Conflagration at ‘Cardboard Castle’: The Rongotai Exhibition building fire

75 years ago, the former RNZAF station Rongotai was the scene of one of Wellington’s largest fires. The uncannily glamorous facility that had started life as a tourist mecca, then morphed into a busy military station, ultimately became a hot spot of a much more unfortunate kind.

Souvenir photograph “N.Z. Centennial Exhibition 1940. Reflections at Night.” Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref 2017-185.37.
Image from the Ronald Findlay personal collection. High view of the New ZealCentennial-Exhibition-buildings-in-Wellington.
The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition buildings in Wellington. Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref 2017-185.35.

The Rise of Rongotai

Rongotai Aerodrome had housed RNZAF No. 2 Stores Depot since 1939 but by 1940, demands for space were intensifying. To address this, The RNZAF took over the adjoining land and cavernous Art Deco-style buildings that had formerly housed the popular New Zealand Centennial Exhibition. The new area became RNZAF Station Rongotai.

From that point, growth was rapid; 37,000 square feet (3,437 square metres) of space in the new facility was allotted to the Stores Depot initially, but that figure would almost treble over the next year. In addition, the Station came to house the RNZAF Technical Training Schools, Communication Flight, Salvage Section, and was used for forming all new units destined for overseas. Rongotai was the first RNZAF station to enlist WAAFs (members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and, at its peak, boasted a strength of nearly 2,000 men and women.

This concentration of activity was relatively brief, though. In 1942 the Stores Depot moved to Mangaroa and the Technical Training Schools were relocated progressively to Nelson from 1943. In early 1945 the remaining Rongotai units were transferred elsewhere, and the Station closed, leaving only the Central Trade Test Board. The old Exhibition buildings were then used for storage – principally for wool, of which large stockpiles had built up around the country over the course of World War Two.

Parade of a large number of airmen outside one of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition buildings at RNZAF Station Rongotai, circa 1940. Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref 2017-185.38.
Trainee engine fitters at RNZAF Station Rongotai, circa 1940. Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref 2017-185.39.
Group of WAAFs in front of the Exhibition building, RNZAF Station Rongotai. Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref ALB9305023002.
Aircraft inside the building at the Technical Training School, RNZAF Station Rongotai, during World War Two. Hind NZ1535 in the foreground and a Blackburn Baffin and a Hawker Tomtit in the background. Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref PF75-29a-93.

Stop Press: Fire Disaster

Around 3am on 25 September 1946, Air Force personnel sleeping in the building known as No. 4 Store were awakened by the noises of a fire taking hold and had to evacuate the area at speed. They quickly sounded the alarm.

Four fire vehicles parked in front of the Fire Station at RNZAF Station Rongotai, 1945. Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref 2004-028.1.

The Exhibition buildings were not a good place to be in such an event. Constructed for spectacle, not longevity, their leaky roofs, flimsy floors, and other style-over-substance shortcomings had provided constant work for the Station’s team of carpenters. As early as 1941, Fire Brigade authorities said the buildings – nicknamed ‘Cardboard Castle’ – presented “the greatest fire risk in the whole of the Dominion”.

Not surprisingly, the 180,000 square foot (16,-700 square metre) structure was quickly consumed by fire, the flammable structural materials and various stored items providing ample fuel. Small arms ammunition and Verey cartridges were among the materials that caught alight, resulting in multiple explosions. Reportedly, the glow from the inferno was seen around Wellington and by passengers on the Interisland ferry.

Saving the building and its contents was impossible in such circumstances.  Even heavy rain from 4.30am did little to dampen the flames, which continued to burn at 8am, but the combined efforts of the Fire Brigade, Fire Police, Police and Air Force personnel prevented the fire from spreading to neighbouring buildings and houses.

Mercifully, no lives were lost in the fire. Contemporary news coverage therefore turned its attention to the damage that had been caused – principally, the loss of the stored wool. Jointly owned by the New Zealand and British Governments, 26,978 bales had been stored in No. 4 Store, with an insurance value of £660,000, the equivalent of $28 million today. The Land Speed Record-breaking car ‘Thunderbolt’, still on site after featuring in the British Court of the Centennial Exhibition, also fell victim to the flames.

The RNZAF too faced notable losses. These included – ironically – two Fire Patrol Tiger Moths that were stored in the facility during the ‘off season’. Two Hawker Tomtit instructional airframes and a Howard DGA-15P cabin monoplane were also destroyed, as was most of the RNZAF’s reserve of DH Gipsy Queen III engines and spares, specifically for DH89 Dominie aircraft. A five-ton truck succumbed, as did stores of furniture and clothing. A consequence of the loss of the Gipsy Queen engines and spares was that one of the three Dominies retained by the RNZAF was fitted with civilian-model Gipsy Six engines for the rest of its career.

“We are going to have a fire”

Theories about the fire’s cause abounded. The prospect of spontaneous combustion was raised – wool can heat up and ignite when stored under certain conditions – but the bales had been checked regularly and there was no evidence that they were heating. Insurers were keen to determine whether negligence had been a factor.

Almost two years later, after a lengthy police investigation, seven former Air Force personnel were charged with arson relating to the Rongotai fire. Four pleaded guilty, while the remaining three were ultimately acquitted.

Of the original seven, six had been members of the fire patrol team at Rongotai at the time of the fire and included the crew’s Corporal in charge. Details of the case revealed that the fire crew members understood their positions would be disestablished as the station closed, and they were reluctant to lose jobs that had become what the Crown prosecutor described in the subsequent trial as “cushy”. To prevent this from happening, they conspired to start a fire that they would then extinguish, thus demonstrating their own indispensability. The deceit extended to the fire crew wearing pyjamas under their uniforms and rumpling their beds to give the illusion of having been roused in a hurry.

Clearly, the crew’s plan to emerge as heroes did not work out as they had intended; lives were placed at risk and an extensive amount of property damaged. The judge was suitably scathing: “one of the most deplorable features of the whole business is that of the seven of you concerned, not one had the moral courage to condemn what was afoot and to refuse to have anything to do with it, let alone to insist, as each could have done, that it be abandoned forthwith”.