The forgotten tragedy of Kiwi heroes and the inspiration of The Guns of Navarone

by Charles Hamlin / 25 April, 2017
New Zealand members of the Long Range Desert Group in the North African desert. Photo/Alamy/Coloured by Harry Burgess

New Zealand members of the Long Range Desert Group in the North African desert. Photo/Alamy/Coloured by Harry Burgess

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What’s the connection between New Zealand and one of the most famous war stories of all time? A forgotten tragedy that befell our first Special Forces in Churchill’s second bid for the Dardanelles. 

Long before World War II, Italy stole the string of Greek islands that hang like a necklace around the throat of the Aegean Sea. In 1943, with the war at its height, Winston Churchill planned to steal them back. It was, he said, “an immense but fleeting opportunity”.

In fact, it was a return to his old obsession of snatching the Dardanelles. In 1915, it had led to the futile slaughter at Gallipoli and created the Anzac legacy. And 28 years later, it made for a new disaster whose victims included another, far from ordinary band of New Zealand soldiers.

The original commandos of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), the first modern Special Forces unit, were an elite. Their epic last stand among the Greek islands is scarcely known, but it inspired Alistair MacLean’s 1957 novel The Guns of Navarone – a worldwide bestseller adapted, four years later, into one of the most famous war movies of all time.

Now the real story is being written by Aucklander Brendan O’Carroll, arguably the world’s leading expert on the LRDG.

On parade for General Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Forces, 1941.

Kiwi Scorpions

O’Carroll builds castles in his spare time. Miniature castles. Brick by tiny concrete brick, each of which he individually casts. The hobby started as a way of unwinding after long days as a chief customs officer. He recently retired, and his suburban backyard has enough small-scale battlements to fill a fairy kingdom.

O’Carroll says it was “purely by chance” that he built an unrivalled knowledge of the New Zealanders of the LRDG, the men he calls the Kiwi Scorpions. The name was inspired by the unit’s scorpion badge, itself devised by a New Zealander. In a framed case in his study, a real desert scorpion is preserved, among a comforting clutter of books, models, files, paintings and objets de guerre.

O’Carroll has had a lifelong interest in such militaria, particularly if it has a New Zealand connection. In the 1990s, he took to writing about historic New Zealand military units for Militaria magazine, a highly regarded international publication. A chance encounter led him to an LRDG veteran. He wrote an article, but it didn’t end there.

“It just got bigger and bigger. More veterans came out and wanted to talk. I didn’t have to chase them; they were chasing me. And these were old men, in their eighties at the time, most of them. They just wanted to tell their stories before all were lost to time. They had this sort of need to get their stories out.”

The veterans were of a type, he says: “All very down-to-earth men; practical, stoic. Classic Kiwi blokes – not boastful. You had to drag stuff out of them, and they underplayed it when they talked.”

But he found them at just the right moment. “I was so lucky to have met them in their old age. They wouldn’t have talked about it at all when they were younger. It’s too painful.

“Some of them were very dispassionate about what they did; others were overwhelmed by it. I had a few blokes who broke down and cried as they were telling their stories. I’d say, ‘You want to give it a rest now?’ They’d say, ‘No, no. I want to get it out.’”

As the stories built up, so did the background material. O’Carroll continued gathering information over the years and he now has a record of every LRDG operation, “every detail, every order, every timing”. He has photographs of uniforms, insignia, gear and paraphernalia “down to bloody cigarette tins”. He describes it all as “great drill-down stuff” – a mine for the human story of the Kiwi Scorpions that he’s so far set down in four books: “I love writing personal accounts rather than dry histories,” he says. “My books are mostly personal accounts.” And now that the veterans are dead, O’Carroll is the only source for that human truth of their experience.

The American novelist Steven Pressfield relied on O’Carroll’s expertise for his 2008 novel Killing Rommel – a fictionalised account of a real LRDG mission to do just that (the film rights are held by Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of Top Gun, The Rock and Black Hawk Down). In 2009, O’Carroll was one of three amateur historians featured in a documentary, Lost in Libya, that retraced the LRDG’s greatest raid. The New Zealand Special Air Service has honoured him for his work.

Retirement has given O’Carroll the time to write the most difficult part of the Kiwi Scorpions’ experience, the hardest bit to “drill down” into, because so few who were there made it back.

“I’ve always felt the need to do this story, because I’ve written all those other books about the Kiwis in the LRDG, and this is the final chapter.”

It’s also perhaps the greatest New Zealand war story never told – except in the guise of fiction.

An LRDG soldier on patrol, 1942. Photo/Getty Images

“Improvise and dare”

“This is the time to play high,” Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill said on Italy’s surrender in September 1943. “Improvise and dare.” Italy had taken the Greek islands of the Dodecanese from Ottoman Turkey in 1912. Now Churchill wanted to snatch them from their Italian garrisons with one hand and take the Dardanelles with the other. It would open a warm-water route to Russia and convince neutral Turkey to join the Allies.

