A life of service
When The Orchards resident Bruce Powell saw the derelict state of the Glenfield war memorial, he was determined that the memorial should be a place of pride, where the local community could gather, to honour young soldiers lost in the First and Second World Wars.
Bruce Powell greets me at The Orchards reception with a warm handshake and a twinkling smile. At 102 years old he’s a picture of health. We chat as we make our way to the meeting room and spend the next hour poring over folders brimming with family history.
Born in Yorkshire, the armed services have formed a big part of Bruce’s life. At 18, a propaganda film inspired him to join the Coastal Defence Unit of the Territorial Army. His unit was mobilised in the 1938 Munich Crisis for two weeks, before it was stood down.
Following the outbreak of war, a year later, Bruce was posted to the Light Aid Detachment, servicing a cavalry regiment. He says, The first thing they asked was, ‘Can you drive a tank?’” He opted instead for a motorbike, assisting tanks that broke down on the journey from Colchester to Avonmouth, prior to being transported to France.
While serving in France things took a turn for the worse, and Bruce came down with a life-threatening bout of meningitis. His family were told that last rites were soon to be administered but, fortuitously, a newly developed antibiotic became available and was provided first to the armed forces – a policy that saved Bruce’s life. He was evacuated to England in the same hospital ship that sunk at Dunkirk shortly afterwards.
After a period of recuperation, it was off to the School of Mines and Technology in South Wales, to study radar technology – a science that Bruce says was very “hush hush” in those days. He met and married his wife Dorothy in 1942, before heading to North Africa, then Italy, with the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment. It was three and a half years before he saw Dorothy again.
Once the war ended, the newly reunited couple bought a bombed-out house in Acton, West London, with no inside toilet, hot water or electricity. “It was testament to Dorothy that she was able to bring up two children so well in those conditions.”
On his release from the armed forces, Bruce joined the Admiralty Engineering Laboratory, as part of a team developing weapon control systems for the Navy. Following his qualification as an electrical draughtsman, the family moved to Bath. However, six years later, they were ready for a change. A successful application to the Royal New Zealand Navy dockyard saw the family board the SS Southern Cross in search of new horizons and warmer climes. It was with some dismay they arrived in Wellington on the coldest and greyest of days, before finally making their way to sunny Auckland and a new home on the North Shore.
Living in a house opposite the primary school, with Shoal Bay at the bottom of the garden, was heaven for the children, although Dorothy was initially a bit homesick!”
After retiring as a Senior Planning Officer in 1980, Bruce felt the need to keep active and became a charter member of the Glenfield Toastmaster’s Club. He also joined the governance group of the Glenfield Community Centre, spending several years as Chairman.
It was his involvement with various community groups, including the Glenfield and Hillcrest Lions Clubs, which helped Bruce bring the right people together to take on two projects that were dear to his heart – the rebuilding of the Glenfield war memorial and the refurbishment of the local community hall, including the construction of a once-planned but long-forgotten Supper Room.
Bruce says it’s heartening to see up to 500 members of the community now gather at the memorial every ANZAC Day, when previously there were no local community events commemorating such an important date.
Next, Bruce set his sights on the rundown community hall and, together with Hillcrest Lions Club, was the driving force behind the complete refurbishment of the building. It even received national news coverage, on TV1’s Holmes programme, with the Governor-General attending the opening. “People are always pleasantly surprised to see an old building in such pristine condition,” he says proudly.
After Dorothy’s passing, Bruce saw the construction of The Orchards underway and moved into an independent living unit. He says, The move was a wise one, with security and community being important.”
Last year’s ANZAC Day in lockdown was tough for all New Zealanders, particularly retired servicepeople, but Bruce was pleased to be able to mark the day at The Orchards Metlifecare village. He stood with his grandson at the gate at dawn, as a lone bugler played in the distance. He hopes that this year they’ll be able to return to the ANZAC Day gatherings they enjoyed prior to 2020. Either way, one thing is for certain, Bruce will be keeping himself busy, finding ways to be of service to others.