Dan’s Story

Dan Hennebry was born in London. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939 he went to Dublin with his mother and his younger sister June for four or five months, staying with his mother’s sister Lily. Aunt Lily lived on the North Circular Road, adjacent to Phoenix Park, the largest city park in Europe.

The park was common land and once a week stock were brought from the park, along the North Circular Road, past Aunt Lily’s house, on their way to the stock market which still operated within the city.

Like all Irish women, Aunt Lily’s doorstep was a matter of pride and she kept it scrubbed and whitewashed. After the cattle and sheep had passed the work had to be done all over again. There were cattle and sheep droppings all over the road and on people’s doorsteps where the doors opened straight onto the street.

Dan and his mother returned to London to find that there were no schools open and that children had been evacuated to country areas where they would be safe from the expected bombing raids. The danger was real — a week after their return the Irish ferry was sunk by a mine en route from Dublin to Holyhead.

The war split up the family. Dan’s brother Jimmy enlisted in the Army in 1939 and Dan didn’t see him again until 1944 when he was wounded at Casino. His sister Eileen worked for the United States Army as a stenographer from 1942.

June and Dan were evacuated to Abbott’s Langley with the other children of his school, each carrying a gas mask in a cardboard box. The children had numbers on their lapels but no names as a security measure — though how this contributed to national security was a mystery, the logic of which was understood only by civil servants. Their families had no idea where they were.

June was crying and miserable and Dan told her, "It’s no good crying, June. We’ve got to be tough."

Dan hated it at Abbott’s Langley. The country people were welcoming at first, but the novelty wore off. Most of the local people had had a gutsful of London children and the feeling was mutual. The children were made to pick potatoes, which was hard unpleasant work, and to collect eggs for the Ovaltine factory at King’s Langley. Ovaltine is a milk drink similar to Milo or Bourn Vita.

The children were returned to London for a short while, when it was thought that the danger of air raids had been overstated, and Dan was taken in by a convent, part of Roman Catholic school which he had attended before they went to Dublin.

Then the attacks on London began in earnest and the children were evacuated again. This time they went to Amersham, where Dan was billeted with Mr and Mrs Nigel Porter, a retired police inspector and his wife, who came from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. At first June was close by but the people she was boarding with moved and she was sent to live with another family at Chesham Bois.

The Porters had an acre of garden in which they grew grew fruit — blackberries, gooseberries, black currants — all of which went to other people. Dan was given his own little plot in which he grew vegetables.

"He taught me the love of growing things, I guess," Dan says. "The Porters were marvellous people and I was very happy with them. I can’t quite remember how long I stayed with them — a couple of years I suppose — then I returned to London."

"We went to school in a big church hall next to the local Church of England. Part of our education was how to put out incendiary bombs, using a stirrup pump and a bucket of water."

Then the Germans put explosive devices in the incendiary bombs so that would not only burn but blow up, which meant that other methods had to be used.

"I had a fetish for picking up bits of shrapnel — no matter how hot — from the anti-aircraft shells fired at German bombers. The pride of our collections were the nose cones from the shells."

"We rode all over London on our bikes wearing steel helmets. I got blown off my bike once by an exploding buzz-bomb (German cruise missiles). We used to watch fighter planes shooting them down, or getting their wing-tips under the buzz-bomb wing-tips and flipping them over."

"We never went into the Underground — though thousands did, to sleep in bunks three or four high. Instead, we went into big concrete shelters on the surface whenever the air-raid siren went."

"Most of the time in London, I had to look after June — she was always arguing!"

Thanks to the generosity of a family friend, Dan was able to go to Maiden Erleigh, a private school near Reading. He spent three terms in the school cadet corps, which he very much enjoyed as well as gaining some proficiency at shooting.

In mid-1945, after less than a year at Maiden Erleigh, a third of the boys were sent to Down House, Brickwall, Northiam, East Sussex. They stayed there until May, 1947, when Dan went straight into the Royal Air Force to do his compulsory two years’ national service.

Dan spent a few months "square-bashing" (marching drill) at Bridgenorth, in Shropshire, then went on to more advanced training at Melksham, in Wiltshire, and finally to their embarkation camp at Warrington in Lancashire.

They were posted to Kamalo, near Bullawayo, in Kenya, but Dan caught pneumonia while he was on embarkation leave and he had to stay in cold, damp England to recuperate. Logic would suggest he would have recuperated a lot quicker in the hot, dry climate of Kenya, but the military mind doesn’t work like that.

When he recovered, Dan was sent to Suez in Egypt. He was part of a Marine Craft Air-Sea Rescue Unit stationed at Fanara on the Great Bitter Lake, half way between Ismailia and Suez on the Suez Canal. The base was also used by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) flying boats en route to India, as an alternative to alighting on the Nile at Cairo.

Dan had been trained as an electrician/instrument serviceman. In the course of his work, he had trips to Haifa (now in Israel), Valetta (Malta) and Cyprus by either by Sunderland flying boat or by Air-Sea Rescue launch. Dan’s unit also used the fast 12m launches for towing drogues (targets) for Typhoon fighter-bombers to shoot at.

Because of the Berlin Air Lift, when thousands of tonnes of supplies were flown into a Berlin blockaded by the Russians, Dan’s national service was extended for six months.

When he was finally discharged, he joined a farm cadet scheme organised by Brickwall School and went to a farm belonging to a Mr Collinson near Newhaven in Sussex.

The Friisian stud was kept outside and milked three times a day in a herring-bone shed. The shorthorn stud was housed indoors in the winter time and milked using portable milkers. There were more than 1600 acres (850ha) of arable land planted mostly in wheat and oats, which was used as stock feed.

The four cadets were given three months’ experience on each type of farm work — milking, fencing, ploughing, shearing, general farm work and in the workshop, where there was always some machinery being overhauled.

Dan was next at Nortonfarm, also owned by Mr Collinson. He describes this as a "plum job" which involved driving the boss to market.

"Mr Collinson was a very astute stockman. He taught me to guesstimate the weight of a beast by eye, my assessment being substantiated later on the scales. In those days all meat was sold through the Ministry of Agriculture."

After 18 months at Nortonfarm, Dan became disillusioned with Britain. Jobs were hard to get — while East Africans and West Indians were coming into the country and taking the work at lower wages.

He applied at Canada House to emigrate to Canada and, after looking at his CV, they told him that there was a probable job with Canadian National Railways but there was no guarantee and, in any case, it would be six months before he could go.

He visited his old school, Brickwall at Northiam, and met Tom Laver who was still at the school. Tom’s father, Mr C C Laver, who was farming in New Zealand, agreed to sponsor Dan as an immigrant. Mr Laver had three farms, Surreydale, Makairo and Maraetotara. Dan was to have to waited six weeks, but three days later he got a telegram from New Zealand House offering him a passage on the Captain Cook, which was leaving Glasgow for New Zealand in five days’ time.

Dan arrived in Wellington in May, 1952, and travelled by bus to Pahiatua where he met Mr Laver. He remembers the sign "Beware of the Wind" on the Rimutaka Hill Road. He worked briefly at Surreydale, then at Maraetotara and, for about six months, at Makairo.

Mr Laver sold Makairo in 1953, leaving Dan without a job, but he still had to finish his bond, by which he had agreed to work for two years for his guarantor in return for his free passage to New Zealand.

Eric Gregorie went to see Dan at Surreydale and offered him a job. Dan worked at Gorge End for about a year and then, when Eric went to live in Masterton later that year, he got a job with Mr Dransfield at Makuri, where he lived until he joined David Gregorie on his "Forest Nursery" in Pahiatua.