The Cambridge Patriotic Committee

Legislation in October 1939 saw to it that the already existing Centennial Committee became the Cambridge Patriotic Committee, which was created to “assist men from the district who have joined the Colours.”

Such committees were coming into being all over the country, and their main intention of these bodies was to continue a link between the serving soldiers, sailors and airmen with those people back home who loved and missed them.

Patriotic Committees were responsible for arranging the sending of parcels to the boys overseas, which usually contained letters from home and foodstuffs such as cakes, honey and New Zealand tinned food, as well as clothing items, perhaps magazines or newspapers, and other comforts.

In Cambridge, as in other districts, the committee kept an eye on all those men and women who'd gone away to train, and would arrange for farewell dances to be held and/or presentations to be made to them when they returned home on their final leave before departing for foreign shores.

On the 16th of November 1939 the Cambridge Patriotic Committee published a list of known servicemen who were ‘in camp', i.e. they were already serving away from Cambridge in an armed force, whether it be already operationally or in a training capacity. The committee asked for other names to be added if they'd been missed, and from that time onwards the committee kept in touch with the servicemen and women on the list to ensure that they knew home was still thinking of them, and was proud of them.


To the list of Cambridge members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force who have completed their training in the Dominion are added the names of Pilot Officer Athol McKinnon and Sergeant Gunner M. Fell.

These two airmen were honoured by the Cambridge Patriotic Committee at a luncheon in the Town Hall yesterday morning, when they were presented with engraved wallets. The Mayor, Mr Edgar James, who is the chairman of the committee, said that Cambridge was proud of its young men who had enlisted to serve the Empire in the Air Force.

It was known that these two men had not been prompted to enlist by the thought of excitement and adventure, but with the desire to join their fellow airmen in clearing Nazi raiders from the shores of Britain for all time. Britain had gone through a bad time, added Mr James. However, the Royal Air Force was now in the ascendancy and ultimate victory was assured.

The Cambridge contingent to join that force was a hundred per cent efficient, he contended. Mr James wished the guests of honour luck in the future, and assured them that they would always have the thoughts of the people of Cambridge with them.

On behalf of the Returned Soldiers' Association, the president, Mr R. Newcombe, said it was a privilege to join in honouring these men. When one knew of the exploits of the Air Force in the last war, then the part it was playing in this conflict could be realised. The older generation would not only cheer the men on, but would do its best to keep the flag flying at home, added Mr Newcombe. He wished them good luck and asked that they would join the RSA on their return.

The Mayoress, Mrs James, presented the wallets to Pilot Officer McKinnon and Sergeant Gunner Fell, who briefly returned thanks and spoke in a similar strain when they said that they would do their duty to the best of their ability. The gathering concluded with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”.


Cambridge Patriotic Committee Farewell Dances

When the young men and women of Cambridge had completed their initial training in New Zealand, and were about to be posted overseas for further training or active service, they would be given Final Leave. During these precious few days, most would return home to spend a little time with their families and friends.

During this time the Cambridge Patriotic Committee, like patriotic committees in towns and cities all over the country, would hold special farewell dances for the departing troops. Often several locals would be honoured at at a time as they were all going away on the same draft.

These dances would almost always take place in the Cambridge Town Hall, and they usually followed the set pattern where the guests of honour, the troops being farewelled, would enter the hall through a Guard of Honour, formed by the men of the Cambridge Returned Soldiers Association (RSA).

There would be a speech by the Cambridge Mayor, Mr Edgar James, or in his rare absence, the Deputy Mayor. Mr James was the president of the Cambridge Patriotic Committee so filled a dual role.

The President of the Cambridge RSA, Mr Dick Newcombe, would make a further speech. The committee members would then make a special presentation to each guest of honour of a patriotic leather wallet.

For some of the men who were from rural areas of the Cambridge district, occasionally a function would also take place in the rural community instead, or in addition to the central Cambridge function. So smaller dances were known to be held to farewell men from Roto-o-Rangi hall, Monavale Hall, Karapiro Hall, etc.

These farewells must have been rather emotional occasions for the families of departing soldiers, sailors and airmen, but also assisted in reinforcing the fact that the townsfolk were firmly behind their cause. Interestingly some of the airmen I have spoken with said they found these farewells all rather embarrassing.

The patriotism of the town also continued when the lucky troops returned to New Zealand, where the Cambridge Patriotic Committee would hold similar Welcome Home Dances. These must have been much more joyous occasions than the farewells had been for many people.

The following report on one such farewell by the Patriotic Committee appeared in the Waikato Independent newspaper on the 4th of October 1940. It is a nice example of the atmosphere of these occasions. I chose this article in particular as a tribute because both airmen who were farewelled, Athol McKinnon and Martin Fell, gave their lives for New Zealand and never returned.

Following this, I have republished another similar article from the same newspaper, this time from the 24th of January 1941, and again the guests of honour were never to return home. In fact the words in this article seem sadly prophetic.

Presentation of Wallets

The presentation of engraved wallets to two Cambridge members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Aircraftsman Martin Byrne and Aircraftsman William Suckling, was made at an afternoon function organised by the Cambridge Patriotic Committee yesterday. Relatives and friends of the guests of honour were present as well as members of the committee.

"This gathering is held in an endeavour to convey to you the love and appreciation of the people of the Cambridge district for the sacrifice you are making on our behalf," said the Mayor, Mr Edgar James, who is chairman of the Patriotic Committee.

Any sadness of the occasion was overshadowed by feelings of admiration, he added. It was known that Aircraftsmen Byrne and Suckling were joining an important arm of service. All eyes were on the Air Force, which stood between us and Hitler, and would bring ultimate victory.

A war could not be fought without casualties, continued the Mayor, but he wished the guests of honour every safety. Mr James referred to the sacrifices being made by the parents, and he regretted that Mr J. Byrne was indisposed and unable to attend the gathering. He congratulated Mr and Mrs Byrne and Mr Suckling on the service that their sons were undertaking.

There would be difficulties on the way that lay ahead, but it was a long road that had no turning, said Mr R. Newcombe, president of the Returned Soldiers' Association. He wished the boys every success and hoped it would not be long before they were welcomed home.

The wallets were presented by the Mayoress, Mrs James, and in returning thanks Aircraftsman Suckling said it was not the size of the gift but the sentiment behind it that was so much appreciated. He felt sure that they would upheld the trust placed in them by the people of Cambridge. They had in mind a good deal of pleasure as well as training.

Musical honours were accorded Aircraftsmen Suckling and Byrne, and afternoon tea was provided by the lady members of the Patriotic Committee concluded the gathering.

As well as the public ceremonies like those detailed above, private farewells were often held too. The staff of Messrs. Wilkinson and Co., a local garage, had many of its staff leave its employment for the Armed Forces, most of whom sadly never returned.

In the Waikato Independent newspaper on the same day as the report above, a ceremony was detailed for the farewell of Mr W. Telfer, the accountant at Wilkinson's. He was joining the 4th Reinforcements at Trentham Army Camp, and was the sixth member of their staff to voluntarily enlist in the NZ military. Others already departed from the garage were Frank Edwards, Ray Jeans, Arthur Clayton and W. Herring, who were all in the RNZAF. Mr Arnold Wilkinson presented Mr Telfer with a wristwatch on behalf of the company.

Below: A wallet with its card that was presented to Michael Dillon, a Cambridge airmen who, like those mentioned above, did not return. Mick Dillon was killed on an air operation over France in 1944. (Photo kindly supplied by Eris Parker of Cambridge Museum).


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