The Mysterious Tunnels of the Southside Hills
Southside Hills, St. John's
During World War II St. Johns harbour became a stopover and supply location for convoy escort ships crossing the Atlantic to the war in Europe. These ships were in charge of protecting the convoys from enemy U-boats who were attempting to cut off supplies heading to England. In order to continue the arming of these ships, seven tunnels were dug into the Southside hills near the military supply wharves. Bullets, shells, depth charges, etc. were unloaded from supply ships and stored in carved out rooms in the tunnels. The weapons were then reloaded onto escort the ships.
The location of the tunnels were perfect for the storage of high explosives because of the thick, dense rock they were dug in and as well as the camouflage they provided from enemy aircraft or ships that dared enter the harbour.
The lengths of the tunnels range from tens of feet up to almost 400 feet. The roofs are reported to be 10 feet high and inside the tunnels, many rooms were carved into the rock to provide protection for different types of ammunition. At the time large double locked iron doors, several inches thick protected them from being entered by wrongful personnel. Oak and metal tracks were laid throughout the tunnels so that large, rubber-wheeled carts could transport heavy ammunition in and out. The tunnels were also equipped with large air conditioning units that ensured the explosives remained dry. (Daily News, 1962)
Going in the direction of West to East, the first three tunnels and tunnels number 5 and 7 were used as magazines for the storage of ammunition. The fourth only entered into the hills a short distance and was used for the storage of detonators. Tunnel number 6 was recorded to house fireworks. (Naval Service Map, The Rooms Archives)
After the war, the tunnels were under the control of the Dept. of Public Works of the Federal Government. Shortly after the Board of Liquor Control leased four of these tunnels for the storage of rum. Federal laws at the time (I am unsure if they are different now) required over strength, fresh rum to be aged a certain amount of time before being cleared by customs to release for distillation. Several tunnels were later rented out to construction companies to once again protect explosives.
In 1962 when the local newspaper, The Daily News wrote an article on the tunnels, they described the tunnels as being dark and damp, similar to the mines on Bell Island. Today you can see the blocked passageways of the tunnels as you drive along the Southside Road heading towards Fort Amherst.
Information on these tunnels is scarce. Most of the information came from an article entitled "Wartime Ammunition Storage Tunnels Now Housing Explosives And Rum For Ageing" published by The Daily News on Friday, October 19, 1962. This article can be found at The Centre for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies at MUN. Some information also came from Bill Rompkey's (editor) book; St. John's and the Battle of the Atlantic. A simple map of the tunnels can also be found at The Rooms Archives.
Sources & Further Exploring
Daily News (1962, October 19). Wartime Ammunition Storage Tunnels Now Housing Explosives And Rum For Ageing. The Daily News: St. John's. Found through the Center for Newfoundland Studies at Page 20 - The Daily News - Memorial University DAI (mun.ca).
Fitzgerald, J. (2010). Battlefront Newfoundland: Britain's oldest colony at war, 1939-1945. St. John's, NL: Creative Book Pub.