Slow learners, Les Cleveland

Behind Enemy Lines Enemy Lines: Kiwi Freedom Fighters in WWII
Matthew Wright (ed)
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869790691


A doggerel satire circulating among New Zealand troops in the desert campaigns of 1941-2 complained that General Rommel’s Afrika Korps “chased us here, they chased us there, the bastards chased us everywhere.” A fellow in one of the rifle companies said that before going into action, some unheroic warriors prudently packed their “stalag kits”, consisting of extra socks, tobacco and anything likely to be useful in a German or Italian prisoner of war camp. They thought that life as a POW was preferable to being a piece of cannon fodder over-run by Rommel’s panzers at dismal desert locations like Sidi Rezegh and Ruweisat Ridge.

However, Behind Enemy Lines Enemy Lines is innocent of such mundane insights. It is  a saga about the adventures of determined, resourceful soldiers, “living off their wits” in enemy country as “accidental partisans” who “had to draw on hidden strengths that they did not know they possessed.” Such stereotypes are consistent with the current hero-worship industry, but they seem a selective view of very complex historical realities. Little in Behind Enemy Lines has the intensity of Jim Henderson’s Gunner Inglorious or Lindsay Rodgers’s Guerilla Surgeon, both of which are the masterworks of experience in this field. Has WWII now become a drama of  melodramatic indulgence like current popular film?

Behind Enemy Lines draws on a collection of out-of-print narratives and augments them with additional material perhaps suitable either for classrooms or for readers who are disinclined to bother with citations, footnotes, and the conventions of historiography. Basic source information is reduced to an addendum along with a brief bibliography. Are such simplifications a preview of what we can expect from eBooks?

Many of the people in Behind Enemy Lines were really just survivors, hiding out in rugged country and totally dependent on help from the peasantry, but several developed a talent for systematic mayhem. Frank Gardner jumped off a train and found refuge with a friendly Italian family. He formed a secret band of saboteurs who specialised in dynamiting railway tracks and electric power pylons. His exploits culminated in blowing up a railway bridge.

One of the most indomitable of all the escapers described in Behind Enemy Lines is Bill Griffiths. Left behind enemy lines on Crete he took refuge in the hills, survived a severe bout of malaria, made his way back to Greece in a small fishing boat, developed an agonising mass of infection on his leg and performed a successful operation on it himself with the aid of a mirror and a cut-throat razor, got about on crutches till the resulting hole in his leg healed, went to Athens, was arrested by the Gestapo and re-interned in a POW camp.

Dudley Perkins is another superman who landed on Crete as part of a guerrilla group that harassed the occupying Germans. He was wounded in a skirmish and got a bullet lodged in his back. The bullet was extracted in the field without anaesthetic or disinfectant by a local butcher with a sharp knife. Perkins survived this operation to become a legendary guerrilla leader until he was killed by a burst from a German automatic weapon. His grave is on Crete where he is still mourned. He was recommended for a posthumous VC but did not receive the award. Wright comments that this application underscored “the sacrifice, bravery and unrelenting heroism of ‘the Lion of Crete’ ”.

Captain Daniel Riddiford journeyed through Yugoslavia with a column of ragged-looking troops who had escaped from imprisonment in Austria. They had difficulties with some of the partisan political commissars who tried to recruit them, but they managed to reach Vis where they were rescued by the Royal Navy. A treatment of John Mulgan’s romantic feelings about Greece and its fate under German occupation adds nothing to illuminate his mysterious suicide amid the fleshpots of Cairo.

John Denvir is the outstanding guerrilla fighter of this collection. He escaped from a prison camp in Yugoslavia, joined Tito’s partisans and became a battalion commander in the Fourth Slovenian National Freedom Shock Brigade. Wright describes the training and tactics of the partisan army which “had no assured lines of communication and supply, no air support, no armour and no trained reserves.” Denvir learned the Slovenian language, helped to train recruits and took part in a series of actions in which he was wounded four times. He was promoted to brigade commander and eventually evacuated to Italy where he rejoined the 20th Battalion, his old outfit. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was awarded a DCM. The Russians also gave him the Soviet Medal for Valour. Back in New Zealand he started a taxi business in Temuka.

Such a dramatic transition from heroic status to peacetime obscurity raises the problem of the returning warrior and his or her psychological trauma. Historically, this is a familiar motif in European literature, music, art and folklore, but it is not always understood as such in New Zealand life, war memorials and Anzac Day rituals notwithstanding. The conclusion of James Caffin’s 1945 biography of Denvir, Partisan, cites the Slovenian HQ record of Denvir’s service. It says that all the time he fought with the partisans “he exhibited outstanding bravery, discipline and comradeship.” A foreword by Major-General Kippenberger states “with the rest of the old 20th [Battalion] I am proud he was one of us.” Denvir himself dedicated his book to the memory of Colin Cargill, an Australian comrade also known as Glavic Ivon and to Denvir’s “partisan comrades who fought and died for freedom”.

Behind Enemy Lines has secularised John Broad’s account of holing-up in caves and sheepfolds in the snow-covered Apennines by ignoring the importance of his religious faith as a sustaining spiritual force. In Poor People Poor Us (1945), Broad describes how he and two companions, in a frozen ordeal of starvation, put aside food for a  fourth person and visualised an image of the Christ which smiled mysteriously and vanished. However, their physical salvation came from supplies of food and clothing given out of Christian charity by peasants in the alpine villages of di Condra and Santa Croce. These villages were pillaged by German ski patrols and the occupants risked their lives to provide food, clothing, footwear and firewood to Broad and his companions who were at the extremity of endurance and clad mostly in a motley collection of civilian hand-me-downs. If discovered by the Germans, they were likely to be shot as spies. After hiding during the winter of 1944 in a snowbound ravine, Broad and his two companions were finally guided by village shepherds into the British lines.

Allan Yeoman, an officer who escaped from a prison camp in Austria, headed south where he came under pressure from Tito’s partisans in Slovenia to join them in the fight against Italian fascists and the occupying German army. But Yeoman wondered “is one prepared to give one’s life or limbs to ensure that Marxism will be the method of government after the war instead of a monarchy?” Nevertheless Yeoman was impressed by the women in the partisan ranks who were on terms of equality with men: “Any violation of a strict code of conduct was punishable by execution.”

During the 1945 occupation of Trieste by 2NZEF, these strapping young partisan women, armed with machine pistols and lugers, and wearing captured German jackboots, marched proudly in the ranks of the Yugoslav partisan army. They seemed like the precursors of some new order where men were accustomed to treating women as partners and equals. Many decades later in New Zealand this radical ideal has still not been fully attained.  It would have been interesting to ask those Amazons about other aspects of life under Communism, but they had no French or Italian and wouldn’t speak German. One day several of us approached a partisan outpost in their frontline with some bottles of beer which we drank in comradely enough fraternity, but the partisans lost interest in us when we said we couldn’t speak Russian. Our military adventures had not equipped us for the intricacies of cosmopolitan small talk in the Cold War in which we had become reluctant and improbable participants. New Zealand is a nation of slow learners but courage in battle may no longer be enough to sustain the trick of standing upright here.


Les Cleveland is a former soldier in a WWII rifle company.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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