How I went into single combat on TV, intellectually speaking, with Antony Beevor

It’s a decade since I took on Anthony Beevor on TV, over his comments about Bernard Freyberg and his role in losing the 1941 Battle for Crete.

Wright - Battle for Crete - 200 pxI wasn’t able to get a face-to-face interview, but I was able to appear on Mike Hosking’s Sunday show in riposte to remarks Beevor made on the same show a week earlier.

The battle for Crete remains one of New Zealand’s legendary military near-misses, a battle lost by a hairs-breadth – keying into the national inferiority complex by which New Zealand was always able to punch above its weight on the world stage, but always just managed to miss the grand prize. This mind-set does much to explain the soul-searching that followed the evacuation – and the arguments that raged after the war, in the pages of history books, usually over who to hold responsible.

The fault has been levelled variously at the New Zealand brigadier running the defence of Maleme airfield, at the battalion commander on the airfield, and on the New Zealand commander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg, in charge of island defence. In 1991, Antony Beevor excoriated Freyberg, considering he had misread an intelligence signal and so lost the island. It was, at best, specious – Freyberg actually did a tremendous job, and battles don’t pivot on a single signal. Beevor also never used the primary documentation available in New Zealand.

near_runI first looked into the battle for Crete in 1999, when my publishers, Reed New Zealand, asked me to write a history of those dramatic days. They specified a short book for the general audience – not the specialist academic military-historical community – and with a maximum length of 30,000 words the text was, deliberately, intended as a brief account.

crete2I called the book A Near-Run Affair: New Zealanders in the Battle for Crete, riffing on Arthur Wellesley’s quip after Waterloo. The book sold very well into its intended audience, and was acclaimed by independent reviewers.

In 2003, Reed reissued the book with revised title – Battle for Crete: New Zealand’s Near-Run Affair. This edition also sold well.

Battle for Crete became the first volume in a trilogy I wrote covering the Second New Zealand Division from their first battles in Greece to the dramatic dash to Trieste in the closing days of the war – the other two are Desert Duel and Italian Odyssey. I did talk with Penguin about releasing them as an omnibus seven or eight years ago, but that came to nothing.

Now, all three are being reissued by Intruder Books, starting with Battle for Crete, which has been revised and is in its third incarnation. Not too shabby for any author.

The book’s out with an introductory price for $US 3.99. Get it now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

‘Battle for Crete': cover reveal!

My book Battle for Crete: New Zealand’s Near-Run Affair, a brief history of New Zealand’s close-run defeat on Crete in 1941, is being republished as part of a new military series by Intruder Books. It’s the third time this title’s been released – and this time you’ll be able to get it instantly, on Kindle. Here’s the cover.

Wright - Battle for Crete - 450 px I really like this. To me, it echoes the colour tonings and style of the 1940s – but with a modern twist.

I wrote this book in 1999, and it was published in 2000 by Reed NZ Ltd under the title A Near-Run Affair. Reed republished it in 2003 with a new title, which has been retained for the mildly revised Intruder Books edition. This new edition is available at an introductory price of $US 3.99 and marks the first time it’s been available in over a decade. It follows Intruder’s re-issue of three earlier titles in my military history series. Don’t forget to check ’em out – here. If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for whatever device you own, here.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Peter Jackson’s re-definition of awesome – the Gallipoli diorama, close up

Last weekend I visited Sir Peter Jackson’s giant diorama of New Zealand’s attack on Chunuk Bair at the height of the Gallipoli campaign in August 1915. Giant? You betcha. With 5000 custom-posed 54-mm figures, individually painted by volunteer wargamers from around New Zealand, the only word is wow! Here are my photos.

The only word is wow... Close-up I took hand-held with my SLR...

The only word is wow… Close-up I took hand-held with my SLR…

Tail of the diorama - which filled an immense room.

Tail of the diorama.

The whole thing was assembled by Weta Workshop. The project was overseen by a former head of the Defence Force  Lt-Gen Rhys Jones. The models, made for the project by Perry Miniatures, include special custom figures – William Malone, commanding the New Zealand forces atop the hill, is recognisable. So too are some of the artists who contributed. Blogging friend Roly Hermans – ‘Arteis’ – is one of them.

