At your service 2

Categories: Wellington.

To commemorate ANZAC Day and mark our 30th issue, Capital chatted to three returned servicemen, who, by the age of 30, had already fought their biggest battles.

2 of 3: Captain Ian Stewart

Captain Ian Stewart is now 93, and he easily recalls his war service in Egypt, Italy and Japan during and immediately after World War II.

Captain Ian Stewart

He enrolled as a private soldier in 1940, aged just 17, was later commissioned a lieutenant in the field, and promoted to captain before being demobbed, although he continued to serve in the Territorials for several years after the end of the Second World War.

Back in New Zealand, he took an MA in economics and in 1949 was invited to join the Department of External Affairs under Alexander McIntosh.

He had a remarkable career as a diplomat and representative of New Zealand, serving as our ambassador in Brussels, Rome and Bangkok and at the United Nations, before ending up as the number two man in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He retired in 1983 and now lives quietly with his wife in Oriental Bay, but all the memories are still vivid.

“I joined the army in June 1940. I was only 17, but I told them I was 18, and no-one checked.” He was assigned to the artillery but requested a transfer to the infantry.

In January 1944, he and others were sent to Egypt, and quickly onto Italy to reinforce the New Zealand Division, which was taking heavy casualties in the battle of Monte Cassino, which raged on from January to May 1944.

“[ Cassino 1 was a hell of a place. We lived on cold bully beef and biscuits. It was only safe to move about at night. By day, one finger above the parapet got you a good spray from a Spandau machine gun.”

Later, working as spotters up in the mountains, his group was shelled by their own side. “We were suffering casualties from every salvo, but headquarters refused to believe us, until we took a nose cone of a shell from a 25-pounder back, and that convinced them.”

By early 1945 “whole regiments were throwing away their arms and surrendering.” The war in Italy ended in April that year.

In May 1945 he and other New Zealand troops were in the port city of Trieste, then under the partial control of the Yugoslav leader Josef Tito and his largely communist partisans.

“A whole brigade of New Zealand tanks was sent into the central square and trained their guns on Tito’s headquarters.” Tito’s forces withdrew, and according to the Italians, Trieste was saved for Italy.

Later in 1972, he was involved when the UK was negotiating to enter the common market. Italy stuck up for New Zealand and got this country a much better deal for continued access to butter, cheese and lamb exports than the French had wanted to offer.

Ian says the chief Italian negotiator told him later it was because of what New Zealand had done during the war to keep Trieste in Italian control.

He’s sceptical about learning from history and prefers not to offer advice to today’s 30-year-old. Both the certainties and uncertainties of his times, the rise of fascism, the Second World War, the Cold War, the clashes of communist and capitalist cultures, New Zealand’s shift in focus from the UK, then to Europe and onto the US, and now to Asia, Japan and China have taught him that flux is norma.

One memory he carries clearly is drafting the 1965 cabinet paper which recommended a modest and limited involvement by New Zealand’s armed forces in the Vietnam War.

Then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, although personally reluctant according to some accounts, headed a cabinet of war veterans, and New Zealand was under pressure from the United States to join Australia and Korea in committing troops.

There were also trade considerations – the US was imposing quotas on New Zealand beef and other exports. His carefully worded paper trod a fine line between the support requested and the commitment made – an artillery battery (and later infantry) was added to a team of engineers and medics already serving there. The military commitment was modest but important in diplomatic terms.

Ian retired from foreign affairs in 1983 aged 60 (the compulsory retirement age at the time) and was awarded a CMG, a high honour only a step below a knighthood.

He joined Frank Renouf’s investment company, with Bruce Judge and (the late) Mike Cashin as fellow directors. Frank Renouf was trying to build New Zealand’s biggest stockbroking firm and the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate.

Renouf failed, Ian says. The company went down in a blaze oflosses in the 1987 stock market crash, although a small remnant – Hellaby Holdings – is still operating.

Now Ian makes an annual trip to Paris to spend time with his sister and looks back on a life of immense interest in a world that has fundamentally changed from when he signed up as an underage soldier in 1940.