoho railway bridge.

A Type J anti-tank ditch was constructed from the river north through Castlecliff. It had silted up by early 1943 and required re-excavating and the installation of double weirs to prevent further erosion.

The main principle of local defence was to hold the enemy off until the last round was fired, and the last man was down. Fortunately, our resolve was never put to the test.

For further reading see Defending New Zealand by Peter Cooke.