'Who'll come with me?'

How stroppy colonial disrespect brought the highest honour

Last updated 05:00 17/07/2010
Jack Hinton VC
Jack Hinton VC

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Southern military history

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Jack Hinton had had enough of this retreating malarky. It was April 1941 and in military terms the Greek campaign was already lost.

New Zealand and British troops, on the outskirts of Kalamata, were awaiting embarkation.

A column of German armoured forces was approaching and Sergeant Hinton was aghast to hear, in person, British Brigadier Parrington ordering the men to surrender.

"Go and jump in the bloody lake, " he said, in the finest tradition of stroppy colonial disrespect.

"I'll have you court martialled for speaking to me like that," Brigadier Parrington huffed.

"If you're not careful," said Hinton, "I'll have you court martialled for talking surrender."

The German column contained several armoured cars, 2-inch guns, 3-inch mortars and two 6-inch guns.

Commanders saw the task as hopeless but as the situation grew increasingly chaotic, Sergeant Hinton quickly joined those who decided to counter-attack.

Later that night, April 28-29, he was still defiant and in no mood to heed instructions to withdraw to cover. There was a bridgehead to be held so the evacuation could take place. "To hell with this!" he called out.

It was the sort of rebellion that could land a soldier in huge trouble.

What followed landed Sergeant Hinton a Victoria Cross, the highest award for military bravery.

"Who'll come with me?" he cried.

"Give me covering fire, " he shouted to Private Alan Jones, of Invercargill.

(Private Jones later wrote, quite wittily: "I consider any man who was prepared to accept my covering fire should have been awarded the VC for that act alone." )

The London Gazette printed his citation, which describes the assault.

"He ran within several yards of the nearest guns. The guns fired but missed him and he hurled two grenades, which completely wiped out the crews.

"He then came on with the bayonet, followed by a crowd of New Zealanders.

"The German troops abandoned the first 6-inch gun and retreated into two houses." Sergeant Hinton smashed the windows then the door of the first house. With grenades and bayonet he caused bloody mayhem.

"He repeated the performance in (a) second house and, as a result, until overwhelming German forces arrived, the New Zealanders held the guns." He was chasing fleeing Germans down a street when a bullet in the abdomen felled him, and he was taken prisoner.

A more emotive account comes from Gabrielle McDonald, in her vivid biography Jack Hinton VC, A Man Among Men.

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Describing the brink of his almost berserk assault, she writes: "He felt pent-up; he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. This is now, he thought. I've got a job to do and I have to do it. He was scared, shit-scared really, but overriding these feelings he had a sense of crazy excitement, almost as if there was some invisible force egging him on, and he was caught up with it. It was telling him to do these mad things, throw his life to the wind. Suddenly, he knew without a doubt why he had travelled all these thousands of kilometres.

Everything he had done in the last years was in preparation for this moment. It was so clear to him he almost laughed out loud."

Although this was Jack Hinton's first experience of combat, he was neither fresh-faced nor naive.

Born at Colac Bay in 1906 he was one of the first to respond to the call to arms in September 1939, and was also, at 31, one of the oldest to do so. But he was also well-seasoned as an adventurer.

He had left home at either 12 or 14 (accounts vary) to become a ship's boy on a Norwegian whaler. He had been a Depression-era swaggie, a mustererer, had been black sanding for gold, a stable lad, and had become a leader of men as a foreman on a West Coast road gang.

He certainly wasn't a blustering, archetypal NCO.

Quiet and unassuming, they reckoned, but steely with it. He played impressively in the desert rugby games in Egypt.

Jack Hinton was a prisoner of war when his Victoria Cross was awarded.

Banged up in solitary confinement, wearing wooden boards tied to his feet in place of the boots he had lost when injured, he was called to the middle of the prison parade ground and an unnamed German general presented him with a replica of the VC, saluted, and shook his hand.

The camp kommandant invited him to the officers' club for champagne to toast his medal, but after two weeks in solitary, and half starved, he is reported to have told the kommandant to put his champagne up his waistcoat.

He was held high by his celebrating fellow prisoners, and was then promptly returned to solitary.

When the camp was liberated he was taken to England and King George VI formally presented him with his award at Buckingham Palace.

Upon his return to New Zealand, and Colac Bay, he was widely feted but found, as did others regarded as heroes, that he was distressed and embarrassed by the adulation. He struggled to convey his feelings to reporters, telling them of men whose names meant nothing to them - like Alan Jones, Jim Hessan , Doug Patterson, Bob O'Rorke, Pat Rhind.

"Congratulate them, not me, " he'd say.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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