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About the Author
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Greece Crete Stalag Dachau
A New Zealand Soldier's Encounters with Hitler's Army
By Jack Elworthy, Jo Elworthy
Awa PressCopyright © 2014 Estate of Jack Elworthy
All rights reserved.
Preparing for war
My name is Jack Elworthy and I was a soldier in the Second World War. When I left New Zealand in 1940 and sailed for Europe, I hoped I wouldn't arrive too late and find all the fighting was over. I needn't have worried: things were only just starting.
I had always wanted to be a soldier and had joined the Territorials as soon as I was old enough. I'd grown up listening to stories from those who had been in the Great War of 1914–18, and wondering how I would compare if my courage was ever tested as theirs had been. When my friends and I started to drink with the returned soldiers, we could see what a strong bond they had, and it left us feeling very much like outsiders.
I trained as a motor mechanic, but work was hard to get during the Depression and I was unemployed for a long time. My luck changed in 1932, when I was taken on to do relief work at Trentham Military Camp. I painted roofs, grubbed weeds, fixed tents, built roads and did general maintenance work for my keep and ten shillings a week. When the army started recruiting permanent staff a couple of years later, I applied to become an armament mechanic. I was accepted and in February 1935 I started a basic soldier training course. It was hard work, mentally and physically, but it set me up well for the future.
After the training I spent four years in the peacetime army, working at Trentham in the armaments and general workshops of the Ordnance Corps. I got married, built a house and was about to become a father. Then war was declared in September 1939 and everything changed.
We regular soldiers wanted to be part of whatever was going to happen. Our big fear was that we might be ordered to stay in New Zealand to train those who were sent away. I made strenuous efforts to leave with the First Echelon in January 1940, and my wife was not happy about it. Lilian had given birth to our first child, John, a month after war was declared and she would have preferred to have me home with them, instead of dashing off to the other side of the world in search of excitement and possible danger.
I missed the First Echelon, but a month later I got my wish: I was posted for overseas service to the 16th Light Aid Detachment attached to the 5th Field Regiment, New Zealand Artillery. I was given a wartime rank of warrant officer class one, and at the end of February I travelled north to join the unit at Hopuhopu Camp near Ngaruawahia in the Waikato, where it was making the final preparations for departure overseas.
Our detachment had one officer, one warrant officer, one lance corporal and eleven men. Most were tradesmen because our role was to repair and maintain the regiment's armaments, vehicles, radios and electrical equipment. We also had a driver or batman, a cook, a storeman/clerk and a motorcycle-mounted despatch rider.
The unit was still settling in when I arrived and the commanding officer was not pleased to see me. He greeted me by saying he did not want me, would not have me, and was going to take steps to have me returned to Trentham without delay. It turned out he couldn't stand soldiers from the Permanent Force; I also learned he had promised the warrant officer vacancy to his lance corporal.
He wasn't able to remove me, but our first meeting set the tone for the rest of our time together. However, despite the bad feeling we never dropped each other in the mire, and even in the chaos after battle we didn't abandon each other.
He was a good engineer with a talent for doing unusual repair jobs, but he was inexperienced in army ways and wanted to run the detachment as a separate unit, rather than part of the regiment. Since they had come into the camp the men had done no soldier training, just repaired vehicles and equipment. That made me uncomfortable, because no matter how good they were with a spanner they were not bulletproof – and if they didn't fit in more with the regiment they would come to be seen as nothing more than skilled labour.
Apart from that problem, I liked being with the 5th Field. I got to know the men in the detachment; they weren't a bad bunch and got on pretty well with each other. All things considered I was pleased with my posting.
At the end of April I was given two weeks of final leave and returned home to Lilian. We had been married just two years and our baby was six months old. Lilian was English, with no family of her own in New Zealand, and once I had gone she would be on her own. I felt bad about this but told her (and myself) that my parents were not too far away, and I was sure the other army wives in the area would look out for her too.
About the only useful thing I could do to improve the situation was to make sure I left things as comfortable as possible. We had just moved into a newly built house and there was plenty of work still to be done, so I spent my leave putting in a garden, making a front lawn, and generally trying to leave the place in as good a state as possible. It was just as well I had so much to do as I was beginning to have serious doubts about my enthusiasm for leaving.
I was even unhappier when the time came to return to camp and prepare to head overseas. I left Lilian standing at our gate, holding John in her arms, tossed my kitbag over my shoulder, and promised I would send them a postcard from Berlin. I didn't know then that it would be 1945 before the card was sent – and from Munich not Berlin – nor that it would be seven long years before I saw my wife and son again.CHAPTER 2
The Second Echelon sailed from Wellington on May 2, 1940. The convoy was diverted in the Indian Ocean from its original destination, Egypt, and travelled via the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa and Sierra Leone to Greenock on the River Clyde in Scotland.
