The Coastwatchers: Coastwatching in the Pacific in War and Peace

Paratus Monograph 3: The Coastwatchers: Coastwatching in the Pacific in War and Peace


Coast Watching occupies a unique place in the military history of New Zealand and the South Pacific. The limited size of New Zealand and Australian station fleets of the Royal Navy severely limited their ability to adequately patrol the New Zealand coast and region. In the absence of sufficient regular forces coastal observers were the only alternative to leaving the coast completely open to enemy vessels. A large colonial naval force was not any option then, nor is it now.

The history of coastwatching in New Zealand begins in 1929, when the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy planned the adoption of a naval observer service. The intention was primarily to provide observers on the New Zealand coast. However, the strategic importance of the Pacific Islands were considered from the beginning. The islands to the north and north-west of New Zealand form a chain that could be utilised in the defence of this country.

The coast watching system as designed in peacetime utilised local residents in coastal areas on the New Zealand coast. The intention was that the system would rely on locals who had reliable communication in peacetime, and could be expanded in war-time to incorporate watchers in more remote and inaccessible areas.

The role of these coastwatchers is essentially passive. Nevertheless due to the limitations of technology in the inter-war period it was vital to maritime defence. Commerce raiders were then expected to be the main threat to New Zealand in time of war. It was deemed essential that a coastwatching system be created to counter this maritime threat.

An effective observer system would restrict the activities of coastal raiders, and assist the regular navy in its pursuit of those raiders who were detected. It was hoped that enemy vessels would not risk coming close to land, even uninhabited islands, for fear of being detected by hidden naval observers. If a raider was detected and monitored by coastwatchers, the Navy had an excellence chance of catching and destroying the enemy vessel.

The small standing Navy could not effectively patrol the entire coast. Financial constraints prevented an enlargement of the regular navy, or the establishment of regular air patrols being considered as viable alternatives. Radar or radio monitoring had not then been developed sufficiently to be effective, even if New Zealand could have afforded these. In the absence of a large regular navy, long-range radar, reconnaissance aircraft patrols, or satellites, human observers were the only alternative to leaving New Zealand coasts and shipping lanes wide open to potential raiders.

Coastwatchers were initially provided by the New Zealand Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and came under the operational control of the New Zealand Naval Board. They reported to their nearest District Naval Intelligence Officers, who were stationed in the four main centres. In 1935 the naval reserve coastwatchers were replaced by civilian volunteers. The system otherwise remained unaltered.

In the years immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War plans were developed for the establishment in wartime of permanent coastwatching posts throughout New Zealand. Sixty coastwatching stations, manned by naval and civilian personnel, would maintain 24-hour watches. Observer posts, many in remote locations, were designated for manning in time of war.

On the outbreak of war in 1939 the coastwatching service was mobilised. The designated observer posts were manned, initially largely by Navy personnel. In 1940 the National Military Reserve, which had been established in 1939, provided more observers, releasing naval manpower for other tasks. In the latter part of 1940 the newly formed Home Guard reinforced the coastwatching stations, as did the Army Territorial forces. Port and coastal defences generally were strengthened at this time, against the likelihood that Japan would become involved in the War.

Coastwatching was not only carried out on the mainland, but also in New Zealand dependencies, and in the islands to the north, north-east, and south.

By March 1940 there were sixty-two stations at different points round the coast. During 1941 further posts were established around New Zealand, and on the Auckland and Campbell Islands, the Kermadecs, the Chatham Islands, and on Norfolk Island.

The Auckland and Campbell Islands was occupied in what was known as the Cape Expedition. Enlisted personnel were drawn from the ranks of the Aerodrome Services branch of the Public Works Department. The parties were supplied with three years rations, with emergency stores located deeper in the bush[1].

The start of the war with Germany drew attention to the lack of reliable communications with the smaller island groups in the Pacific. The New Zealand Posts and Telegraph Department had already established cable and radio links with many of the larger islands. Other islands were linked by island administration radiotelephone links co-ordinated by Suva Radio.

