Some of New Zealand's oldest veterans at Cambridge RSA are still doing their bit

The Cambridge Town Hall lit up with memories of the Anzacs during 2016 commemorations.
Michael Jeans

The Cambridge Town Hall lit up with memories of the Anzacs during 2016 commemorations.

The guns of war are long gone for New Zealand's diminishing population of World War II veterans.

Instead their battle is now age and failing health. And at one Returned Services Association that is even more evident.

The Cambridge RSA boasts within their membership ranks 34 members over the age of 90 making it the largest number of any RSA in the country.

All are in differing states of health, but RSA secretary and welfare officer Nelson Goodley says they still play an important part when they can.

"Poppy day this year is the first time we will be without 92-year-old Robin Hawes and his wife Margaret out on the street collecting because of his failing health," he said.

"We gain strength from the resolve of Dennis Warner and Ray Moncur, both in their late nineties, assisted by family on parade."

As Anzac Day approaches, Mike Bain takes a look at some of those serving members' stories.

 

Sergeant Ray Moncur, 97, didn't want to go to war.
TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Sergeant Ray Moncur, 97, didn't want to go to war.

Sergeant Ray Moncur, 97, 47172, K Section-J Section, NZEF

​​Drafted, conscripted, didn't matter what you called it, Ray Moncur was in the army and didn't want to go to war.

He admits he wouldn't have voluntarily signed up for it.

Moncur recalls the best and worst of war from his rest home apartment in Cambridge.

Despite his 97 years, he remembers vividly his time advancing through the deserts of Africa pushing the German offensive back.

But there was a time he did wonder if he was even going to make it into battle.

Following basic training in Waiouru his platoon was shipped off to camp just out of Sydney.

Sergeant Ray Moncur's service medals.
TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Sergeant Ray Moncur's service medals.

"It was like they forgot about us because we were there for eight weeks - just waiting," he said.

Eventually deployment orders were received and Moncur was bound for North Africa, via Fremantle, Colombo, up the Suez Canal and finally arriving just before the battle for El Alamein at Maadi in Egypt.

It wasn't long before he was into the action being assigned to the 5th Battalion in Tripoli.

The Guard make their way to the cenotaph at Cambridge Anzac civic service in 2016.
EMMA JAMES/FAIRFAX MEDIA

The Guard make their way to the cenotaph at Cambridge Anzac civic service in 2016.

He recalls there were some good times during the war but talked about advancing through the desert, sleeping in the same holes occupied by German soldiers just nights before.

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The horrors of war he remembers: German fighter planes strafing convoys, and everyone running trying to find cover in a desert where there was none.

"We were sitting around the camp watching German bombers flying overhead with bomb bay doors open, knowing destruction was about to rain down on our unit, but breathing a sigh of relief as their payload also flew overhead," Moncur says.

It's getting harder and harder for Cambridge RSA members to get to Anzac Day services.
Viv Posselt/Fairfax NZ

It's getting harder and harder for Cambridge RSA members to get to Anzac Day services.

A similar failed bombing attempt occurred, this time the Germans interrupting Christmas dinner with three bombers.

Again they missed.

Moncur served as a signalman learning morse code in basic training, but in the end it was all for nothing as the army used the 'Fuller phone' with wires running underground to battalion headquarters.

Seaman Robin Hawes signed up as a cook for the Royal Navy.
TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Seaman Robin Hawes signed up as a cook for the Royal Navy.

Asked if he would recommend volunteering for war to his younger self the answer is still a no.

As the years weary him, he hasn't forgotten the sacrifice of the many who fell alongside of him and on Anzac Day will proudly wear his RSA Jacket adorned with his medals and join other former soldiers and remember them.



Able Seaman Charles George Robert (Robin) Hawes, 92, Royal Navy, Pacific 1944-48

The year was 1940, the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over Britain.

Able Seaman Charles Hawes saw a Messerschmitt Bf 109 like this come down near his home in Dorset.
Richard Paver/Supplied

Able Seaman Charles Hawes saw a Messerschmitt Bf 109 like this come down near his home in Dorset.

Standing in the backyard of the family home at Newton Grange, in the Swanage Village in Dorset, looking up and watching was Robin Hawes.

Hawes was a typical schoolboy, armed with government provided aeroplane identification charts for when a plane flew lowly overhead.

His father identified the plane as Hawker Hurricane but Hawes disagreed saying it was a German Messerschmitt ME109.

Signalman John Barnett, 85, always wanted to serve in the navy.
TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Signalman John Barnett, 85, always wanted to serve in the navy.

The plane crash-landed in a nearby field and Hawes recalls he and his father grabbing their bikes and racing to the scene.

As the uninjured pilot climbed out of the wreckage Hawes came face to face for the first and last time with the enemy of his nation.

But the war against Germany was not his to fight.

Four years later Hawes received notification for compulsory service in the forces.

Germany was all but defeated but there was still another war in the Pacific being fought.

Ineligible for combat duties because of colour blindness he signed up as a cook for the Royal Navy and started his training on HMS Victory.

Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill had ordered the British fleet to help finish the war in the Pacific against Japan.

In November 1944 Hawes left England and was Australia bound on the troopship Empress of Scotland.

Volunteering for sea duties he joined the crew of the battleship HMS King George V.