A sceptical United States refused Churchill any support. His plan went ahead regardless, relying on just a few hundred commandos to see it through.

The start was fumbled: the vital main objective of Rhodes fell to a swift German initiative. Without its airfields, Britain couldn’t project air power into the Aegean. But the commandos took the other strategic key of Leros and 3000 British regular soldiers reinforced the island.

The Germans hit back hard. “Turkey’s attitude is determined solely by their confidence in our strength,” Hitler told his military chiefs.

“The Germans took their best soldiers out of Russia, out of France,” says O’Carroll, and sent them into the Aegean. Some 350 aircraft went with them.

The British had just 20-odd Spitfires on the island of Kos. It quickly fell to the Germans, and the whole campaign was lost. Winning on the ground, as New Zealand soldiers learnt at such cost on Crete in 1941, required command of the air.

The British troops were now isolated on Leros. They were relentlessly attacked from the air for a hundred days. Their only lifeline was the Royal Navy, invincible by night but extremely vulnerable to air attack by day. A German invasion was only a matter of time. The LRDG were sent to provide warning of its approach.

Winston Churchill. Photo/Getty Images

The unit’s role was gathering intelligence deep behind enemy lines. “Patrols went to the outlying islands – and a lot of these islands were occupied by the Germans – and they set up their radios and they’d hide there and just watch.”

The Kiwi Scorpions quickly proved how useful their kind of daring could be. A patrol under former All Black Charlie Saxton was operating on enemy-held Kythnos, far to the west. They saw a German convoy coming through towards Leros and signalled the Royal Navy. The invasion fleet was intercepted and sunk. Of the 2500 German troops who embarked on the convoy, the official history reckoned only 90 survived. Huge amounts of vital materiel went down with them. “That’s a huge impact,” O’Carroll marvels.

It was the most effective British blow of the whole campaign. Some of the convoy’s survivors were taken aboard a rusty coastal trawler operated clandestinely by the British. But the Germans overpowered the vessel, wrecked it on Levitha, 30km west of Leros, and established radio contact with German intelligence.

The Germans decided to send in their finest special forces, the Brandenburgers, just to rescue their people. Major General Francis Brittorous, the pompous British commander on Leros, ordered the LRDG to take the island from them.

“I don’t know why they didn’t send regular British troops, of which they had a whole brigade. That’s a decision that is hard to understand.” So was the general’s refusal to authorise a reconnaissance mission to see what they were up against.

The whole thing was a “foolish enterprise”, reckoned the LRDG’s commander, “a wicked and misplaced attempt to regain the confidence [British headquarters] had lost in the Aegean campaign”.

Brendan O’Carroll.

Patched-up boats

The Kiwi Scorpions had a single day to prepare for the landing, practising in assault boats peppered with German machine-gun holes that they had quickly patched up. During a rare break, a few of the troopers – wet, cold and tired – neglected to salute Brittorous as he swept by in a jeep. Apoplectic, he got out and gave them a dressing-down. “So you think yourselves tough, do you? I’ll bloody well give you something to be tough about!”

It was prophetic. Two LRDG squadrons, one New Zealand and one British, landed separately on Levitha after midnight. Their radios failed, so co-ordinated action became impossible. They slowly made their way inland, only to encounter more troops than they ever thought were there.

“It was supposed to be 50 men and a radio station,” says O’Carroll. “A soft target. A two-day operation.” But nothing about Levitha was soft. The Germans there were far stronger in number and they were reinforced during the day by more Brandenburg commandos. The British squadron were prisoners by the afternoon. The Germans turned their full strength on the New Zealanders, on the ground and in the air.

“All the time, the Kiwis are getting strafed by these seaplane fighters and Stukas. These poor Kiwis were just harangued and harassed by bombs and machine-gun fire.”

The terrain was against them. “It’s all rock and shrub. There are no distinguishing features. It’s very hard to even spot the enemy.”

The New Zealanders were twice ambushed by German machine-gun positions, yet by late afternoon they were still in the fight – and they had taken 35 German prisoners.

German troops land on Levitha, October 1943. Photo/Getty Images

But they were using captured weapons, having run out of ammunition for their own. They had no food or water, having shared the little they did have with their prisoners. “They’re all exposed to the same firepower, the same intense heat. So the Kiwis shared their two-day rations with these 35 captured German paratroopers.”

As the day wore on, “men got wounded, men got killed”. The New Zealand medic, Private B Steedman, was struggling to cope with both their own and German wounded. “He put a white flag up and negotiated his own surrender and capture so he could take out the wounded men, so they could be properly treated. He deserves a medal.”

