Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Galatas 1941: Courage in Vain

It started out as a personal mission to understand what happened at the Cretan town of Galatas on the evening of May 25, 1941.

Initially, the action involving C and D Companies of New Zealand's 23 Battalion was triggered by reading W B 'Sandy' Thomas' book Dare to be Free, an account of his capture at Galatas and his escape and return to play a leading part in New Zealand's World War Two war effort.

Having read the book, the thought lay dormant until an interview, on a totally unrelated subject - the 1937 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand, with Jack Griffiths, an All Black who served in World War Two as aide-de-camp to the commander of the NZ Division, General Freyberg. Having talked rugby I took the chance to ask Griffiths about Freyberg, and about 'the charge' on Crete. Initially, my thought was about the charge of 28 (Maori) Battalion at 42nd Street, as the location was known. But Griffiths said, "Ah you mean, Galatas!" Something made me delay in correcting him. He then talked about it and the memory of Thomas' book stirred, although it took some time to remember where I had come across this incident.

Eventually I found the story I had been seeking and I resolved to look further into what happened on that famous day. The result was four years of research whenever the opportunity arose.

In brief, what happened was that when disposing forces to defend Crete from the pending parachute attack, the drivers, Petrol Company men and artillery men whose materials of work had been discarded in the evacutation of Greece, were herded together and told they were to defend the hilltop town of Galatas.

This was just outside the main city of the western end of Crete, Canea (pronounced Hania), and Maleme Aerodrome, about 17km to the west along the attractive northern coast of Crete. Galatas occupied a hilltop position which not only overlooked the coast but also a large inland valley in which was housed the island's prison.

Under the command of Colonel Howard Kippenberger, the scratch group of New Zealanders did a superb job in holding off the crack German paratroopers for five days after the May 20 aerial invasion of Crete. But on May 25, the Luftwaffe mounted a horrible assault on Galatas and eventually the supporting ground forces, supplemented by Germany's Mountain Regiment, secured the town.

However, Kippenberger rallied the retreating New Zealand forces and also used the C and D Company men from 23 Battalion who had been sent up from reserve, to mount a bayonet charge to regain the town. It was a fearsome assault, largely fought at the point of the bayonet by the New Zealanders who walked into German machine gun fire.

In 20 minutes it was all over. The town was back in New Zealand hands. It was a bloody assault, regarded by Freyberg as one of the finest feats of small arm warfare by New Zealand forces during the war. Some non-New Zealand observers have rated it as the greatest bayonet charge in history.

My research involved finding survivors of the charge, most of whom had never told their families of their participation. In the spirit of knowledge now being passed on to a generation more interested in hearing the tales of warfare, all who were approached provided their memories willingly. I also located an unused description of the activities of one of the participants, Clive Hulme, who was to win the Victoria Cross for his feats on Crete. A controversial and unpopular soldier, Hulme was nonetheless ruthless and his interview, held in the Hocken Library of Otago University in Dunedin, is an eye-opening account of his time on Crete.

I also located the story of another of the participants, W N 'Bill' Carson, a double New Zealand sports representative in rugby and cricket - a rare feat. A Military Cross winner, who was to die of wounds when on a ship returning to New Zealand, he was a lieutenant in charge of a group of drivers who performed a series of raids around and about Galatas during the five days after the invasion and who took part in the charge on Galatas. This part of his story had never been told before. Carson had always fascinated me as I had written of him in previous books, McKechnie - Double All Black, the New Zealand Cricket Encyclopedia and in an entry for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Another key support came from retired Supreme Court judge, Sir John White, who was an assistant to Freyberg throughout the war and who had voluminous files on his experiences. He very kindly allowed me to quote from his experiences in the retreat from Greece.

The end result was the publication of the book by Reeds of New Zealand.

Review comments:

The Press (Christchurch)

"This could well be the last word on New Zealand's involvement in the World War 2 Battle of Crete. Much has been written on the subject, but probably no other account has captured so successfully the views and voices of ordinary Kiwi blokes showing extraordinary courage."

The New Zealand Herald (1) (Auckland)

"McConnell has thrown everything into recounting the six days, including making a private visit to Galatas at the same time of year the bloody battles took place, and to join in the townsfolk's annual street party in celebration of the defenders of their village. McConnell maintains he is not a war historian. I think he just became a very good one."

The New Zealand Herald (2) (Auckland)

"McConnell, has done a magnificent job of explaining what happened, largely using the words of those who were involved...It is a terrible story, but a magnificent one."

The Southland Times (Invercargill)

"The town still broods over that fateful event when one of the most savage battles ever undertaken by New Zealanders resulted in a victory, but within an overall defeat. This is a hard read, but truthful, and deserves wide readership, especially by our younger generations."

The Otago Daily Times (Dunedin)

"Galatas 1941 is a well-researched account of a crucial stage of the battle for Crete. The author has recreated an enthralling blow-by-blow description of events between May 21 and 25, 1941, when Galatas, situated amid the olive groves in northeastern Crete [sic], was lost and regained, in an action which made possible the eventual withdrawl of Allied forces."

The Northern Advocate (Whangarei)

"All the details of a savage battle are here as told by the soldiers who fought the actions. All the blood and gore of senseless battle is perhaps unnecessarily well set out by the author...This book is a classic of its kind, but is not one for a general reader."

Wairarapa Times-Age (Masterton)

"Galatas 1941 is perhaps too personal to be read as purely military history but most of it is stirring stuff told in a lively manner."

Waikato Times (Hamilton)

"It is no judgment on this author that I found this book an agony to read. War can never ever again be a noble sacrifice nor an adequate basis for national pride."

The Dominion-Post (Wellington)

"This is McConnell's first military history, and at 224 pages of text his work promises a solid and satisfying read. Wisely, he eschews a dry academic analysis of the tactics. Instead, he has produced a lively insight into the emotions of the soldiers defending the village on those dark days of May 1941.

"McConnell has a delightful way of bringing the narrative forward with reminiscence, and the unadorned words of his subjects carry a strength that spans the years."