Saturday, April 25, 2009

An alternative view of the Crete campaign

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, April 14.)

ANZAC DAY approaches, and with it the opportunity to hear once more the familiar, comforting stories of Kiwi valour and resourcefulness on the battlefields of the two world wars.

We are brought up on accounts of heroism in the face of insuperable odds and of pride and glory even in defeat. At Gallipoli, New Zealand troops made the best of an impossible situation; on Crete, they acquitted themselves with honour against a vastly superior enemy.

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. But I recently came across a publication that presented a very different perspective on the 1941 battle for Crete, in which nearly 4000 New Zealand soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Published 20 years ago, former soldier Peter Winter’s book Expendable, subtitled The Crete Campaign – A Front-Line View, is a short but pithy account of the fighting.

It presents a vivid picture of the airborne German invasion and the desperate, close-quarters combat that raged in the olive groves as ill-equipped New Zealand forces grappled with a technologically superior enemy. But what is most striking is the author’s low opinion – contempt is not too strong a word – of the New Zealand military leadership.

Far from portraying the fight for Crete as a noble struggle against a crushingly superior opponent, Winter argues that the Germans could have been beaten had the New Zealand leadership been more imaginative and decisive.

He describes a “muddling” battle in which the island’s defenders squandered the advantage of superior numbers and prior knowledge of where and when the attack was coming. German paratroopers landed virtually unchallenged on ground that New Zealand troops had obligingly vacated only shortly before, Winter wrote.

According to the author, the New Zealand commanders had a World War One mentality and a stubborn faith in the bayonet charge, a tactic that was ineffectual against modern German weaponry. Time and again, he wrote, opportunities were lost to strike back at a frightened and demoralised enemy.

Winter reminds us that the British war historian Alan Clark accused Freyberg and Kippenberger, the New Zealand commanders, of constantly under-rating the fighting power of their own men.

Winter is particularly scathing about Freyberg, whom he describes as a brave but unimaginative man, “dull, pompous and condescending”.

Some of the most powerful passages in the book describe the humiliation and degradation of the New Zealanders’ retreat across the mountainous spine of the island – a retreat that Freyberg had vowed would never happen.

Reading this book came as a shock to one who, like most New Zealanders, grew up regarding Freyberg as a hero.

No doubt in every war there are rank-and-file soldiers who are bitter about their commanding officers and think they could have done better, and Winter’s opinion of Freyberg and Kippenberger certainly wouldn’t have been enhanced by the four years he spent in a German POW camp after being left behind during the disorderly evacuation from Crete.

But it’s a powerfully written book (Winter was a journalist in civilian life) and too good to be dismissed as mere disaffected griping. We need iconoclastic works like this to provide some balance to the politically convenient “official” record.

* * *

IT HAS BECOME almost routine for people convicted of hideous crimes to appeal. In most cases these appeals are funded by that perpetually generous mug, the taxpayer, through an out-of-control legal aid scheme, now thankfully under review.

A radio talkback caller recently made the excellent suggestion that there should be an element of risk attached to such appeals so that criminals and their lawyers think twice before committing courts to the time and expense involved.

The law could be changed so that if an appeal fails, an extra term of imprisonment automatically gets added to the sentence already imposed. That might serve as a deterrent to thugs and lawyers who seek to take advantage of an indulgent judicial system and legal aid scheme.

Former ACT MP and lawyer Stephen Franks has urged such a reform for years and tried in 2002 to get it through Parliament. Perhaps it’s time for someone else to pick up the baton.

* * *

AM I THE only person who gets irritated by references in the media to supposed celebrities whom I’ve never heard of?

By definition a celebrity is someone who is known. But to qualify for the term these days, all that’s necessary is to have been seen on television. It doesn’t matter how obscure the programme, how fleeting the appearance or how inconsequential the role.

Using the yardstick applied by women’s magazines and gossip columnists, it seems you’re a certified celebrity if you were in an elimination round of Dancing With the Stars and you’re a solid gold A-lister if you once presented the weather on Alt-TV’s breakfast show, even if only your immediate family was watching at the time.

Metro magazine founder Warwick Roger liked to refer to such people as famous for being well-known, while the British satirical magazine Private Eye called them legends in their own lunchtime.


kassto said...

I recall reading about the Crete campaign in the Upham biography Mark of the Lion, and it did sound like an unholy mess, despite some pretty fierce fighting by the Kiwis. I got the impression that Kippenberger, at least, was pretty highly rated by Upham, but who knows what the truth of the matter was.

Karl du Fresne said...

Denis McLean, Kippenberger's biographer, has written a piece disputing Winter's account of what happened on Crete, and why. You can read it here: