Reluctant hero Bob May shunned the limelight. The North Canterbury backcountry man was a close mate of double-VC recipient Charles Upham. They both scorned publicity.
After the war, May felt sad for Upham, because he could not avoid the attention his medals attracted. But many "old digs" reckoned their tall, stern, no-nonsense but mischievous sergeant-major should have been awarded a VC too. May's leadership and courage were belatedly recognised with the award of the MBE, military division, in 1947, "for distinguished service in action".
Tall, upright, powerfully built and of grim countenance, May was the very model of a sergeant-major.
After serving in Greece and Crete, he was hit three times by enemy fire in North Africa in 1941. He was evacuated under protest and spent several weeks in hospital.
Promoted to sergeant major, he was the only man who could convince the severely wounded Upham to get medical treatment. He didn't give Upham much option. The legend is, in the thick of battle, he hauled Upham over his shoulder and carried him to an aid post. He then took over command of the company.
May was instrumental in keeping C Company together during the famous breakout through the enemy encirclement at Minqar Qaim, in 1942. He said of this: "One of my main jobs after the battle was to divorce the surviving fighting force from their dead comrades. Our company did not bury our own dead. I am in tears now, but I wasn't then because I was, at the age of 23, responsible for all those men, and the fight-and-flight brain instinct takes over".
May was captured soon after the breakout at Minqar Qaim. He was transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Italy. In the confusion surrounding Italy's surrender, he escaped and set out to rejoin his unit. Members of the 20th Battalion never forgot the buzz that went around when he strode back into their midst.
May was furloughed home in January, 1944, and accepted discharge from the army six months later. He settled at Hawarden and died in 2008, aged 89.
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