So for me there was a good deal of anticipation – but my wife and I missed the opening by a day when we first visited Jackson’s First World War exhibition, and it was only last weekend we finally got to see it.

To say I was blown away is an understatement. The hills of Chunuk Bair – an exact replica of the real terrain – stretched out before me in 1/32 scale, studded with foliage and people.  The model was enormous. I scrabbled to re-set my camera. What particularly blew me away was the attention to detail – including no-holds-barred representations of casualties. Woah!

This is just a PART of the whole thing. Wow!

This is just a PART of the whole thing. Wow!

Another section of this immense diorama.

Another section of this immense diorama – all behind glass, of course.

The battle for Chunuk Bair has long been considered New Zealand’s defining moment – when we ‘came of age’ as a nation. As a historian I dispute that those of the day saw it that way immediately – it emerged afterwards. But that’s not to dispute its validity. The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, in part on the back of Maurice Shadbolt’s play ‘Once On Chunuk Bair’, which rehabilitated the image of Malone; but also buoyed by New Zealand’s re-invention of itself as a proper nation on the world stage – rather than a dependent appendage of Britain.

Here's Colonel William Malone - custom-modelled - just behind the ridge at Chunuk Bair. Another hand-held closeup I took with my zoom...

Here’s Colonel William Malone – custom-modelled – just behind the ridge at Chunuk Bair. Another hand-held closeup I took with my zoom, provoking various depth-of-field issues…

Chunuk Bair was the main effort to break out of the lodgement above Anzac Cove and reach the forts on the far side of the Gallipoli peninsula – the original first-day objective of the landings back in April 1915. It failed, though only just. At the time, Malone became scapegoat – and the near-miss aspects of the battle fed into the deep national inferiority complex of the day (‘most dutiful of Britain’s children’ rather than ‘confident emerging nation’), creating a mythology of New Zealand – especially militarily – as a nation of also-rans.

Another hand-held close-up of the diorama...

Detail from another hand-held close-up I took of the diorama…

A friend of mine, Chris Pugsley, subsequently dislodged that idea altogether in his book Gallipoli (Reed 1985) – which remains in print today and where he defined not just a new view of New Zealand’s Gallipoli campaign, but a new way of approaching military history.

Some of the nearly 5000 miniatures - all individually painted and many custom-posed - that feature in the diorama.

Some of the nearly 5000 miniatures – all individually painted and many custom-posed – that feature in the diorama.

I covered Gallipoli myself, later, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010), which looked at the way the war experience destroyed innocence. And one of the vehicles for that, on Gallipoli, was Chunuk Bair. So it was doubly amazing for me to be able to look at this amazing diorama, and think back to the accounts I’d read of the time – the desperation, the heroism, the arguments, and the dangers of a battlefield that could be swept from end to end by machine gun fire.

Quite apart from the fact that we’ve now got this totally awesome model of it – right here in New Zealand.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Pushing hard science into history

I am amazed at how easily hard science intrudes into almost any subject. A few years ago I edited a volume of New Zealand naval memories for Random House – stories from participants in our Second World War sea battles. One of the accounts proudly explained that our light cruiser Achilles had been good for 36 knots, and pushed towards that at the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939.

HMS Achilles of the New Zealand Naval Division at the Battle of River Plate, 13 December 1939. Artwork by John Lloyd. Lloyd, Arthur John, b 1884. Lloyd, Arthur John, b. 1884 :New Zealand's flag flies in the first naval battle of the war; H M S Achilles by skilful handling evades the shells of the Admiral Graf Spee [Auckland; 1940]. Ref: C-055-004. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23233527

HMS Achilles of the New Zealand Naval Division at the Battle of River Plate, 13 December 1939, flying the biggest New Zealand flag her crew could find (‘Make way for the Digger flag’, a sailor cried as he rushed deck-wards with it). Credit: Lloyd, Arthur John, b. 1884 :New Zealand’s flag flies in the first naval battle of the war; H M S Achilles by skilful handling evades the shells of the Admiral Graf Spee [Auckland; 1940]. Ref: C-055-004. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23233527

From a science perspective that didn’t add up, literally, because Achilles was designed for 32.5 knots. I knew that the draconian physics of ship propulsion made it impossible for Achilles to achieve 36. But the claim was emotionally genuine, and that made me wonder, so I set to work to figure out how Achilles actually performed at the River Plate – and why her crew had that belief in her speed.

