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  • Hachette New Zealand

Men of Valour

Hachette Australia

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Prose: non-fiction, History, Second World War

New Zealand's battle for Crete in the Second World War.

For a time in the Second World War, Crete was the prize both sides wanted. The Allies had it and the Germans wanted it. The Germans won. The man in charge of hanging on to it was Bernard (Tiny) Freyberg, the New Zealand Divison commander who was made the Greek island s intended saviour. With him was a ragtag army of New Zealand, Australian, British and Greek troops, most of whom had just been beaten off Greece; they had the clothes they stood up in and most of their arms and ammunition had been left behind in Greece. They had to withstand the mightiest airborne invasion the world had yet seen. They had to confront the elite of Hitler s army, a blitzkrieg from the air.

Wearily, both sides fought almost to a standstill. It was a German victory but at such a cost that it was the end of airborne assaults; German losses were almost as many as those of the Allies. The New Zealanders got away thanks to the Royal Navy or on boats they begged, borrowed or stole; many never got away at all. A year on from Dunkirk, where the Germans drove the British out of France, New Zealand troops had their own Dunkirk. Beaten and bedraggled, they made their way back to Egypt; they d fought for the first time as a division and been beaten. For the first time, they had fought as New Zealanders under the overall command of a New Zealander. This was a Kiwi-led action, and it was a disaster. Inquiries followed: was Freyberg at fault? Did he make mistakes that allowed the Germans to make key advances? Were his subordinates, schooled in the tactics of World War One, incompetent? Did some of Freyberg s officers do the dirty on him? Was he betrayed to his closest supporters, New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill? But like the British after Dunkirk, the New Zealanders rose again. Freyberg led the division through North Africa and Italy, adding to their battle laurels as they went and striking fear and respect into the hearts of enemies.

Ironically, Crete was left behind in the war, occupied by Germans but the fighting had gone elsewhere and no one wanted it anymore.

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