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Graeme Hutcheson is the country’s last remaining gunner from World War 2 and fought in the Battle of El Alamein. He spoke to Bridget Rutherford
It was another hot day in the Egyptian desert as Graeme ‘Hutch’ Hutcheson’s artillery team prepared for another crack at the Germans.
But Hutch needed to go to the loo.
“When you did go, boy you had to go in a hurry,” the now 98-year-old Merivale resident recalls.
He went 100 yards away.
“I did the job in a hurry, and then along came a Jerry [German] plane and he was dive-bombing everything.
“I started to run. It’s the hardest job in the world to run fast with your shorts around your ankles. I was bounding, going like hell, and my team was cheering me on – they weren’t worried about the Jerry plane, they were saying: ‘Come on Hutch, go for it’.”
To this day, Mr Hutcheson reckons he holds the world record for running the fastest 100-yard dash through the desert with his shorts around his ankles.
But it’s not the only record he holds.
“I have the very dubious honour of being the very last and only New Zealand field gunner of World War 2 still alive. Most of my buddies are well dead, but I’m hanging on.”
Mr Hutcheson has been thinking about the war a lot recently. This week marks the 75th anniversary of the second Battle of El Alamein, a battle that raged from October 23 to November 4, 1942, and changed the course of the war.
He was part of the massive Allied night-time barrage on the German and Italian positions near the Egyptian town of El Alamein on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
The Germans were pushing towards Cairo, a victory that would have secured them the oil fields that lay further east.
From 9pm the sky was alight with shells and fires brightened the night sky in the distance.
“You could literally read by the bomb blasts,” he said.
“We were like that for two or three days and then we gradually started moving up the coast, barraging ahead of the infantry all the way.”
Mr Hutcheson served in 47 Battery, 5th field regiment, in the Western Desert campaign, before heading to Italy.
The continual worry was the threat of a “premature,” where the shell exploded in the gun before it left the barrel, he said.
“I had a premature in my gun once in Egypt – very, very scary indeed. It picked me up and blew me across the gun pit about six or eight feet.”
But he was lucky. His only war injury was a scar on his arm where a piece of shell had carved its way through his flesh to the bone.
The reality of the carnage caused by the barrage at El Alamein became evident in the days after the attack.
“I went over the battlefields two days after they (enemy) had gone and I can tell you what, the dead were everywhere. It was a distressing sight.”
After the Italian campaign, Mr Hutcheson was sent to Britain to set up a camp for Allied prisoners of war. Many were in a bad way.
One walked with a hunch.
“He took his shirt off and he’d been thrashed by the Germans with bike chains, and his back was an absolute mess. In fact, he came home and committed suicide after being home for about a month. He just couldn’t stand the pain of it all.”
In Britain, Mr Hutcheson met his “sweetheart” Marjorie who was from Manchester.
He asked her out to dinner, and 10 days later, he proposed.
“I thought to myself this is a lovely young lady, I’m not going to let her get away.”
They had two daughters, Pamela and Yvonne, and later, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mr Hutcheson fell into an unexpected career path when he returned to Wellington, before later moving to Christchurch.
An air force man he met in Britain, was a diamond merchant. He wanted an agent in New Zealand, and Mr Hutcheson fitted the bill.
He used to lay out a piece of fabric on the table to sit the diamonds on to grade them. One day, he accidentally knocked them onto the carpet. He thought they had picked them all up – until he decided to take a pair of trousers to be dry cleaned.
“I tipped them upside down and shook them, and half a dozen diamonds fell out of the cuffs – it was 50 years I think they’d been in there.”
He had the best ones made into a ring for his granddaughter.
Mr Hutcheson’s wife passed away in 2010 after “64 years and 114 days” of marriage.
“When she died, a part of me did too,” he said.
He lives alone, but there’s no way he’s moving into a rest home.
His carer – All Black prop Owen Franks’ mother Julie – pops in a couple of times a week. On Monday they visited the 843 crosses commemorating the Battle of Passchendaele in the Park of Remembrance.
“I felt quite tearful, because I lost quite a few friends,” he said.
“I can’t say I enjoyed the war, but I enjoyed the friends I made, and I regret the ones I lost.”
Mr Hutcheson reckons he will make 100 in April, 2019.