Twenty years ago my publishers, Reed New Zealand, approached me with the suggestion that I might like to write a book on the battle for Crete, which was approaching its sixtieth anniversary at the time.
The battle for Crete played out during late May 1941. Part of the defences were held by New Zealand forces who – like most of the other defenders – had been evacuated to Crete from Greece, minus much of their equipment, and who confronted a massive attack from Germany’s crack fallschirmjager – their parartroopers. After a ferocious close-run struggle, the Kiwis lost control of a key airfield in their sector. So the Germans were able to crack the island defences. Many of the forces defending the island were evacuated, though many were taken prisoner. It was a dramatic battle with overtones that continued to echo in New Zealand, largely on the idea that the Kiwis ‘should have’ defeated the paratroopers.
What my publishers wanted was a text of about 35,000 words to join a series they were publishing on various New Zealand battles and campaigns. That sounded like a good idea to me – and, as we will see, I ended up writing all but one of the titles in that series. The appeal for me was that the battle’s outcome keyed closely into the mid-twentieth century ‘cultural cringe’ by which New Zealand, as a whole, had high expectations of itself but tempered them with the notion that the outcome would never be good enough to pass muster at world level. Yah – the national insecurity complex.
This thinking essentially framed the way the battle was received – and scapegoats were found and named, provoking debate. So there was plenty to write about. But when I looked into it, I found that a good deal of the argument was due to the ‘cringe’ driven notion that New Zealand forces ‘should have’ won. Stripped of that idea, the battle took on a different aspect. And it didn’t boil down to command failure or lost opportunity at all. The real question – well, you’ll have to read the book to find out…
The book has had a long life. I wrote it in 1999 and Reed published it in 2000 as A Near-Run Affair: New Zealanders in the battle for Crete 1941. This riffed from a comment the Duke of Wellington made to Thomas Creevey after Waterloo – ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’. The book was reissued in 2003 as Battle for Crete: New Zealand’s Near-Run Affair 1941. And then in 2018, after a fair amount of work on my part, it was reissued again in print and electronically by Intruder Books, as a revised second edition. You can check that out right now. Click to buy. Go on – you know you want to.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019