That battle pitted Achilles, her sister ship Ajax, and the heavy cruiser Exeter against the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee. In theory the Graf Spee had it all over the British. Actually, the Germans were sent packing; and one of the ways the two light cruisers avoided much damage was by ramping up to maximum speed, well above Graf Spee’s modest 26 knots.

The eyewitness, in short, was right about the need for speed, even if his numbers were out.

But I wanted the numbers. I knew the speed Commodore Henry Harwood ordered the cruisers to make: 31 knots, essentially max tactical speed, with bit in hand for station-keeping. But was it feasible? First off in my analysis was design data. Achilles, a Leander class cruiser, was designed for 32.5 knots at 72,000 horsepower. However, the physics of marine propulsion are dismal. Ship hulls are typically optimised for cruising speed, and as a rule of thumb, power demand goes up by the cube of the speed. For Achilles, cruising at 16 knots demanded just 1/8 of the power needed to reach 32. I calculated that she would have had to generate roughly 115,500 horsepower to make 36 knots – quite impossible for her steam plant, even if it was pushed until it exploded.

HMS Achilles early in the battle, seen from HMS Ajax. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Achilles during the battle, seen from HMS Ajax. Note Achilles’ high wake – indicative of massive power output in shallow water. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

That wasn’t all, either. For Achilles to reach even her theoretical top speed of 32.5 knots demanded ideal conditions – not what was found off the Plate. Parameters that make practical maximum speed differ from design speed include actual displacement at the moment (variable, depending on consumables aboard), cleanliness of the hull, state of the propulsion plant, and especially depth of water.

Conveniently, Achilles‘ maintenance record is held by Archives New Zealand and the other data was also to hand. So! When battle opened Achilles was four months out of dock, well within the life of her anti-fouling paint. Barnacles and weed were not an issue. But she had just refuelled; and with full fuel tanks and munitions her displacement was close on maximum war load, affecting the water-plane area and cutting top speed below her peacetime design maximum. She was also two months overdue for a ‘two year’ refit, major maintenance intended to include ‘wear and waste’ tests on her boilers. She had been worked hard since the outbreak of war despite the delay. When the refit was eventually completed in June 1940, some 781 superheater tubes had to be renewed.

Achilles' aft turrets after the battle, with blistered paint from the heat of firing. I've put my hand on Y-turret, foreground - it's preserved at the Devonport naval base. Public domain,  New Zealand Electronic Text Centre http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/WH2-1Epi-fig-WH2-1Epi-b013a.html

Achilles’ aft turrets after the battle, with blistered paint from the heat of firing. I’ve put my hand on Y-turret, foreground – it’s preserved at the Devonport naval base. Public domain, New Zealand Electronic Text Centre http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/WH2-1Epi-fig-WH2-1Epi-b013a.html

All this hampered the ability of the ship to reach her design speed – but the main complication was that the battle was fought in shallow water. The thing about water is that (a) it has high mass for volume, demanding a lot of energy to move it; and (b) it’s incompressible in any practical sense, meaning that it acts as a solid object as far as energy transmission is concerned. What this means is that a ship in shallow water expends stupid amounts of propulsion power pushing a train of water from the sea floor to the surface – creating a huge wake – instead of pushing itself forwards. The wake phenomenon was observed by the crew at the time, and is visible in photographs. According to one account, when closer to the Plate, Achilles was unable to achieve more than 24-25 knots for this reason.

What happened during the battle was all the more extraordinary as a result. Achilles entered battle at around 14 knots, reaching 28 knots around 6.40 a.m. and working up to 31 knots by about 6.50 a.m. To do this under shallow-water hydrodynamic conditions meant radically over-stressing a tired steam plant – and in fact Achilles’ engineers managed to achieve 82,000 hp and 283 revolutions, well above design limits. What this added up to was that, irrespective of the speed actually reached, the ship was pushed absolutely flat out, a superlative achievement on the part of her engine-room crews. They kept it up through the battle in spite of fact that flames roared out of the furnace grilles and across the boiler room spaces with the shock of every salvo. Think about it. The word you want is ‘heroism’.

