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In Peace & War: A Civilian Soldier's Story

1 — Far-Off Beginnings

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Far-Off Beginnings

It is curious, but natural I expect, that we should want to trace our origins back to the distant past, leading sometimes to the discovery of most rewarding relationships and some which are more open to question. It is extraordinary to consider the make-up of the blood which flows through the veins of our family, including that from the Highland clans whose endurance and stubbornness ensured they never recognised defeat and who lived mainly on the rape and pillage of their fellow country men and women. Our family tree lists suspected pirates and border thieves, clerics and colonial governors and leads me to speculate about the makeup of a human being. Do we control ourselves or are our actions pre-determined by those who went before? Perhaps we could blame the latter for our misdemeanours and claim our righteous actions as our own.

The legendary tale of how our branch of the Donald family acquired the title ‘Lord of the Isles’ is fascinating. The story goes that, on the death of the previous ruler, there were two claimants, both with equal rights, so it was decided the two page 2 contenders should compete for the title by rowing from the mainland to the Isle of Skye; the first to put his hand on the Isle would inherit the title. Both were skilled oarsmen but our man could see that he was being beaten by a narrow margin so, quick as a flash, he whipped out his cutlass, struck off his hand and threw it ashore. He thus became ‘Lord of the Isles’, an entitlement which included most of the Western Isles of Scotland with the Isle of Skye as the heartland, and the County of Ross with adjacent land on the mainland.

The family coat of arms is surmounted by a mailed fist holding a red cross above a shield which is divided into four quarters. The top left quarter depicts a red lion rampant on a white background; below this is a galleon with oars and sails on a gold background. To its right is a fish on a green background and above this the mailed fist is repeated on a gold background. The scroll below is inscribed with the Latin ‘Pace Belloque’ which can be read as ‘Steadfast in Peace and War’, (and gave rise to the title of this book). A close study of our family tree reveals the same fate for many of my ancestors: “killed in battle”.

My great-great-grandfather — George Donald — went in the first year of his married life to fight as a captain at the Battle of Waterloo under the Duke of Wellington. I have his flintlock pistol made by H Knock of London with his name engraved on a silver plate on the butt. I also have a letter from the Duke written from the House of Lords to George Donald, after Waterloo, discussing agricultural matters. My great-grandfather — William Hodgson Donald — was a captain in the Wairarapa Cavalry and my grandfather — Donald Donald — fought in the Taranaki Wars, eventually attaining the rank of major.

Who is to say what the influence of ancestry was when, in 1937, some 18 months before the beginning of the Second World War, my younger brother Graeme and I decided to page 3 prepare ourselves to fight? We had come to the conclusion, a world away in the sleepy tranquility of rural Wairarapa, that war was inevitable. Perhaps there is such a thing as a military gene.

I have often been asked why I was so quick to join up to fight in a war on the other side of the world. There were certainly those ties back to Scotland and, more recently, England.

My great-great-grandfather, George Donald, was born at Aspatria near Solway Firth in north west England in 1786, one hour before his twin brother William. The twins were given Solway House and Blaithwaite House respectively by their uncle Mathewman Hodgson, a solicitor in the nearly town of Wigton. George Donald also inherited Harbour House in County Durham and his five children — William Hodgson the oldest — were born there; the family later moved to Solway House where George was to die.

W H Donald, my great-grandfather, qualified as a veterinarian at Edinburgh University and was Master of the Cumberland Hounds before setting sail for New Zealand at 27 years of age on the sailing ship George Fyfe which left London on June 23 1842, arriving in Wellington in October. He was accompanied by his wife, Hannah (née Little) of Cummersdale, Cummerdale and their seven month old daughter, Marianne. Five days later their son Ushant Fife was born prematurely but miraculously survived, only to be drowned at the age of 16 in the Waiohine River near Greytown.

It was one of those extraordinary co-incidences, which seem to happen quite regularly, that my younger brother Graeme, who left for the UK before the outbreak of war to take up a short service commission in the Royal Air Force, received most of his flying training at a north England aerodrome called Silloth, the name of a neighbouring small town. It transpired page 4 that he was landing and taking off from ancestral Donald farmland and the officers' mess was the same Solway House his great-great-grandfather had left to journey to New Zealand almost exactly 100 years before.

It has always puzzled me why my ancestors made the break from family ties to come to New Zealand, and it remains a tantalising mystery. When he left Solway House, his mother's home, William had been running the home farm and supervising five tenanted farms. He left behind his widowed mother and his sister Maria who married the same year and brought up her five children at Solway House. Brother John was practising as a lawyer in Carlisle while younger brother George went to sea and became a captain in the Mercantile Marine, eventually dying in China unmarried. Presumably, as a sailor, he was a non-practising bachelor.

My great grandfather and his wife brought with them to New Zealand a small flock of Romney sheep and some thoroughbred horses with a shepherd to look after them. On the journey out, William made friends with W B (Barney) Rhodes for whom, apparently, money was not a problem. Rhodes purchased land at Pencarrow and Okiwi on the coast towards the Wairarapa. He stocked both properties with cattle and installed William Donald as manager. Intent on purchasing his own land, William made several trips to the Wairarapa and eventually reached agreement with the local Maori tribe to farm an extensive holding at Manaia which included the later site of Masterton. Manaia Station, which encompassed some 30,000 acres, was bounded by the Waingawa, the Waipoua and Ruamahanga Rivers with the foothills of the Tararua Ranges as the western boundary. Later, more land was acquired across the Waingawa River on the Taratahi plains. The property was registered as a Rhodes and Donald partnership, but was later reduced in size to a square mile (640 acres) under William Donald's ownership. The local page 5 Maori welcomed William's presence and built his first homestead which was little more than a raupo whare. He moved his wife and five children up to Manaia in 1848. It was a far cry from the luxury of Solway House.

My grandfather, Donald Donald, the youngest of eight children, was born at Manaia in 1854, a year before his mother Hannah died. He later helped his father run Manaia Station before developing land and farming on his own account. But his true vocation was as an inventor. The stream of inventions included an early wool press, wire strainer and the world's first tubular door lock. A manufacturing unit outgrew a disused cow shed at the bottom of Lansdowne Hill in Masterton and became, in 1900, Donald and Sons Ltd. The venture prospered and orders were received from many parts of the world, particularly Australia, South Africa and South America.

My father, Vivian Donald, was born on July 17 1878 and married my mother Blanche Mills, daughter of the Hon Charles Mills, a member of Richard John Seddon's cabinet, in 1904. I, and my five siblings, grew up at ‘Rotopeko’ on Masterton's Lansdowne Hill, its 12 acres — with shrubberies of native trees, swimming pool, tennis court, and dam stocked with perch and eels — a children's paradise created from a scrub-covered hillside. Meanwhile, he built up the company, and was a notable big-game hunter in central Africa, as well as closer to home — he bagged the first legally shot wapiti in New Zealand.

I was born on March 20 1917, when much of the world was still enmeshed in the mud and blood of war. At secondary school, mainly at Nelson College, I enjoyed rifle shooting more than anything else. The school had a cadet unit and I achieved the rank of sergeant in 1932. Leaving school in 1934, at the height of the Depression, it was not possible to begin a planned law degree so I worked in the family business. I joined page 6 the Territorials in 1936 and was issued a rifle and uniform, which included a good pair of boots and access to a certain amount of ammunition.

Shooting was a particular passion and I spent every summer Saturday afternoon at the Masterton-Opaki Rifle Range, competing at the national championships for the first time in 1935. I loved duck shooting, hare drives and fishing, and my father taught me all he knew. A great many ducks and hares paid the ultimate price as I honed my sharp shooting skills.

In early 1939, my brother Graeme was accepted for a short service commission in the Royal Air Force and I applied to join the New Zealand Air Force.

At my first interview in Wellington, I was unsuccessful because my hearing was defective. I explained to the authorities that the previous day, on a hare drive, another shooter had let off a shot within three feet of my head and, as a result, my ears were still ringing. “Come back in six months’ time,” I was told but, in the meantime, I was offered a chance to sit for an infantry commission in the Territorials which I passed on August 25 1939, just before the start of the Second World War.

There was no sense of adventure in my mind when I joined up; there was certainly a dread and a loathing of war. But there was also a growing antipathy towards Hitler and his thugs. Who was this upstart who thought he could rule the world? Had I been living in Austria, he could have been born in the next street to me and, as a boy, I might have known him. To hell with him — he must be stopped. I did not want him with his goosestepping henchmen to rule roughshod over my family and my country. No, he must be stopped and Britain had set an example which we had to support. I was 22 years old and with my Territorial training and rifle practice I had done my best to prepare for war.