Mytho-history, Les Cleveland

A Near-Run Affair: New Zealanders in the battle for Crete, 1941
Matthew Wright
Reed Books, $30.95,
ISBN 0790007320

A Unique Sort of Battle: New Zealanders Remember Crete
ed Megan Hutching
HarperCollins in association with the History Group, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, $39.95,
ISBN 1869503945

Both these works deal with events in Greece and Crete 60 years ago, when a New Zealand expeditionary force was overwhelmed by a German airborne invasion with the loss of most of its equipment and some 3,800 casualties.

In A Near-Run Affair, Matthew Wright assembles a competent and concise account of the Greece/Crete battles with supporting illustrations, references and a useful bibliography. His summary of events covers the main lines of historical inquiry into the military problems encountered on Crete. He gives an account of the strategic circumstances leading to the commitment of the New Zealand Division to the Balkan campaign and pays particular attention to the performance of General Freyberg and his command. He notes that the prevailing attitude of the New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser was “subservience to Britain in defence matters”, but gives him credit for his subsequent damage control efforts to get as many as possible of the troops evacuated from Crete. Wright observes that the underlying cause of defeat was simply that unopposed air power was decisive even though Freyberg came close to victory despite the odds.

A Unique Sort of Battle attempts rather more, with a venture into mytho-history. This term applies to the cultural and ideological construction of a historical subject in a context of popular modernity. Thus (to take a troublesome contemporary example) the Treaty of Waitangi becomes somewhat more than its original signatories might have envisaged; the celebrated landing at Gallipoli in 1915 becomes an opportunity for emotional observances and an inspirational lesson in “the human cost of war”; Crete is examined as an opportunity for edifying “personal stories”.

A 26-page introduction, supported by two brief statistical appendices and a map, describes the main features of the battle. This is expanded by 206 pages of recollections from surviving veterans. More than 100 illustrations of varying quality convey visual impressions of the terrain and of ordinary Kiwi soldiers enduring adversity. The book has no index, an annoying defect. Much of the orally recorded material is banal, but as an expression of popular culture it has some significant contemporary features.

Why drag the Crete affair up again? There is already a substantial literature dealing with it, and A Unique Sort of Battle doesn’t really add much of substance. But a foreword by the Prime Minister (who is also the Minister of Culture and Heritage) indicates that the book is a kind of command performance. It expresses her personal interest in the subject and in “the horror and the drama which is war”, as well as “our determination to avoid such tragedies in the future”. Horror, drama and tragedy are the stock-in-trade of our current appetite for morbid curiosity, which owes much to television’s fondness for the gruesome coverage of violent, newsworthy events, and its exploitation of the grief industry, which feeds on funerals, violent happenings, accidents, disasters, other people’s misfortunes and especially their emotional responses to suffering and death.

Perhaps the national obsession with post-bellum battlefield tours and raking over old defeats helps to take our minds off present discontents, while the treatment of Crete as a source for instructive personal narratives tends to obscure the fact that, like the Gallipoli disaster, it was a notable MFU. This is the demotic acronym for “mad fuck-up”, the term used by disgruntled rank and file to anathematise command failures and muddles. As popular literature, the recollections of Crete survivors necessarily tend to concentrate on their own experiences, but some general questions spring to mind. What was the incidence of drunkenness, looting, theft, malingering and panic among survivors? One man recalls that, in the evacuation of Greece, a drunk soldier had to be shot because he was making too much noise. At least one soldier on Crete was known to have put a bullet through his foot in order to qualify for evacuation priority as one of the wounded. How many such cases were there of self-inflicted injury? And for that matter, what about the Germans? Do they not have personal narratives? What was it like to dangle under a parachute like a hapless bungy jumper, while disturbed Kiwi defenders took potshots at your apprehensive carcase?

A Unique Sort of Battle is not very informative on such matters, but its chronicle of bombs, bayonet charges, near misses, hunger, exhaustion and fear is relieved by the occasional insight. For example, the History Group may have uncovered perhaps the only case in the annals of warfare when the Boyes anti-tank rifle (popularly known as the “elephant gun” by the unfortunates who had to carry it) was of the slightest use for anything. One of the most futile pieces of military equipment ever devised, it was an elongated, single-shot rifle that fired a large-calibre bullet which could be relied upon to bounce off most armour-plate, especially that of the German panzers. But one of the people interviewed describes how he actually managed to penetrate the wall of a mud hut with a shot from the Boyes, to the discomfiture of some German soldiery sheltering within!

The mytho-historical interpretation that emerges in all this is that the Crete battle was “unique”; we might even have won if this or that course had been followed; but we are not going to have such occurrences in the future. This is heartening doctrine though it rather depends on the nature of the times and on politicians, who are not always trustworthy and who are often seized by the desire to send New Zealand troops to distant parts in pursuit of their statesmanlike ambitions. Nor does the present political regime escape censure. By drawing attention to disasters like Gallipoli and Crete, is it unconsciously sentimentalising and perpetuating the very folly it purports to condemn?

Here Helen Clark’s cryptic observation about avoiding such tragedies in future makes sense and is consistent with the attenuation of alliances, the run-down of our military power to the point where the services are little more than a lightly armed police force, and with the consequent shift of defence policy into a de facto condition of unarmed neutrality. Whether or not this is adequate insurance for a small, powerless nation state facing a doubtful future is a matter of opinion.

When the evacuees from Crete reached Egypt, they encountered an anxious Peter Fraser looking like a lugubrious undertaker among “my poor boys”. One of the survivors thought he was a “miserable old Hound” while another recalled that he had a handshake “like a lump of fish”. A short, concluding section of veterans’ responses to the question “How do you feel about the Battle of Crete today?” sums up the campaign with a number of realistic assessments to the effect that the whole thing was a pipe-dream, a waste of time and lives and that the participants were merely “Churchill’s canon fodder”. The cautionary significance of these grim chronicles of life and death is that Crete was a nasty little lesson in what can happen when you play with the big boys, and bright hopes come to nothing.


Les Cleveland served in the New Zealand Division during World War 2 and is the author of Dark Laughter, a book about war and popular culture, as well as numerous articles on the topic.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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