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World War II workers were sworn to secrecy

Last updated 05:00 25/03/2014

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It's been 70 years since they worked in the top-secret Auckland Combined Military Headquarters during World War II.

Even then it was only a passing acquaintance. Naval lieutenant Alan Sayers was in the main command room while Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) Gwen Stevens from Howick was in the adjoining air force filter room deciphering information from radar stations strategically positioned round the coast. Everyone in the building was sworn to secrecy for 50 years.

Gwen, now 92, thought no one else in that wartime building was still alive until she heard from Alan, 98, after he learned about her through historian Sandra Coney's book On the Radar.

A catch-up was arranged at Alan and June Sayers' Arkles Bay home by Auckland Waterfront chairman Sir Bob Harvey and wife Barbara, who happens to be Gwen Stevens' niece.

Sir Bob's mother Margaret Connolly, also worked as a WAAF phone operator at the Seagrove aerodrome on the Manukau Harbour and later for the Central Combined Headquarters in Wellington.

"The main operations room, manned by officers of the navy, army and air force, was on watch day and night monitoring ships and planes over the upper North Island," Alan says. "Messages came in via cypher from radar stations, ships and various other sources and anything untoward was immediately dealt with. New Zealanders of today would be surprised at how close we came to enemy attack and how many ships were sunk around our coast by enemy raiders, including the RMS Niagara that went to the bottom just three hours out of Auckland.

"Then there was the liner Rangitane off East Cape and the Turakina off New Plymouth."

The Japanese bombed Darwin in February 1942 and the threat of invasion was imminent.

So an underground bunker capable of withstanding the impact of 250lb bombs was built alongside the current building to give protection from aerial attack.

The huge complex, accessible down steep flights of stairs, was used for Civil Defence purposes after the war and still exists in the grounds of the Auckland University Education Faculty in Epsom Ave.

Alan's meeting with Gwen Stevens will be mentioned in his forthcoming book Deadline, due out later this year. The 300-page work will feature stories and photographs from historic events that Alan covered during his life as a journalist.

Alan was also an outstanding sportsman.

At Auckland Grammar he was the second fastest schoolboy quarter-miler in the British Empire.

He later represented Waikato in rugby and still holds a New Zealand rugby league record of seven tries in a single game.

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