War means stories, David Hill

Ambiguity and Innocence: The New Zealand Division and the Occupation of Trieste, May 1945 
Tony Simpson
Silver Owl Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780986451980

The Battles of Monte Cassino: The Campaign and its Consequences
Glyn Harper and John Tonkin-Covell
Allen and Unwin, $35.00,
ISBN 9781741148794

War makes some people behave very nastily. Fingers off the euthanase button, please. I’m talking about non-combatants. While I was growing up in the late 1940s and 1950s, it was from civilians past and present that I heard the most savage sentiments. “They should have dropped atomic bombs on all the little yellow bastards!” declared a cosy granny. “I’d put the whole country into their own concentration camps and let them rot,” asserted a reserved-occupation uncle.

There’s guilt at work here, of course. Such speakers didn’t, or weren’t allowed, to fight. They wanted to affirm staunchness/patriotism/courage, and vengeful utterances were the most convenient way. And, after all, civilian martial posturings have a long and dishonourable history. It was journalist Horatio Bottomley who, in 1914, outlined appropriate post-war etiquette: “If by chance you should discover one day in a restaurant that you are being served by a German waiter, you will throw the soup in his foul face.”

It was persons in civvies who slung dachshunds into the river, tore up Beethoven scores, passed the Alien Enemy Teachers Act of 1915 that removed Von Zedlitz from his professorial post at Victoria University, who as late as 1983 denounced performances of Vincent O’Sullivan’s Shuriken. And who – presumably – cut down the first cherry trees planted near Featherston to commemorate the shooting of scores of Japanese POWs in the February 1943 confrontation that is the focus of O’Sullivan’s play.

Combatants, by comparison, seem less John Bullish in word and attitude. They remind me sometimes of Super 15 rugby teams: smash the opposition into the ground for the official duration, then follow with a round of handshakes when things are over.

Simplistic? Certainly. Silly? Probably ditto. But it’s one of the tangential thoughts that come – to me, anyway – after reading these two comprehensive, often compassionate, competent-plus military histories.

Tony Simpson’s new book is mystery as well as history. Is it true that the last Kiwi fatality of WW II occurred during a confrontation with Yugoslav partisans, who just a few days before had been the good guys and on our side?

In the final weeks of the war, May 1945, the New Zealand Division arrived in Trieste, landing bang (in all senses) in “the midst of a dispute of which they could make neither head nor tail”. Their job was to defend a city in which Germans, Italians, Russians and Yugoslavs were still killing one another. But defend it “against what, they were not entirely sure”. The book’s title makes itself very clear, very quickly.

Complications and frictions arose almost immediately, as the New Zealanders tried to protect German prisoners from angry partisans, encountered Royal Serb forces battling against Tito’s troops, realised that the Yugoslavs had been fighting too long and too bitterly to consider compromise. Factions were multiple and sometimes incomprehensible. Revenge and threats of civil conflict bubbled from the start.

New Zealand commandant Bernard Freyberg did his best to stay neutral and sympathetic. He tried to organise soccer games with locals; insisted that the rude licentious soldiery behaved decorously towards Slav girls; worked to separate Italians and Yugoslavs within Trieste. Meanwhile he prepared contingency plans for all-out battle against the partisans. As he manoeuvred, a Kiwi corporal involved in negotiations was mortally wounded by Yugoslav fire. That final fatality could be seen as marking the jolt from world war into Cold War.

Simpson is a consummate narrator. He has here a plot about plots, and he threads his ways among them very nimbly: “Writing … entails finding out what you don’t know by writing down what you do.” It’s a particularly apposite summation of his progress through this bloodily Balkan-Byzantine knot of events.

People and places come thick (occasionally) and fast. He offers quite a cast: Pope Pius XII and his “hysterical anti-communist crusade”; the Xth Roman Legion; Burton of The Arabian Nights; Freud and Wittgenstein and Darwin; H G Wells and Peter Fraser and Robert Browning.

He enjoys his dramatic moments. The first New Zealand tanks storm across the River Po causeway towards Venice, while their drivers watch Germans fleeing in the opposite direction underneath. Kiwis “liberate” a posh hotel, helped by a strike force of gondolas. German troops are killed horribly by flame-throwers as they huddle in foxholes. (These are just from the first few pages.) It’s savage as well as surreal.

