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War to Shore: Former WWII fighter pilot soars past centenary

Flagstaff Team

Drawn to the Shore… David Barnston at home in Milford, where he has lived since 1962

Milford resident who just turned 100 can look back on an incident-packed early life that included surviving bombings during the London Blitz, and taking on the Japanese as a fighter pilot towards the end of World War II. Happily, David Barnston can also reflect on a long career as a civilian pilot, a happy marriage and raising a family on the North Shore after his arrival in New Zealand in 1948.Barnston’s early years were spent in north-west London but as a teenager when the war started in 1939 he was evacuated to Cornwall and billeted with locals. When his older brother Jack was killed in battle, Barnston was brought back to London by his parents, under the illusion he would be safe as the war hadn’t yet hit British soil. “In the beginning of 1940 nothing was happening, so they thought we’d be together in London.” But soon after his return to London, the Blitz started. A bomb struck near the family flat in Marylebone, leaving it badly damaged and killing 30 people. After the repaired flat was bombed a second time, the family relocated to St Johns Wood, where the Royal Air Force happened to be running a recruiting centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground. Already a fan of planes from watching aircraft displays at Hendon Aerodrome as a child, Barnston signed up and became a RAF trainee at 17. In 1942, he was sent to complete his pilot’s training in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), later being deployed to Bangalore, India, to join 123 Squadron, which was converting from Hurricanes to American-made P47 Thunderbolts. The squadron was deployed to Nazir, Northern Burma (now Myanmar), to provide air support to the British ground forces fighting the Japanese. “We didn’t have the opposition they had in Europe, but we were well aware that with a single-engined aircraft if you did have an engine failure you’d end up with the Japanese – and they didn’t treat pilots well.”He recalls the successful campaign when his squadron bombed the walls of Fort Dufferin in the city of Mandalay, creating a breach that allowed the British Army to take the fort and help drive the Japanese forces out of Burma. “I felt that was a more successful outcome than some of our other operations.” A month after the war ended, the squadron was sent to Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) during the Indonesian War of Independence. Its aircraft protected safe roads, which were being used by Dutch settlers fleeing the country, from rebel attacks. After three and a half years overseas, 22-year-old Barnston was transferred back to the United Kingdom, where he ran mock air attacks in Wales and northern England, training soldiers for combat. He soon met Dorothy Holman, who would later become his wife. The pair became unofficially engaged in the UK but held off marrying, as Dorothy and her family were soon to leave for New Zealand. As luck would have it, Barnston would soon have the perfect opportunity to join her there.

War service… Barnston in his RAF uniform and talking to a fellow fighter pilot

He had begun civilian life working for the Powers-Samas accounting machine company in the UK and, when a representative of the firm in New Zealand was taken ill, was asked to set up a branch in Auckland. “[The overseas manager] said our man in Wellington has just been rushed to hospital with a goitre, how soon could you go to New Zealand? I said ‘tomorrow’.” Barnston arrived in New Zealand about a year after Dorothy and the pair married in 1950 – a partnership that lasted until her death in 2018.The year they married, Barnston joined the RNZAF Territorial Air Force, and the next year was taken on by NAC (the National Airways Corporation) as a co-pilot, then pilot. The couple built a house on Wairau Rd in 1950, with the help of Dorothy’s father, a retired builder, and a book called The Australian Carpenter. “I sort of had the book in one hand and the hammer in the other,” says Barnston.He eventually added four flats to the property, which stood until three years ago. In 1962, the family moved to a new subdivision in Milford, beside Lake Pupuke. “I could see that it would be a great place to bring up kids. It turned out to be as good a place as any.” The family later moved closer to the sea in Milford, to a home he remains in today.In 1964, Barnston helped establish the North Shore Squash Club in Shea Tce after receiving a challenge to a match from pilots living in Henderson, where he and his team got “cleaned up”. Barnston’s flying career continued until 1979, including a year flying internationally to the Pacific Islands after NAC merged with Air New Zealand in 1978. He continued as a flight-safety adviser until his retirement in 1982.

On the wing… Barnston climbing aboard an RAF P47 Thunderbolt

In retirement, he was active in the Lions Club and travelled back to Europe regularly with Dorothy. Barnston said he often gets asked the secret to a long life and his response is always “clean living, pure thoughts and telling lies”. He turned 100 on 24 March, celebrating with a party attended by his three sons, nine grandchildren, other family and friends.

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