Living 102 years no barrier to driving for war veteran
Age is no barrier for retired engineer Bruce Powell, who dares to drive at 102.
I was stood there with rifle and fixed bayonet and every rustle of the trees I thought the enemy were there.
The Auckland veteran turns 103 on May 26, the first day of the evacuation of Allied troops from the French seaport of Dunkirk, in 1940.
As he nears the milestone, Powell lives independently in a Glenfield retirement village on the North Shore where he does his own cooking, cleaning and laundry.
The sprightly centenarian regularly takes his Kia Picanto for a spin to visit his daughter in Beach Haven, the local shops and Takapuna.
“I’m great driving but navigating is a bit of a challenge in traffic, so I definitely wouldn’t go to town,” he said.
“I confine myself on the shore and feel very confident - I’ve no problems about driving.”
The old soldier survived serving six years in the British army and narrowly missed the World War 2 battle of Dunkirk in 1940 because he contracted meningitis.
Powell attributes his longevity to inheriting “reasonable genes” and keeping a positive mental attitude.
“You can either control your thoughts or your thoughts control you,” he said.
“If you like to be worried about every damn thing, you're not going to stay healthy but if you think bugger it and get on with it.
“I haven’t been a worrying kind. I think you've got to be involved, you’ve got to dare to dream, then have the determination to put your dreams into action and stay with it until you finish it.”
Powell put his philosophy into practice by building houses, boats, television sets and a spa pool from scratch after the war.
“I always felt like doing things or making something, so I think being involved in life and mixing with a lot of people [led to a long life],” he said.
Powell belonged to the 62nd Hull regiment in WWII, seeing action in France from 1939 to 1940.
Born in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, he served in the British Expeditionary Force in France and later in North Africa and Italy.
Powell said he was a “poor pupil” at school due to writing left-handed with a maimed hand.
“I was always in trouble for untidy work.”
You can either control your thoughts or your thoughts control you.
He bears a large lump on his wrist after falling off a building in his early teens.
“I came home and said it was hurting, the old man wrapped a bandage on it, gave me a kick up the bum and told me to behave myself in the future.”
The main bone had broken and stopped growing, so a new bone developed, causing the bump to emerge two years later.
By that time, the doctor advised he just had to live with the injury, Powell said. “But in all these years, I’ve never had arthritis.”
Left with a weaker wrist, he had to learn to inscribe with the right hand.
He also suffered from stigmatism, which was not picked up until he was 14. “So half the time I could never see the board.”
It was not until he joined the army and studied radar electronics that he started to believe he could achieve things, he said.
“I had the philosophy of saying, ‘anything one idiot can do I can do as well’.”
The veteran built his first house in Glenfield with daughter Susan Newman✓ after observing workers at building sites.
“At the end of the day, it’s a bit of 4 by 2; you cut it to a certain size, you keep repeating this, and you build a home.
“If you think of something, start it, because there’s magic in starting it. But if you want to know the answer at the end, you’ll never do anything.”
Powell’s career started as an electrical apprentice after leaving school, and at 18, he joined a coastal defence unit in the territorial army.
In July 1939, aged 21, he volunteered to join the regular army as an electrician.
Two months later New Zealand, alongside Britain and Australia, declared war on Germany, and he was posted to a light aid detachment servicing an armoured regiment.
We were right in there, but it isn’t the same as you standing there, the enemy’s there and there’s a guy taking potshots at you.
Powell spoke with optimism and self-deprecating wit when recalling his early military days.
“Immediately the war went, I was put on to guard the bridge going into Portsmouth,” he said.
“I was stood there with rifle and fixed bayonet and every rustle of the trees I thought the enemy were there.
“What was I going to do when I saw them, was I going to bayonet them or run away?” he quipped.
It transpired the enemy lurked further afield, sparing him from the decision during the four-hour vigil.
“I was cold and miserable and very happy when I was relieved.”
Powell used to charge around the French countryside on a motorbike following tanks to change their batteries and repair detached tracks.
“I had no knowledge of a tank or its electrics at all, so I had to learn with melee as we went along and made mistakes.
