“I have been bombed by Hitler, I have been shot at by the Chinese. And you Kiwis have been bloody rude to me ever since I landed here. I have had the whole lot.”
Ernie Dix, the cheeky, Croyden cockney, career soldier who, after half a century in New Zealand, still hasn’t shaken off an accent but has been successfully transplanted to the Citizens RSA Club in Te Puke.
He’s the thick end of 87, has an enviable shock of white hair, an impish way, tells a great yarn and is a likeable bugger. His word – he uses it a lot. “Yeah, 88 this year and in good nick. That’s because I am a lazy bugger.”
Before he swapped his British army uniform for a New Zealand one, a mate gave him some advice about those “bloody rude” Kiwis. “When you go to New Zealand they will give you hell. He said give it ‘em back, and they’ll leave you alone.” Ernie took that advice, ‘gave it ‘em back’ and it has served him well. Now he loves this country. And a regular glass of red and some banter at the Te Puke Citizens RSA Club.
Ernie Dix – grunt turned mechanic engineer – is telling his story to The Weekend Sun for Anzac Day. It celebrates the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing in 1915. Buy it also honours all New Zealand and Australian soldiers who’ve served in conflicts overseas.
Ernie did his bit in the so-called Malayan emergency – they didn’t call it a war – and Vietnam. But he became embroiled in another conflict much earlier, when he was just a 10-year-old lad.
“My mum was looking after this old man, a distinguished bloke. He called me in, sat me down and said I was about to hear something I would never forget.”
At 11.15am on Sunday, September 3, 1939 a sombre Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went on radio and told Ernie and the British people they were at war with Germany. “I know you will all play your part with calmness and courage,” said Chamberlain.
”I can remember that as clear as if it was said yesterday,” says Ernie. That afternoon the air raid sirens went up and Hitler’s bombs came down on Ernie’s London town. “Even today I am not allowed to forget it.” Because every time there’s a fire alarm in Te Puke the siren sounds – the familiar wailing, up and down, up and down.
Fortunately for Ernie, he was evacuated just before the Luftwaffe bombed his Croydon home and the rest of his street into oblivion. He was taken out of harm’s way to Brighton. “But now Hitler was only 20 miles away across the channel. They shook their heads and decided this was not a good idea.” He can laugh about it now.
Ernie’s life was eventful and interesting from the outset, long before the complication of a certain warmonger. “I was born illegitimate. And when Mum took us to see my grandmother in Newcastle in the north-east, I was invited in but Mum wasn’t because she had shamed the family.”
Ernie’s Mum was a ‘clippy’ or bus conductor in London during the war. She was known as ‘Sunshine’, a real character apparently, and always had a smile. And she flicked a finger at Hitler. “She took the view that if we were going to die we would all die together.”
And Ernie thought nothing of it. The air raid sirens were wailing, the bombs were tumbling, homes were destroyed, the firestorms went up, people died and the Dixs endured “quite happily”.
Then at 17, boy became man. He put on a British army uniform, whether it be for a warm bed, hot meal or regular pay packet. And they packed him off to the steaming jungles of Malaya where the communists were trying to overthrow the British colonial administration.
“They called it an emergency rather than a war for insurance purposes – never mind the fact that British soldiers were getting killed.”
After a three-year tour of duty in the oppressive heat he was posted to the chill of Luneburg near Belsen in northwest of Germany. “Only the British military would do that. It was bloody cold, I hated it.” So he joined the SAS and went back to “long days banging around in a bloody thick jungle in Malaya.”
He also banged into a New Zealand squadron in Malaya who turned round and won the Malayan Rugby Cup.
“Only British officers played rugby – us grunts played soccer. And these Kiwi blokes beat the officers. I decided they’re not bad after all. And they called everyone ‘boss’ - they even called the CO ‘boss’.” That intrigued him. Ernie got to like Kiwis and they liked him.
So he swapped uniforms – he just about went broke buying himself out of the British Army and he joined the New Zealand military. “We treated our wives terribly. I remember saying to my wife Pam, we are going to New Zealand. Not would you like to come with me to New Zealand or shall we go to New Zealand.”
So they arrived at Waiouru Military Camp. “Loved the place, absolutely loved it.” Ernie hated the cold of north-west Germany but loved the cold of Waiouru. “My youngest daughter was even born there. One of the few.”
And the friendly fire continued. “When I got there, the Kiwis turned round and said ‘Hey Ernie, we weren’t serious about you coming here.’ ”
Then in the mid-50s, he was back confronting the communists – this time the insurgents from North Vietnam. “I obviously did a good job, because they gave me the BEM – the British Empire Medal.”
And later, when he uncovered a cache of fascinating military history in a stuffy backroom at Waiouru military camp, he took it up with the CO. “I said ‘this is silly’.” Ernie was probably a wee bit blunter than that. “I said this stuff is important and should be on display.” It was the beginnings of the National Army Museum in Waiouru. He’s quite chuffed about that.
And it produced another gong – the MBE. “Very unusual to get two. I am proud of it now.” But also humble – he’s never attached the decorations to his name, except when he had to vouch for a mate.
Ernie met the Queen once. He’s understandably a royalist to the core. “Oh yes, she was certainly clued up when we chatted.” He’s also met the long-serving heir apparent. “Anything else you want to know about me,” he asks. Well, there is the small matter of shoes. “What is it about you Kiwis and no shoes?”
He tells of the time his mother-in-law arrived on a visit from the motherland. “The kids were barefoot. The mother-in-law was outraged and slipped Pam – the wife – 10 quid for some shoes. She reckoned kids with bare feet made us look poor. We had to tell her there’s no point buying shoes, cos the kids won’t wear them anyway.”
Which is interesting because there’s a sign at Ernie and Pam’s front door. It says “Please remove shoes before entering.” The reporter goes to oblige.
“Don’t bother about that,” says Ernie. “We’re British, we never take off our shoes for anything or anyone.” Go figure.
Ernie Nix doesn’t drink beer – he will only take a red wine. “In fact the only time I got drunk was in New Zealand.” He blames us for that too. It’s one of the privileges of journalism – you get to sit down with characters like Ernie Nix – a decorated Kiwi with a cockney accent and a story to tell. And in the Anzac spirit, we can be grateful for his service.
There’s a sad postscript. All these years later he still doesn’t know who his dad was. “Probably should have asked. To this day I regret it.”