A number of officials of the NZPTD were seconded to several Pacific island administrations to assist with their radio communications services. Some were later to be incorporated into the naval coastwatching service. In late 1940-early 1941 a major radio station was established outside Suva, Fiji, to provide all armed service communications, including coastwatching, throughout the Pacific. Coast watchers were appointed to the smaller islands that had no European residents. By mid-1941 New Zealand observer posts were established in Fiji, Tonga, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, the Cook Islands, Samoa, and smaller island groups. On many of the islands, New Zealand watchers, civilian and military, were assisted by local civilian employees.

The Royal Australian Navy established a Coast Watching system over Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The RAAF ran a similar service in Dutch East Indies until it was overrun.

During the course of the war the coastwatching organisation was reorganised several times. The number of stations fluctuated. Some stations were replaced by radio direction finding (rdf) stations, or even abolished altogether and aerial patrols substituted.

In 1940 the Chiefs of Staff Committee decided to establish a chain of sixteen RDF coastwatching stations around the New Zealand coast. In July 1940 the plan was approved by the War Cabinet. By 1943 a number of RDF stations had been established on headlands and islands to cover the principal harbours, the approaches to Cook Strait and Foveaux, and other focal points. The first radio CW station was established in January 1941, and the last in March 1942. These operated slightly differently to the visual observer posts, and were entirely manned by naval personnel[2]. They were entirely self-contained.

The authorised establishment of a radio CW station was one officer, and eight to nine seaman operators. Eventually two mechanics were also added. Staff were recruited from civilian volunteers who receiving training in radio at the Auckland University College. The first training course began December 1940. The fourth and last class began training September 1941. After July 1941 RDF stations were reorganised on RN model, manned by ratings in the newly established RDF operators and RDF wireless mechanics branches. The first of the ratings trained at Auckland University College were drafted to the stations in March 1941, one leading hand and four operators each station. In June the complement was increased to seven, or nine if the importance of the post required that twenty-four hour watches be kept[3].

From October 1942 Naval ratings were also deployed to RNZAF coastal stations. Six of the sixteen stations were manned by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Some Wrens were employed in naval radar coastwatching stations, principally at Takapuna.

New Zealand-built radar stations were deployed in the Solomon Islands from 1943. They had a limited role in support of the American forces.

The coast watch stations on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were overrun by the advancing Japanese forces between December 1941 and August 1942. In October 1942 22 Europeans, including coastwatchers from throughout the Gilbert Islands group, were shot by the occupying Japanese forces on Ocean Island.

By 1944 the destruction of the Axis fleets rendered the New Zealand coastwatching stations largely irrelevant to the war effort. Most posts were abandoned. Twenty-one stations were retained on a care and maintenance basis. They were left fully equipped, and could be readily manned and immediately used in an emergency[4]. After the end of the war these posts were no longer maintained. Although most have since been destroyed, several of the Campbell and Auckland Island posts are remarkable well preserved, looking almost as they did when first placed on care and maintenance in 1944.

The coastwatching service was operated by the Navy, and formed part of the wider service maintained by the Allies, and co-ordinated through the Allied Intelligence Bureau in Melbourne. Although operational control was centred in the Navy, the coastwatchers might be civilians, or might belong to the Navy (at port war signal stations), the Air Force (at some radar stations), or the Army (at many coastwatching and some radar stations).

More important and accessible stations were linked to the Area Combined Headquarters by direct line telephone. Others, in the more remote positions and overseas, reported by teleradio[5].

The approaches to some ports were equipped with additional reporting devices which were directly controlled by the Navy. In spite of this diversity the system functioned efficiently, and the naval authorities were able to get rapid information of all shipping movements[6].

The success of the Allied operations against the Imperial Japanese Navy was due in large measure to the assistance the Coast Watching Service gave in establishing an overall picture of enemy activities.



Text copyright Paratus Defence Analysts and Consultants Limited, 2004


1                    New Zealand Herald 28/1/1995; New Zealand Herald 7/4/1995

2                    Hall, op. cit

3                    RNZN History p.454-455

4                    Hall, op.cit

5                    Hall, op. cit

6                    Hall, op. cit



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