“I didn't even have a manual.”
The army was ill-prepared and soldiers’ portions were so awful that they dined out at cafés whenever they could, he said.
The unit’s rations comprised stewed bully beef, the tinned “meat and vegetable rations” Maconochie's stew, powdered egg, dried milk and tinned bacon, “which was vile”.
Powell said he lived with “the invisible terror” of not knowing if he was going to be in the wrong place when the bombs dropped.
“The enemy wanted to bomb the supply trucks and the supply dumps, so casualties in logistics were very high.”
Powell admits he never thought of himself as a hero.
“We used to follow on - we’d see burnt out vehicles, dead bodies, towns totally empty of any population after being bombed out.
“We were right in there, but it isn’t the same as you standing there, the enemy’s there and there’s a guy taking potshots at you.”
In May 1940, just before the German invasion through Holland and Belgian, Powell suddenly collapsed in a coma with a bout of meningitis.
He was treated with the first life-saving batch of the antibiotics M and B693 at Dieppe’s general hospital.
“I remember the ward sister coming to us. She said, ‘you're the luckiest blokes on earth. Without the antibiotics, you’d be dead’.”
He was evacuated to England to recover, soon after the Nazi break-through on May 10.
“I went back to Britain in good style in a bed with clean sheets and a few days later the guys were struggling on the beaches at Dunkirk, so I missed Dunkirk by a whisker.”
Powell said with a wry smile his two children only existed because of the disease, which led to him meeting late wife Dorothy.
He was posted to the Branston Ordnance Depot, Staffordshire, where he serviced electric internal transport vehicles and Dorothy worked as an inspector.
But he met the love of his life 3 km away at a dance in Burton’s town hall, one Saturday night.
“She was a very good dancer, she impressed me and I thought she was a bit of a good looker,” Powell said.
Knowing he was about to be deployed again, Powell did not waste time in proposing, popping the question from a Lancashire phone box.
“She hummed and hawed a bit, but eventually she said she’d marry me.”
They were wed a few days later on November 24, 1942, in Repton.
You never got thanked; they usually said, ‘about bloody time, get out of here,’ boom, boom!
But they might never have married if Powell’s intended transport ship, the SS Strathallan,✓ had had room for him aboard.
Bound for North Africa, the merchant vessel, carrying troops and equipment, was sunk off Cape Bonne during the invasion of North Africa.
Half of Powell’s regiment had been left behind because there were no ships to transport them and while waiting for another ship, he proposed.
The grandfather of four and great-grandfather of six said his parents doubted the whirlwind romance would last.
But they enjoyed 66 years of wedded bliss until Dorothy’s death.
After tying the knot, Powell did not see his new wife for nearly four years as he was posted to the workshop of a heavy anti-aircraft regiment bound for North Africa.
The radio mechanic covered ports and airfields to defend them from air raids.
Powell’s regiment was always moving, carrying radar equipment not designed to be mobile, he said.
“As you went over the rough roads of the desert the valves broke, the copper wire hardened and snapped.”
With air raids looming, Powell would dash to take the aerials down, replace valves and repair the circuitry.
“It was often with the unit shrieking at you, ‘when are you going to get it fixed?’
“You’re supposed to be the wizard; you have to repair this thing under the most trying conditions.
“You never got thanked; they usually said, ‘about bloody time, get out of here,’ boom, boom!” he laughed.
I had no knowledge of a tank or its electrics at all, so I had to learn with melee as we went along and made mistakes.
In 1955, the Powells, along with children Susan and Trevor, sailed to New Zealand, settling in Takapuna before Bruce built a home in Wairau Rd, Glenfield.
He was lured to Aotearoa by an advertisement for an electrical draftsman at Auckland naval base.
Powell said he took the job because he was fed up with English weather and felt deeply concerned Britain was developing its own atom bomb.
The family arrived in Wellington in October to brave a howling gale “and we wondered why the hell we came to this subtropical [place],” he said.
A long journey ensued on the night train to Auckland.
“We were picked up and transported on the car ferry across the beautiful harbour glistening in the sunshine, and we realised we’d done the right thing.”
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