By ROBYN BRISTOW
Milestone . . . Philip Stewart in his garden he looks after in Amberley. PHOTO: ROBYN BRISTOW
Philip Stewart nearly didn’t make it to World War 2.
While training to be a pilot at Taieri, near Dunedin, and on his last flight with an instructor before going solo, his Tiger Moth had a mid-air collision with another aeroplane that approached the aerodrome from the wrong direction.
The pilot of the other aircraft, who was on his first solo flight, was killed.
“We lost part of our wing and spun down into a macrocarpa hedge.
“It saved our lives. I was completely unharmed, but my instructor took 18 months to recover.
“We would only have been 1000 feet off the ground and there was no time to do anything,” says Mr Stewart. This week, Mr Stewart, a former Spitfire pilot who flew many sorties during the war, had several scrapes with death, and who two years ago was awarded the medal of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration for civil or wartime service, celebrated his 100 birthday.
The now Amberley resident, joined with family from Canada, Florida in the United States, Italy and from throughout New Zealand, to celebrate the milestone at a local winery.
Mr Stewart, who “loved” flying, was born in Whanganui and educated at Collegiate College.
When the slump hit in the 1930s his father was bankrupted, which ended Mr Stewart’s education abruptly and his hopes of becoming a doctor as he failed to Matriculate.
He took up a Clerk’s position at Johnson and Co, a wine merchant, doing the books, earning 10s a week.
But it was not long before he decided to head to the South Island in search of a better job, which he gained as clerk at a car assembly plant.
The youngest of four sons, he enlisted, heading first to Levin, then on to Taieri. Even though the crash “held me back”, he was soon heading to Canada to fly Havards, having been chosen as a fighter pilot.
“I loved it. I was pleased to be a fighter pilot as I was only responsible for myself,” he says.
After six months in Canada it was off to Grangemouth in Scotland, where he began flying Spitfires.
“They were a different cup of tea. I was shown the controls and told to take off,” he says. His capabilities as a leader were quickly realised and rose up the ranks, commanding flights.
Once again he escaped death after being shot down while flying with the 129 Squadron.
“I tried to glide back to England because my engine was caput. It became obvious I wasn’t going to make it and had to bail out and use my parachute which had a rubber dinghy attached. By that time the aircraft was well alight,” says Mr Stewart.
Floating alone in the dead of night the Air Sea Rescue launch mistook him for the white crest of a wave. But the Harbour Master of Dover happened to be aboard and insisted the launch travel to the white patch, which turned out to be his chute.
“I would not have survived the night. The water was too cold and the sea was fairly rough,” he says.
Mr Stewart had another lucky escape while visiting Squadron 616 during a break. A four car pile up on the way home from the pub, after the front car drove straight ahead, confused by the moon shining through two trees, and crashed.
The following cars ploughed in behind resulting in one person being killed, two young women being severely injured and Mr Stewart spending five months in hospital with a broken femur.
He had become an Acting Squadron leader, but lost his rank to Flight Lieutentant as a result of the accident and the length of his recuperation.
The war ended for Mr Stewart after being called into Squadron No 1 to command a flight four days before D-Day. He flew with the squadron until VE Day (Victory in Europe) then returned to Christchurch.
He flatted with his brother, who was head of Pathology and Bacteriology at Christchurch Hospital and a Professor at the University, before marrying Barbara, a North Canterbury gal who came from a sheep station near Culverden, and had been in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at Wigram during the war.
While Mr Stewart wanted to be a farmer, he did not have the means, instead returning to England to take up a job offer at a wool company in Bradford, Yorkshire, part owned by a New Zealander.
He gained a bursary to help train in the industry, which required him to return to New Zealand and work in the occupation for four years. Their daughter Janet and son Christopher,
were both born in Yorkshire.
He returned to New Zealand starting up a wool broking business in Christchurch for another big company in Bradford, eventually buying them out.
But he was badly hit by the national strike that tied wool up on the wharves, and when the strike ended American clients refused to pay the same price, with wool having dropped
“dramatically” by that time, costing Mr Stewart a “lot of money”.
After several years Mr Stewart and his wife returned to England. He got back into the wool industry, but then decided to open a bookshop and picture gallery in Tunbridge Wells, and
soon after another book shop in Sussex, both of which proved very successful.
“We did that for the next 20 years with Barbara working with me most of the
time,” says Mr Stewart.
Retirement beckoned and the couple returned to New Zealand, buying a property at Okuku, where his wife bred coloured sheep.
They travelled a lot, returning to England on many occasions, but needed something to keep “our brains going” so joined Save the Children, running garden tours for many years and a golf tournament at the Waimakariri Golf Club for 14 years to raise funds for the organisation.
Mr Stewart became vice-president and then president of the North Canterbury branch and national vice-president.
“I retired in my 80s,” he says.
They moved to Bank Street, Amberley before going to Bishop Park in Christchurch, where they remained for six years, returning to Amberley when Mrs Stewart became ill and suffered
dementia, because there was a dementia home in Amberley and a “lot of friends”.
Mrs Stewart died seven years ago.
“We were married for 64 years and for a lot of that time we were together.”
Mr Stewart has stayed in Amberley, buying a town house, and to this day tends to his own garden and lawns. He loves playing bridge at the local club and recently had his drivers licence renewed until he is 102.
He has five grandchildren and six great grandchildren.