We left our training camp at Hopuhopu on May 1, 1940 and boarded a special train for Wellington. As a warrant officer I travelled in the comfort of first class. At Hamilton railway station the local branch of the Patriotic Society was waiting with lunch. They passed fruit and hot tea through the carriage windows and gave us a great send-off as the train pulled out. This happened all the way down the line, with people waiting to wish us luck, give us cigarettes and say cheerio.
We arrived on the outskirts of Wellington about 1.30 in the morning and the train stopped for nearly two hours before pulling right on to Pipitea Wharf. There, in the half light of dawn, we saw our ship, the Aquitania. We filed on board and I put my gear in a cabin, complete with lavatory and bathroom, that I was to share with three anti-tank warrant officers.
After some tea and biscuits we went back on deck. By then it was full daylight and a military band was playing. The wharf gates were opened to the crowd of relatives and friends who had been waiting outside for two or three hours, and they surged on to the wharf to say goodbye.
We were a little late for the tide, and as the ship drew 46 feet we ran aground as we moved off. When the ship cleared, we paraded on deck to give three cheers for the governor-general, who was circling in a launch. We then weighed anchor and passed Fort Dorset about 11.30 a.m. We were on our way to the war.
Down in the smoke room an imperial pint of Barclay's Golden Lager cost only sixpence, a double gin and lime fivepence, and 50 Craven A cigarettes one shilling and eightpence. We had a meal and decided this was the way we wanted to spend the war. Our only other recreation was watching our cruiser and destroyer escort and the other troop ships.
Having so many people on board restricted the amount of deck space in which to move around. There was enough room to parade but not enough to drill or do PT. This did not deter our officers: they produced a training syllabus requiring vast areas of clear space. Fortunately, having announced their intention of having the programme kept to in every detail they lost interest and moved to the officers' lounge, where the cocktail bar became their headquarters.
After two or three days at sea our scenery was increased by the arrival from Australian ports of more troop ships and their escort vessels.
The Aquitania was an excellent sea boat because of the depth of water she drew, but this turned out to be a mixed blessing when we got to our first port of call, Fremantle. There were few wharves deep enough to take us. We had to anchor and come ashore in lighters, and that used up a lot of our leave time and made it difficult to get the drunks back on board at night.
A train took us from the docks into Perth. Its whistle blew continuously all the way and a lot of people came out to wave, including several comely young women clad only in brief underwear. Once we got to Perth, a few of the more curious went to what we learned was Rose Street to investigate their charms at closer quarters.
We heard that when the First Echelon had visited Perth four months earlier, the soldiers had spent most of their time and money in hotels and then proceeded to take the town apart. The men denied they were responsible, and pointed out Australian troops had been on leave at the same time. Regardless of who did the damage, the citizens of Perth had not been happy, so this time they had rallied around and organised things. We were given a leaflet as soon as we arrived. It listed places where soldiers in uniform would be welcome and could get meals, dancing, and cars for sightseeing. Everything was free of cost and the arrangements worked perfectly.
We had to be back on board ship by nine that night so we could sail the next day. In the morning there were quite a few kit deficiencies: a lot of the soldiers had swapped parts of their uniforms – and in one or two cases complete uniforms – with the Australians. For a long time afterwards, whenever a ship containing Australians was within hailing distance, there were cries of, 'Hey Aussie, where's my hat?'
The days passed and we crossed the equator. Two days later orders had apparently changed: the convoy turned around and we re-crossed the equator. The monotony of the trip to our next port of call, Cape Town, was broken when we passed over a minefield. Once we reached South Africa we laid at anchor, were told for two days that we were going to go ashore, and finally sailed on down the coast to Simon's Town. The next morning we dressed in serge and by seven were ready to go ashore. We leaned on the rail until eight, changed to denims, leaned on the rail until ten, changed to drill, and leaned on again until lunchtime. The following day saw a repetition of the changing and leaning until ten, when there was then a terrific hurry-up; we climbed on board minesweepers, landed in Simon's Town and got on a train to Cape Town.
Four days before arriving in Cape Town we had been given lectures warning us against visiting an area of the city known as District 6, reputed to be rife with vice, violence and depravity. District 6 was fairly full of soldiers as a result. We later heard that one New Zealand sergeant was found on the beach with his throat cut, an Australian was discovered floating in the harbour, and another, a town picket sent to keep an eye on the soldiers when they were ashore, was found pinned to a wall with his own bayonet.
A lot of men stayed on shore longer than they should have, probably because they were fed up with dressing, being inspected, changing, waiting around day after day, and finally getting only a few hours ashore. The morning after we left port I was the orderly room warrant officer. I spent most of the day marching in men who had broken the rules while on shore. I began to have my doubts about the wisdom and common sense of our officers, who were handing out sentences of three to 14 days of Ship's Punishment No 4. This meant no smoking, no visits to the canteen, assignment to the unpleasant jobs that had to be done on board, extra drill for one hour in full marching kit, and standing for one hour each day in complete silence facing a wall.
