At Christmas, the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) has always celebrated, even in the darkest of times and far away from home in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is a small selection of Christmas stories, selected from our archives. They reflect the different experiences of men and women serving their country at Christmas time. Sometimes funny, occasionally sad, they all reflect how important this time of year is to service people and their families, both at home and abroad.
Party Time for families
For families of RNZAF personnel, Christmas is also special. At Wigram, the first party for children of officers and men at the Station was held on 17 December 1938, as the Unit History records:
‘Children’s Christmas party held for the first time in barracks. All married officers and airmen’s children attended with their parents. After games and tea, during which time “Father Christmas” (impersonated by the Commanding Officer) spoke to the children by means of wireless telephone from the Oxford aircraft in which he had taken off from the aerodrome. The children were taken over to the flying field in lorries and the aircraft with Father Christmas and his pilot landed – after the reception the whole party returned to the barracks where all the children received presents from the Christmas tree.’
In keeping with military tradition, Christmas Day meals for No. 1 Fighter Maintenance Unit (14 Squadron) at Espiritu Santos were served to airmen by the officers. After ‘pistols, parachute flares and rifle fire going all night’ on Christmas Eve and receiving news of his uncle’s death, LAC Gordon Fenwick described in his diary a more cheerful Christmas Day:
‘On early morning duty crew. Had swim sports at Turtle Bay in afternoon. A good menu today. Breakfast – bacon and egg. Lunch – tomatoes, lettuce and tongue. Dinner – turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, peas, pudding and fruit salad. Also four bottles of beer. Boy, what a shock to the system – the best meal yet and served by the officers and the two nurses who arrived here yesterday.’
Behind the wire
For those New Zealanders taken prisoner, Christmas could be an especially lonely and difficult time. Cut off from friends and family and often suffering great physical and personal hardships, there might appear to be little to celebrate. Often surviving on Red Cross parcels, food was scarce. Flight Sergeant Bill Allen had been shot down 10 June 1944 and was the only survivor of his Lancaster bomber crew and found himself a prisoner in Stalag Luft 7 for Christmas 1944. Times were very hard as he wrote in his diary about Christmas Day:
‘Well Christmas has been and gone and it was as grim as I expected it to be. The situation reached its worst when we ran out of parcels and had to exist on German rations; we had fifteen cigarettes to last us two weeks. My greatest disappointment was in not receiving a letter in time for Christmas, in fact up to now I have not received any mail’.
To make matters worse, one particular tragedy also marred Christmas in the camp:
‘An unhappy incident occurred the day after Boxing Day during an air raid. Whilst a raid is in progress anywhere in the vicinity of the camp, everyone is compelled to stay in barracks but on e Canadian absentmindedly wandered outside the door and a guard shot him. He died twenty minutes later’.
For one group of New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) members assigned to duty in London in 1948, a particular Christmas problem arose. Lois Cole related the difficulty for the flatmates in a letter to her parents on Christmas Eve:
‘Lillian is very worried about the Christmas dinner. It is her week on cooking and she has no idea how to cook a turkey. Of course, I am not any the wiser but between us all it should be eatable. Lillian’s Auntie nearly had a fit when Lil told her that we had a turkey and that none of us had any idea how to cook it.'
Despite this, the Turkey proved to be a great success, despite a last-minute hitch:
'The turkey was delicious. Lil and I had a lot of fun stuffing it and sewing him up. Then we found that it was too large for the baking tin that we had. But it was too late to get another so a wee dish was put under the tray to catch the fat as the tail was well over the end. Lil had rather a job basting it but she made a really good job of the dinner and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it. She had roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips, boiled cabbage and green peas (out of a tin). And of course, your plum pudding, plus custard and tinned cream. The other girls did not get their Xmas parcels so it was a good thing that you had put the Xmas pudding in my parcel.'
Christmas dinner menu for No. 2 (GR) Squadron RNZAF, 1942. From the collection of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.