World War II tunnel excites historians

The discovery of a World War II bomb shelter in Eastern Mau has renewed interest on what else lies within the expansive Mau Forest. Historians and National Museums had no clue of its existence.

While locals estimate the tunnel is five kilometres long, the Nation was unable to access the entire length of the structure, akin to other bomb shelters built in World War II battle zones. If confirmed, this could be the first bomb shelter to come to historians’ attention better still, on the anniversary of the start of World War II.

“This is exciting to us. We shall send an expedition of scientists with different skills to the shelter and we shall have it preserved,” said Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia, the National Museums Director General.

“We have not had a bomb shelter in Kenya…”

Many white settlers stayed   around Mau Forest by 1940s – and it would not be surprising that they had built air-raid shelters just in case the bombs started dropping from the skies.

The Italians had started their bombings in Wajir before they were pushed back from Kenya, which was the base of two East African brigades of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) – the Northern Brigade and a Southern Brigade comprising a reconnaissance regiment, a light artillery battery and the 22nd Mountain Battery Royal Indian Artillery (RIA). More regiments had also arrived from South Africa as more bombings started in Taveta.

Prisoners of War

While locals say the tunnel was built by Italians, there is little likelihood they built it for themselves since by the time the Italians were brought to the Rift Valley basin, they were already Prisoners of War (POW). That was the time they built the old Mai Mahiu road and the little Italian church.

Mzee Joseph Chemaina recalls his father saying the structure was built by Italians who were brought in phases.

“My father told me that towards the completion of the construction, the British company that constructed the tunnel took the local Ogiek, who had settled at the edges of the forest, to finish the construction of the underground tunnel, the shelters and the concrete safes located inside towards the end of the tunnel,” he said.

There is also a likelihood that it was built by the Italian cooperators who enjoyed more freedom and could work on nearby farms and road projects while the non-cooperators were left in prison camps.

Locals say there was a loud explosion inside the tunnel in 1997, that left a 12-metre crater. They also claim that part of the tunnel was blocked after the explosion.

The Nation team toured the inside of the tunnel but we could not get to the end because of the blockade just after a deeper moat. Apart from bats resting on the round, smooth, stone surfaces, there is no other sign of life, and a little water was flowing on the ground.

The circular tunnel starts from a forest in Marioshoni – which Mr Chesaina says was initially known as ‘Marisione’- and heads straight to the hill top, where a circular turret provides an exit which those who entered the tunnel earlier say is mid-way.

“From there, the tunnel is made of very heavy steel and it leads to concrete bunkers and shelters fastened with steel doors. There are huge concrete safes next to each bunker, and all of them cannot be moved. The shelters are locked with blast and steel doors that have a lock with a round handle that looks like a steering wheel,” history enthusiast Alex Tanki, who had previously ventured inside told us. Another resident, Filax Sembui who explored the tunnel before the blast said that from there are diversions inside the tunnel’s tail end where the shelters are located, and that the main exit is located at in the middle of the shelters.

“When inside the tunnel, where the huge shelters are, you can see spiral steel staircases that ascend towards the earth surface. From this point, the surface of the earth looks farther because the exit is at the top of a hill. Using a Global Positioning System technology and map, the Nation noted that the second exit is located at exactly 4.87 kilometres from the entrance hidden next to a stream.

The exit, also made of a charred and haggard turret, has visible steel staircases with eight ladders. Mr Chemaina said initially, the steel ladders were ten, and that the top most two were removed by unknown people. Next to the exit is the huge hole created by the 1997 explosion.

It is now filled with water. Also located at the hill top are eight breathers purported to have been used as ventilation exhausts.

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