There were a lot of objections to the last part. I was approached by a number of soldiers who said they knew they had broken the rules but they were grown men, not schoolboys. If they were expected to do men's work, they should be treated like men. I agreed, but as a warrant officer all I could do was glare and remind them that if they were men as they said they were, they should accept the sentence without whining. Privately, I put their case to the officers but they insisted the punishments be carried out.
It was night-time when the men were taken on deck to stand and face the wall for an hour. They refused, and sat on the deck instead. This was mutiny and some of the officers talked about clapping them in irons. Fortunately, one of the older ones kept his head and reminded the others they would be relying on these men when they went into action. Hurried conferences followed and the sentences were cancelled.
We sailed on, with only the occasional thing happening to break the monotony. There was a burial at sea, the first I had seen. A few evenings later the ship suddenly swerved hard to port and, amidst the blowing of steam whistles, the vessels on our port bow just cleared us. We started going round in a circle, the out-of-control signal was hoisted, and we learned that the rudder had jammed.
When we called at Freetown in Sierra Leone we bartered from the decks, offering food and clothing for fruit. After the goods had been exchanged, the canoes returning to shore were intercepted by police. They were searched and the police brought back the items we had used for payment – a bale of blankets, sheets, towels and sundry items of military equipment. Someone had even traded a rifle.
After we left Freetown we were joined by a large escort, which included two aircraft carriers. We could keep in touch with what was happening in the war through news on the ship's radio and things didn't sound good: the German army seemed to be pushing the French and British armies around in Europe just as they pleased.
As we got closer to our destination we could see we were in a war zone. One morning all sorts of wreckage, including an upturned ship's lifeboat, logs of wood, rolls of printing paper, and a woman's dress, drifted past from a freighter that had been torpedoed a few hours earlier. That same afternoon, the Mauretania, one of our escort vessels, blew a series of short sharp blasts and we swung around hard to starboard. We could see the wake of a torpedo path 50 yards from our ship and our destroyer escort sped over to drop a depth charge.
Three hours later, when we had stopped surveying the very few lifeboats we appeared to be carrying, there was a roar and the ship shuddered as though she had been hit with a big hammer. A depth charge, ready for dropping, had been accidentally released from another of our escort vessels, HMS Hood, a little way in front of us. On my way to the mess to have a tonic or two to soothe my shattered nerves, I saw a big oil tanker burning fiercely. Altogether, it was a very disturbing day.
On June 16, 1940 we entered the Firth of Clyde, the end of our journey. The arrival was impressive: the ships in our convoy – transports, aircraft carriers and cruisers – sailed in a line doing about 25 knots as the destroyers raced along beside them, causing the small fishing trawlers in the harbour to rock and pitch as the bow waves reached them. We passed the boom at Gourock and experienced for the first time the long hours of daylight. When 'lights out' sounded as usual at 10.15 p.m. the sun was still shining.CHAPTER 3
The Second Echelon had arrived in Scotland shortly after the British evacuation from Dunkirk and the collapse of France. The New Zealand troops were sent to training camps in the south of England; from there they became part of a hastily arranged force that was to defend England if the Germans invaded from across the Channel. When this threat receded towards the end of 1940, the New Zealanders were sent to join First Echelon troops in Egypt.
We disembarked in Scotland the following day and saw a newspaper for the first time in several weeks. France had capitulated. The shock of discovering this was forgotten when the men realised there was a bar on the station, and one by one fell out to 'visit the latrines, sir'. The place was almost full by the time I caught on and there was a lot of jostling going on. A glass rolled on the counter, and the barmaid called out in a broad Scots accent that we should be 'verra careful or I shall have to charge you for any broken glasses'.
There was a moment's silence while everyone wondered if she was joking. I thought back to a pub in Perth, where the floor had been gleaming with broken glass. And to one in Cape Town, where the glasses men emptied had been tossed over the heads of those in front. The ones the barman could catch were refilled; presumably the rest were swept up later on.
Excerpted from Greece Crete Stalag Dachau by Jack Elworthy, Jo Elworthy. Copyright © 2014 Estate of Jack Elworthy. Excerpted by permission of Awa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Preparing for war 7
2 To England 11
3 England 1940 17
4 To Egypt 25
5 Egypt 29
6 Greece 33
7 Retreat to Larissa 39
8 Retreat to Atalanti 47
9 Retreat to Athens 57
10 Retreat to the beaches 62
11 First days in Crete 69
12 Invasion 76
13 The battle continues 85
14 Over the mountains 91
15 Sfakia 100
16 Captured again 108
17 The camp at Maleme 113
18 Settling in 123
19 Working for the enemy 131
20 Staying on at Maleme 138
21 Galatas prison camp 144
22 Last days in Crete 152
23 Salonika 158
24 Train to Lamsdorf 163
25 Life in Stalag VIIIB 168
26 Evacuation to Nuremberg 176
27 Liberation 180
28 Kiwi GI 185
29 Dachau 195
30 Occupation duties 198
31 A Kiwi again 205
32 The end of the adventure 210
33 Making a new life 215
Court of Enquiry, 1945 221
Letter, 1993 224
Further reading 239
Illustration credits 240