And that, my friends, explains the pride with which the performance was then remembered.

I put my reconstruction of what had happened into the book – Torpedo (Random House, 2007), with the science…and nobody noticed. Sigh. But you can read my other account of the battle, right now, in my book Blue Water Kiwis.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Sources: Archives New Zealand, Navy Department, 6/27/1, ‘HMS Achilles (Ship): defects, repairs and refits 1938-42’; R. J. McDougall, ‘New Zealand Naval Vessels’, GP Books, Wellington 1989; S. D. Waters, ‘The Royal New Zealand Navy’, War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1956; Matthew Wright, ‘Blue Water Kiwis’, Reed NZ Ltd, Auckland 2001.

The First World War was about sea battles too – especially Jutland

It’s 99 years today since the great First World War clash of dreadnoughts off the coast of Jutland, the one and only time when the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet came to blows. My great uncle was there, on board HMS Orion.

So too were a number of New Zealanders, many serving aboard the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand, paid for by the Dominion as a grand – and expensive – way of subverting British and Australian thinking about military defence and the structure of Empire.

HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

For these young men it was a dramatic day. The battle began mid-afternoon with a collision of light forces, into which the opposing battlecruisers were then drawn. HMS New Zealand was fourth in the British line, between the modern Queen Mary and the older Indefatigable. And that gave them grandstand seats for two of the biggest disasters the British suffered in the battle.

We envisage the First World War, more often than not, by its ground warfare – symbolised by the imagery of the Western Front. In truth, naval combat could deliver death to similar scale. And that was what happened at Jutland. Around 4.05 p.m. the German battlecruiser Von der Tann landed a salvo on the Indefatigable’s quarterdeck, just as the British force commander, Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, ordered a turn towards the Germans. The Indefatigable battlecruiser failed to make the turn, trailing smoke and apparently sinking by the stern. Another salvo slammed into her fore turret. Observers on New Zealand watched in horror as their sister ship disappeared in a gush of flame and a monstrous cloud of brown smoke, topped with a 50-foot picket boat — apparently intact but upside down. When the smoke cleared only the broken forepart remained visible, canted over and sinking fast. Over a thousand men died in the cataclysm.

HMS Indefatigable sinking, seen from HMS New Zealand. LT CMDR H T DAY - Q 64302, Imperial War Museums (collection no. 3904-01). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg#/media/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg

HMS Indefatigable sinking, seen from HMS New Zealand. LT CMDR H T DAY – Q 64302, Imperial War Museums (collection no. 3904-01). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg#/media/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg

New Zealand almost suffered the same fate when an 11-inch shell slammed into X-turret, ‘filling the turret with thick yellow fumes’ and knocking a piece of 9-inch armour into the ‘danger space’ on the rollers. The blast was ‘felt in the centre sighting position and working chamber, but luckily no one was hurt’. Although this did not impede the turret, splinters on the roller caused problems, and the guns only fired two rounds before the crew had to clear the debris. Fortunately there was no fire – British munitions handling procedures were sloppy and there was every risk of the magazine detonating if fire took hold above.

A few minutes later, at 4.26 p.m., five shells from SMS Derfflinger and SMS Seydlitz slammed into Queen Mary, and a massive explosion tore the ship apart. Kapitan von Egidy of the Seydlitz watched aghast:

. . . When I glanced over at the enemy through the torpedo telescope, my heart jumped to my throat. There, at a distance of ten miles, a huge immovable grey column stood up against the dull blue sky. It must have been two thousand feet across and ten thousand feet high. In its lower part black masses were whirling around. At the top, like an aureole, were glowing, darting spurts of flame. Beside its base something like a torpedo boat was sliding along. A torpedo boat? No, it was number four of the enemy’s line, the Tiger, but it seemed like a tiny boat beside that immense column . . .

HMS Queen Mary blows up at Jutland, as seen from the German lines. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

HMS Queen Mary blows up at Jutland, as seen from the German lines. HMS Tiger is visible to the left, with her huge trail of funnel smoke, partly obscured by two ‘near miss’ shell splashes. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

New Zealand, next ship astern, had to swerve to avoid the wreck. As they swept past, observers saw Queen Mary’s stern rising high out of the water. Her propellers were still turning, but ‘when abreast of us, there was another explosion, after which there was nothing left of her’. Debris showered down, spattering sea and ships. A ring-bolt from the doomed battlecruiser was subsequently found on New Zealand’s deck.

