War hero back at WWII bach

Last updated 15:46 07/02/2013
Major General Sandy Thomas
HOMECOMING: Major General Sandy Thomas relaxing at the Breaker Bay bach he used to holiday at while on leave from World War II.

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One of New Zealand's most decorated war heroes has returned to Motueka to show his grandson where he grew up.

Now 93 years old, Major General Sandy Thomas grew up in Riwaka and is an old boy of Motueka High School.

After being wounded and captured during the Battle of Crete in World War II, Sandy, then aged 22, earned the first of two Military Cross awards for bravery.

He walked for more than 400 kilometres through Greece and sailed a stolen boat across rough seas for five days to escape the Thessaloniki prisoner of war camp.

Sandy went on to become the youngest commander of a New Zealand infantry battalion at 24, ending his military career in 1971 as Britain's last commander of the Far East Land Forces in Singapore.

Although he and wife Iredale settled in Australia after Singapore, Sandy said it was a reluctant decision. A doctor had recommended the move after Iredale contracted tuberculosis.

Sandy last visited in 2010 to speak to students at Motueka High School. The purpose of his latest visit was to accompany grandson Tyson Zastrow and Tyson's fiancee Tay Bergman around his homeland.

"The two youngsters invited me to come along . . . I was thrilled with the idea," he said.

Sandy also dropped in at Government House for a drink with Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae last week.

"When I saw him I said, ‘What the hell do I call you? Is it ‘Your excellency?' Should I bow?' He just said ‘Sandy, you can call me Jerry'."

He said there was a quick exchange between an attendant and the Governor-General when Sandy asked for a brandy in place of tea or coffee.

"She looked over at him and the corner of his mouth just flickered ever so slightly . . . I got my brandy."

Sandy said the town of Motueka had changed immensely since he was a boy.

He related with pleasure how the Breaker Bay bach he and his family were staying in was the very same one in which he spent two weeks' leave during World War II.

"Back in those days, the seas were teeming with beautiful fish," he said. "I used to look out the window and see [family friend] Peter in his boat right outside."

He spent the holiday fishing and gathering scallops before returning to fight in Italy.

After the war was over, Sandy came home to the Motueka area to a hero's welcome.

"I don't think I could ever express how I felt. Every hand was out to shake mine, and a lot of the people who came out had lost a leg in the war . . .

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"Men don't cry, I know, but there was many a tear shed."

During the latest visit, Sandy spent six days in Breaker Bay before travelling back to Queensland.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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