• Peter Whitmore lives at Panmure.

When my wife's cousin, Hilda, was young something happened to her boyfriend, Patrick Jameson, that changed his life and ultimately changed Hilda's also.

In a breakfast cereal promotion, Jamie, as he was always known, found a card entitling him to an hour's introduction to flying at Rongotai Aerodrome, now Wellington International Airport.

Jamie got hooked on flying, but it was hard to afford this activity, so in 1936 he travelled to England and joined the Royal Air Force. By the time World War II started in September 1939, he was already a proficient pilot. He was also engaged to Hilda.

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In mid-1940, when Jamie was flying for the Allies in Norway, the Germans started to threaten their position. A bold plan was made to save the men and equipment. It was too far to fly the planes all the way to the UK so they were to be landed on the British aircraft carrier, HMS Glorious.

Although only designed for airfield landings, the planes were all successfully recovered and the Glorious set course for Scotland, accompanied by two destroyers, the HMS Acasta and the HMS Ardent. But around 4pm the next day, June 8, 1940, two German battle cruisers were sighted on the horizon, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.

The German ships were more heavily armed than the British ones and could also travel significantly faster. As they drew closer, they started firing, and by slightly after 6pm had sunk all three allied ships, despite a strong defense.

As the Glorious was sinking, Jamie went below to get his life jacket but found the water-tight doors closed so dived overboard without one. There he managed to join 27 others on a life raft, floating in the sub-arctic waters of the North Sea.

For some reason, the British Admiralty did not become aware of what had happened until the following day. Consequently, it was yet another day before Norwegian vessels arrived to rescue those whose lives had not already slipped away.

Out of more than 1500 men, around 40 survived, including one from the Acasta and one from the Ardent. This was the highest death toll of all the naval disasters during World War II.

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Jamie was one of those few. By the time the people on his life raft were picked up only seven remained alive, and of these two died soon after.

One of the boat crew gave Jamie a woollen jersey which he treasured for the rest of his life.

Despite having gone through this experience, after a period of convalescence, Jamie was back on duty again.

Also, because the war had started Hilda and Jamie felt it was important that they should begin their life together, so Hilda took the risky step of travelling from New Zealand to the UK. They were married in August 1941.

By that time, Jamie had been promoted to Squadron Leader, and was flying almost every day. Often he would be off flying in the morning, come home for lunch, and then be back flying in the afternoon.

At some periods during this time, the life expectancy of pilots was as low as two months.

On one occasion Jamie shot a hare on the airfield, which Hilda cooked, and they invited a dozen or so of their flying companions around to share it.

On the night of the dinner a phone call came to say that three of the places should not be set.

When the guests arrived no one spoke of these missing people. Life had to go on.

Jamie continued to fly throughout most of the war. He rose to the rank of Air Commodore and received several awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar.

Hilda supported him and brought their first child into the world during this period.

Against all these odds, both he and Hilda survived the war and went on to have full and interesting lives. Later they moved back to New Zealand. Jamie died in 1996 and Hilda followed him in 2009.

We who have not lived through war can never really understand what those who gave their lives, or those who survived, like Jamie and Hilda, went through.

But we owe them a great debt because their actions ensured a Western World where most of us have been able to live our lives in democracies with reasonable living standards and freedoms.

As these war survivors pass on, our last windows onto the events of the Second World War are closing. Living memories are turning into history, but we must not forget them.