Southerners at War
In the global conflict that was World War II, the 1941 battle for Crete was a significant scuffle . . . but one that deservedly lingers large in New Zealand's history.
"The battle should not fade away; it is one that was very important for New Zealand at the time," Dunedin writer Ron Palenski - whose new account of the Crete campaign, Men Of Valour, is out now - said.
"So many New Zealanders died there, so it should not fade away. If that means the battle is going to be debated, so be it: there are things in it that need to be debated."
The New Zealand Division had already had a taste of action, serving during the ill-fated attempt to stem Germany's invasion of Greece. It, along with other British and Empire forces, were evacuated to the island of Crete, with orders to hold it at all costs.
Germany launched the largest airborne assault thus seen to attempt to wrest Crete from Allied hands. The battle was over in a few short days, with most of the surviving Allied troops evacuated, exhausted, to Egypt.
Argument has raged ever since, with veterans and historians mounting argument and counter-argument over whether the island could have been held or not.
Palenski is very much in the "could not" camp.
"When the official histories first came out, a conscious decision had been made to hang a couple of officers out to dry as they needed a scapegoat for the loss. That sort of thing needs to be discussed," Palenski said.
"Freyberg (Bernard Freyberg, NZ Division commander) said it very succinctly, that they had to fight in order to get out. That means he knew that they could never hold it . . . they were told to hold it, Freyberg said they couldn't. They did the best they could against odds that were insurmountable, and inevitably they lost and left, as they were always going to do.
"The question of who to blame, I don't think should even arise. The blame should lie, if anywhere, perhaps with the British Government or perhaps Wavell (British commander of theatre) for not ensuring Crete was defended, but you could excuse him by saying Crete was just one tiny little bit of a huge theatre he had to control."
"One tiny little bit", but one in which the first flush of New Zealand's volunteer army was based. Of about 7700 New Zealanders on the island, 671 were killed, 967 wounded and 2180 taken prisoner.
Men Of Valour is full of simple but effective touches, such as identifying where each veteran came from before quoting them; obvious, but it makes Crete feel like a whole of New Zealand battle rather than some far-off field. New Zealand had been in real danger of having its division captured or wiped out and Palenski's vivid account is a constant reminder of the peril that a citizen army - and the country - faced.
"War is often called a men's thing, but to me that's rubbish," Palenski said.
"All these men had mothers, quite a lot of them had wives, they all probably had girlfriends at one stage or another, a lot of them had sisters . . . doing the fighting is probably the easy bit. These women are back in New Zealand wondering what the hell is going on and some of them didn't know until 1945 what had happened to their blokes. That is as much involvement in war as it is actually fighting."'
Men Of Valour, by Ron Palenski. Published by Hodder Moa. RRP $39.99.
- D Scene