Book provides voice of a Kiwi at war
War autobiographies on New Zealand bookshelves are mostly written by the officers if only because the NCOs were too busy fighting to write.
Non-commissioned officers - corporals and sergeants - are the soul of any army: of the 22 New Zealand Victoria Cross holders more than two-thirds were NCOs, including the most recent, Lance-Corporal Willie Apiata.
Warrant Officer Jack Elworthy sailed from Wellington on May 2, 1940, returning seven years later, after fighting in Greece and Crete.
Captured, he was held in a German prisoner-of-war camp for four years.
He managed to illicitly join a US Army unit which took him into the Dachau concentration camp as it was being liberated.
Elworthy, who died in 1999, had patched together his story for his family "in case they might one day be interested".
It is a treasure, the voice of a Kiwi at war, the perspective of the servicemen. It's the reality of a soldier's life - leavened with dry humour and unofficial rumour.
"Four days before arriving in Cape Town we had been given lectures warning us against visiting an area of the city known as District 6, reputed to be rife with vice, violence and depravity," he writes. "District 6 was fairly full of soldiers as a result."
Elworthy offers a working class view of the war, from arriving in Scotland and discovering that his soldiers had quietly discovered an open bar on a station.
Near where New Zealand was based and amid invasion fears, he ran into people who petitioned the War Office to make their area of the town off limits to soldiers: ". . . we felt if this was England it was a pity we hadn't known before we came over to fight and defend it."
In Greece, soldiers were told to greet the Greeks with Maori words like kia ora. "Unfortunately, though, kia ora sounded very similar to the Greek phrase used to ask the time."
A new order told soldiers to greet Greeks with haere mai. "That was a bit much as it meant welcome, and it was we who were the visitors."
Elworthy was a pragmatic writer and not particularly judgmental.
Near Larissa, German aircraft had attacked a line of trucks. "Several dead lay covered with blankets in the field by the road. One blanket had a pair of brown boots at one end and at the other an Australian slouch hat."
Evacuated to Crete, Elworthy walked down to the harbour to watch the Royal Marines arrive.
"They had to be seen to be believed: they had their uniforms in kitbags and tin trunks, and some officers had brought golf clubs, and tennis racquets complete with covers and presses."
Later Elworthy and his men were refused positions on retreating trucks; they were for officers and luggage.
An NCO's relationship with his men is intimate; a soldier looks for orders, safety and comfort from the sergeant, "my sergeant".
Elworthy illustrates that, writing of one of his men losing his nerve and threatening all of them. "I went over, knowing I had to put a stop to that sort of behaviour, but I didn't have to say a word."
The man knew what he had done and stopped: "From then on he was twice the man he'd been before, and more of an officer than he had ever been."
Elworthy's honest view of the enemy is striking. "It was funny: one minute earlier I had been going to batter this German's neck and head to a pulp with a stone; nothing else would satisfy me," he writes of the Battle of Crete.
"But the moment he was no longer a menace but lying, quiet and frightened, with a smashed hand and part of his thigh bone sticking out of his leg, I felt quite sympathetic towards him."
When they were liberated from the German camp, an American soldier asked them why they hadn't killed their guards in the end. "We stood there, quiet and rather confused. We could not understand his thinking," Elworthy relates, saying they had built up an acceptance of captors.
"We felt some sympathy for them as we heard of their homes being destroyed or overrun and their families and relations killed . . . They had their jobs to do, just as we had ours . . . "
Prisoners were reluctant to go home, they had gone to fight, not be captured. "We had spent four years in reasonable safety while many thousands of soldiers had been fighting and getting killed to get us out. There was a feeling of shame. We felt we hadn't done as much as others."
The book ends with a moving letter he wrote in 1993 to his daughters about to visit Crete.
"Go to Maleme and have a look at the big German cemetery, which, as a POW, I had to help dig - which is, I suppose, only poetic justice as I had helped fill it.
"And go to Suda Bay . . . On your way there, pick a few of the red wildflowers that grow by the side of the road to put on the grave of my old mate since the infant classes in 1917 at Thorndon School, Harry Kyle: Gunner Henry Smythe-Kyle 2NZEF."
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- Sunday Star Times
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