There’s a good blend of primary, secondary, even tertiary sources. Patiently, painstakingly, Simpson seeks to outline and explain. The six weeks of May to mid-June 1945 are set against  mini-histories of Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy, Serbia et al. Centuries of invasions, enmities, dubious alliances and resulting grudges help place the reprisals and mass killings in some degree of context.

It’s often hard to distinguish civilian from soldier in the war that Simpson describes, and it does seem that where the border is most blurred, vengeance and rabid nationalism are most evident. So why, seven decades on, is Trieste in Italian hands? Ambiguity and Innocence doesn’t unpick every thread in that tortuous story, but it’s an impressive and impressively sympathetic untangling.

Many New Zealanders who found themselves at Trieste in the last months of WWII had also fought in the four battles of Monte Cassino during the first half of 1944.  Like Gallipoli, Passchendaele and Crete, Cassino is one of those failures (or bad bruisings, at least) that has mutated into triumph in our national mythology. The destruction of its Benedictine abbey remains one of the war’s most controversial acts, and The Battles of Monte Cassino takes a cool look at how much Freyberg was involved in the decision to bomb it to bits.

In retrospect, any agonising or sentiment over the abbey seems self-indulgent. Aesthetic, religious, historical concerns quickly took second place to survival. Both sides saw buildings and then ruins as legitimate parts of the battlefield.

Cassino was like Gallipoli in other respects: formidable terrain that favoured the defenders; tactical errors and erratic support; disharmonies among commanders; small patches of ground taken and lost and re-taken by infantry.

The Allied forces were astonishingly international – Texans (mauled in the first, misconceived attacks), Gurkhas, Algerians, Poles, Brazilians, Canadians, Moroccans, French (whose progress through nearby mountains was the major factor in bringing about a German withdrawal), and of course New Zealanders. It’s ironic that the success of the fourth battle and subsequent capture of Rome were almost instantly overshadowed by the D-Day landings.

Glyn Harper’s name is synonymous with lucid, authoritative military history. (Good Lord, I’ve just written a blurb. My invoice is in the mail.) Here he teams neatly with John Tonkin-Covell in a thematic approach which examines such aspects as senior commanders, enemy tactics, Allied air power’s bewildering ineffectiveness, the thwarted flanking attack at Anzio; the ways in which New Zealand forces, equipped and trained for mobile warfare, were only semi-suited to their role.

This analytical approach works especially well in accounts of Allied generals, many of whom seem to have held PhDs in narcissism and back-stabbing. US General Mark Clark in particular is fully anatomised, down to his preference for being photographed from his “facially best” left side.

This is “not another campaign narrative,” insist the authors. But war means stories, and – felicitously – they keep insisting here. Some are only a paragraph long, but the book is quickened by them. Patton advising one of his generals to read The Bible if things got hot; a German commander on the risks of car travel in wartime; the 2nd and 3rd companies of the Maori Battalion fighting to secure the railway embankment while guns fired nearly 200,000 shells into the town in one day; New Zealand infantry and tanks finally securing Cassino Railway Station.

Diaries, interviews, letters are quoted extensively, and often leave you hoping that generals could fight better than they wrote or talked. Maps, aerial and action photos, propaganda posters, including a bronzed, desperately square-jawed Kiwi, link with the text.

There’s the occasional, almost inevitable numerical cram: “135th Regiment … Point 193… Point 445 … Point 593 … 165th Regiment”. There are also rather a lot of condensed biographies. Don’t be deterred by the foreword, whose “tough, gritty, skilful, determined” reinforces the rugby analogy in paragraph six; Harper and Tonkin-Covell write much more thoughtfully and stylishly than that.

Among its merits, this is a generous book – towards men under dreadful strain, the enemy, the civilians who suffered here as well as at Trieste. Winners may indeed write the histories; in this case and in Simpson’s, they’ve written them well.


David Hill’s new young adult novel, Brave Company, is reviewed on p26.


Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
Search the archive
Search by category