With the battle of Okinawa underway the role was to stop Japanese planes from refuelling in the Sakishima islands and escort British aircraft carriers to provide protection from the Kamikazi planes.

It was the heat, and not the Japanese, which would lay Hawes low.

He suffered from prickly heat and ulcers and was confined to sick bay.

At one point he shared the sick bay with allied POWs liberated from working on the railway of death.

With the surrender of Japan the King George V returned to Melbourne, Hawes transferred to the HMS Amethyst.

Hawes returned to Britain and settled in New Zealand in 1964 making Cambridge his home.



John Trevor Barnett, 85, NZ 11415, Signalman HMNZS, Rotoiti 1950-51, HMNZS Hawera 1952-53

Signalman John Barnett transferred to Devonport Naval Base, turning his hand to communications and learning morse code ...
FAIRFAX NZ

Signalman John Barnett transferred to Devonport Naval Base, turning his hand to communications and learning morse code and flag signals. Devonport Naval Base

Living and growing up on a King Country farm near Piopio, 15-year-old John Barnett was keen to join the navy.

But in 1947 he had no idea where his future would take him given hostilities had ceased, and the world was seemingly at peace.

The Navy intake of young cadets soon made Wellington Barnett's home and he trained as Seaman Boy second class on HMNZS Tamaki.

Signalman John Barnett served in the Royal New Zealand Navy in Korea from 1950 to 1953.
TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Signalman John Barnett served in the Royal New Zealand Navy in Korea from 1950 to 1953.

He later transferred to Devonport Naval Base, turning his hand to communications and learning morse code and flag signals.

"You really had to know your flags - it's not like you can refer to a book," he said.

Full scale war between North and South Korea broke out on June 25 1950 and New Zealand was called upon to provide military support.

John Barnett knew the Navy was for him.
FAIRFAX

John Barnett knew the Navy was for him.

As part of a multi-national force consisting of the United States, Australia, Holland, and France, Barnett was assigned to the Loch class frigate, HMNZS Rotoiti to be based at Sasebo Japan.

From there the frigate would patrol the Korean Coast in the sea of Japan and provide cover for the US Navy.

"We were alongside the big guns of the US navy, USS Missouri and USS Iowa as they bombarded the coastline of Korea."

Private Peter Downie, 74, served in Malaysia and Borneo.
TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Private Peter Downie, 74, served in Malaysia and Borneo.

Rivers along the coastlines came under scrutiny from the Rotoiti.

"During these forays up the rivers, the ship would be straddled with gunfire from the riverbanks, which was returned but we never suffered any damage," Barnett says.

"Being on the same deck as the bridge, I was aware we were the target point but lucky for us their shells flew overhead."

Barnett was a part of a landing party to pick up refugees.

"This is the only time I have ever been on Korean soil."

After a year on Rotoiti he transferred to HMNZS Hawea until the end of hostilities.

He still isn't sure why he quit the navy at that point as some of his original classmates went on to great careers in the navy.

Now 85-years-old Barnett still lives independently in his family home commuting daily to the Resthaven Rest Home in Cambridge to visit his wife Tui.

He will attend both the dawn and civic services in Cambridge.

Private Peter Downie wasn't going to let anyone tell him to join the war.
TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Private Peter Downie wasn't going to let anyone tell him to join the war.



Private Peter David Downie, 74, 474021, 1 RNZIR 5 Platoon-B Company, Malaya/ Borneo 1963-65

It was an advertisement wanting soldiers to serve in Malaysia that prompted a Cambridge 20-year-old Peter Downie to join the armed forces.

He thought he would at least "get a bit of a holiday out of it".

"It was as simple as that. I heard the Government were about to introduce a ballot system for Compulsory Military Training so I thought 'stuff it, no one will tell me I have to go into the army'," Downie says.

So he volunteered instead.

In 1963 the "Indonesian Malay" stemming from Indonesia's opposition to the creation of Malaysia was becoming violent.

An undeclared war was starting to escalate with a build-up of Indonesian troops in the border area between Indonesia and East Malaysia on the island of Borneo.

This prompted the United Kingdom to commit significant forces from the UK-based Army Strategic Command while Australia and New Zealand deployed a battalion sized combat forces.

To be a part of that multi national force Downie had to overcome the battle of gaining parental permission to join the army.

"Mum wasn't happy, but Dad was more than happy to sign the permission slip."

With basic training done, he served his three years in Malaysia - but his platoon never fired a shot in anger.

"Our first six weeks was spent patrolling the Thai border looking for communist terrorists attempting to sneak across the border, but we never encountered them."

The nearest the platoon came to being under fire was when a soldier fired shots over their heads while trying to shoot a stray dog.

Downie accepts his experience in Malaysia was pedestrian compared to others.

War was in the wind further around the coast in Vietnam and he debated extending his tour of duty.

"News had come through of who the battalion commander was going to be, and it wasn't any of the ones I served under and respected.

"You have to have confidence in those leading you, but I didn't have it in those leading the mission into Vietnam, so I didn't sign on."

Downie is a Life Member of the Cambridge RSA and enjoys living in Cambridge, being with his grandchildren and tinkering in his shed.

On Anzac Day Downie, the man who didn't want anyone to tell him to join the army, will call the shots as the parade marshall.

 - Stuff

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