A few minutes later Princess Royal was briefly shrouded in spray and smoke, and observers on the flagship Lion thought she too had been sunk. ‘Chatfield,’ Beatty said to his flag captain, ‘there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ Princess Royal survived; but the lesson was clear. Ships could blow up, all too easily, in battle – something the British made a determined effort to deal with after the battle. That, of course, did not save the men who had died, all in a few minutes, in the cataclysms. Their names are published online, here.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 pxI’ve covered the story of Jutland – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis, re-released by Intruder Books. It’s the third in a series of seven military titles of mine being reissued by Intruder, and the only one in the re-release programme on matters maritime. Although not strictly a history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, it was taken up by the service as the book marking their sixtieth anniversary that year. Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The tale of the Russian terrorist ship, and why you have to buy the book

Back in mid-February 1873, Auckland newspaper editor David Leckie revealed the dramatic story of a secret Russian cruiser whose crew had taken over a British warship in Auckland harbour, with the help of a ‘submarine pinnace’, and was holding the city to ransom.

David Leckie - sometimes also spelt Luckie - Photographer unknown :Portrait of David Mitchell Luckie. Ref: PA2-2596. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23114007

David Leckie – sometimes also spelt Luckie – Photographer unknown :Portrait of David Mitchell Luckie. Ref: PA2-2596. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23114007

Their agent of terror was ‘deadly water gas’ invented by ‘the late General Todtlieben’, which had rendered the crew senseless. Then the Russian terrorists had pointed the British guns at the city, taken leading citizens hostage, and ’emptied the coffers of the banks’.

It was an outrageous act of terror, and half Leckie’s readers believed him. Though anybody reading it aloud would have known they were being pranked, because apart from the silly name of the German inventor (‘Deathlove’), Leckie also dubbed his Russian terror warship (wait for it) the Kaskowiski.

His actual aim was to raise awareness of New Zealand’s vulnerability to the Russian Bear – the Bad Guy de Jour of the 1870s. The ‘Great Game’ – Britain’s tussle with Russia over Afghanistan – was afoot, and with it risk of war. New Zealand, just emerged from the ‘New Zealand Wars’, was a far-flung outpost of Empire, and feeling vulnerable. And so New Zealand’s long naval story –  a story that extended to the furthest corners of the globe – began.

I’ve covered that story – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis, just re-released by Intruder Books. It’s the third in a series of seven military titles of mine being reissued by Intruder, and the only one in the re-release programme on matters maritime.

New Zealand’s naval defence has always faced a weird paradox. As a small island nation, we’re not particularly vulnerable to invasion. But our over-water interests stretch far into blue waters – along our trading routes, into the regions given us to protect. Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 pxWe first confronted the problem in the 1870s – and it’s dogged New Zealand ever since. The key issue, as always, is figuring out ways of paying for the navy needed to do the work. The historical solutions, for decades, were entwined with New Zealand’s sense of self, and of its place in the wider British Empire of the early twentieth century. And that, as much as the exciting stories of battles in the First and Second World Wars – is what Blue Water Kiwis is all about.

Blue Water Kiwis was originally published in late 2001, a couple of years after I proposed it. Although not strictly a history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, it was taken up by the service as the book marking their sixtieth anniversary that year. Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Blue Water Kiwis: cover reveal!

I’ve got some exciting news – my book Blue Water Kiwis, my history of New Zealand’s military aviation to the end of the Cold War, is being republished as No. 3 in a new military series by Intruder Books. Here’s the cover.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 px

bluewaterBlue Water Kiwis was first published in 2001 by Reed NZ Ltd, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s founding – though the book itself was about a good deal more than that, tracing New Zealand’s naval story from the early 1870s. I received a good deal of support from the RNZN.

The new edition marks the first time it’s been available in over a decade. It’s being released for Kindle initially, and follows the two earlier titles in my re-released military history series. Don’t forget to check ’em out – here.

If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here. And watch this space…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015