By evening, the New Zealanders were backed against the edge of the 140m cliff they had made their way up before dawn. Their emergency extraction point was on the other side of the island, where the British squadron had come ashore. They had no chance, but with typical bravado, they invited the Germans to surrender. The Germans declined.

The New Zealanders were physically exhausted, without water or escape, controlling dangerous prisoners behind them, fighting elite soldiers in front, being strafed from above. Inevitably, they were overwhelmed: those who weren’t killed were taken prisoner. One veteran told O’Carroll of handing his weapons over to the Germans he had captured, saying, ‘Now we’re your prisoners.’”

In a single day, the Kiwi Scorpions had lost more men than they had in three years in North Africa. And it wasn’t over yet. The Germans invaded Leros three weeks later, hitting the island from multiple points by both sea and air. It was, says O’Carroll, “the biggest German airborne operation since Crete”. The troops were supported by swarming fighters and bombers, operating from Rhodes and Crete.

Photo/Getty Images

Observation posts

Leros was a fortress island, its large harbour dominated by a massive Crusades-era castle and surrounded by mountains topped with heavy defensive artillery. On all the high points of Leros were the big guns, like those in The Guns of Navarone.

The LRDG men who hadn’t been sent on the daring and now-legendary landing on Levitha occupied those high points for observation posts. “So they got the job of overseeing the Italian gun crews, encouraging them and making sure they remained loyal.” There are accounts of the Italians being drunk and fearful of the hard men of the LRDG.

When the invasion came, the Kiwi Scorpions in charge of the guns directed fire onto the incoming German ships, and then onto German troop concentrations – sometimes lobbing shells literally just over the heads of friendly forces. Meanwhile, those around the groves and towns of the island’s narrow midpoint teamed with Special Boat Squadron troops, “formed groups of like-minded men” and took the fight to the Germans.

Again, it was impossible to prevail against overwhelming enemy air power. Leros was surrendered after four days of hard battle. The 3000 British troops on the island were taken prisoner, but not the LRDG. Not this time.

“They said, ‘Bugger this, we’re not surrendering,’” says O’Carroll. “They were trained to escape and evade. They went down to the beaches and stole boats, anything that floated, and sailed a day or two to Turkey.”

Brittorous had been recalled a week before the battle even started. “He wasn’t suitable,” says O’Carroll. “He was taken out.”

NZEF commander General Bernard Freyberg. Photo/Getty Images

Rebuilding the story

When Leros fell, the big guns of the island that hadn’t already been destroyed by German bombs were blown up by the LRDG. MacLean’s story had its plot. His imagination took the guns of Leros, placed them inside its imposing castle and transferred them wholesale onto his German-held Navarone. Leros itself became his story’s fictional Kheros, where 1000 British troops were saved when Keith Mallory and his team destroyed the guns of Navarone.

Piece by piece, MacLean rebuilt the story into a narrative that fashioned a fictional victory from the last major Allied defeat of the war. The tragedy was down to what one author has called “Churchill’s Folly”, helped along by a British general’s “foolish enterprise”. Combined, they destroyed the Kiwi Scorpions one way or another. It was not without irony.

New Zealand soldiers died in large numbers in the Great War, thanks to dubious British plans and generals, starting at Gallipoli. In World War II, the New Zealand Government therefore insisted its troops were used at its discretion and remained under General Bernard Freyberg’s command.

But the LRDG was a British Army unit, its original New Zealand contingent in fact taken without Freyberg’s knowledge.

By the time he found out, those originals had made the LRDG too invaluable to disband. The British constantly asked for more New Zealand troops to expand the unit, but the request was always denied. British and Rhodesian soldiers filled the need. The wary position of the New Zealand Government was vindicated when the Kiwi Scorpions were sent to the Aegean – without its consent or Freyberg’s knowledge.

The disaster that followed, in which nearly half of the Kiwi Scorpions were killed or captured, triggered Wellington’s decision to disband the New Zealand squadron. The men who had made the LRDG, incredibly skilled Special Forces troops, returned to the 2nd New Zealand Division.

The Dardanelles campaign of 1915, devised to knock Turkey out of a war, had been the nadir of Churchill’s career. It’s arguable that, in 1943, he saw the chance to prove he’d been right all along, with the intent of bringing Turkey into the war. But a variant of the same plan produced a variant of the same tragedy. A campaign that was ill-conceived, under-resourced and doomed before it began was carried through into disaster – and into legend.

The difference was that the Kiwi Scorpions lived on unrecognised in the legend of Navarone, bestselling book and blockbuster movie, not on their own terms. “We’ve got hundreds of stories about Gallipoli,” says O’Carroll. “This story is just a wee bit different.”

He says it’s probably the last book he’ll ever write: “It’s a hell of a job. But I feel committed to do this. I’ve got to do it. I feel a moral obligation to those great men to conclude their story.”

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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