Beyond the graves

by David Lomas / 11 April, 2013
Major Don Stott is one of our more than 30,000 war dead whose bodies lie in distant lands. The New Zealand War Graves Project is photographing the tombstone or memorial plaque of every New Zealander killed while on active service.
The Listener, August 21 2010, #3667

Major Don Stott is one of New Zealand's most remarkable war heroes, a fearless soldier who should have won a Victoria Cross. He was denied it simply because his bravery and cunning were so extreme that he pulled off one of the most daring acts of behind-enemy-lines sabotage of World War II without the Germans even knowing he'd been there.

Stott, whose remarkable deeds also include pole-vaulting out of a German prisoner of war camp, is one of our more than 30,000 war dead whose bodies lie in distant lands with the tombstones and memorials to them often never seen by loved ones. A special operation is under way to at least partly redress that. The New Zealand War Graves Project is photographing the tombstone or memorial plaque of every New Zealander killed while on active service, irrespective of the uniform they fought in. The photographs will be kept at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, where relatives will be able to view them. It's also planned to have them available for viewing on a website.

Major Don Stott during his time in Greece.

The War Graves Project was initiated after University of Auckland computer expert Dennis Kerins met an elderly friend of his mother. The woman had been engaged to Kerins's uncle, but he'd died serving with the New Zealand Army in Crete in 1941. "She told me she thought of Bill every day and that the only thing she wanted was to see a picture of his grave," says Kerins. "It took me three years to get it, but I got her the picture."

When Kerins told friends and colleagues of his quest, he was assailed by people with similar stories and realised many New Zealanders had a burning desire to see the final resting place of relatives and loved ones who had died on military duty in foreign lands.

The War Graves Project, with financial support from several charitable trusts, is in the process of photographing the 30,321 known New Zealand war graves and memorials in 76 countries. It has also identified another 3000 New Zealanders who died while serving with other Allied forces.

For Derrick Bunn, one of the project's trustees and the man charged with the photographic mission, the opportunity to photograph Stott's memorial plaque on the small Malaysian island of Labuan, off the coast of Borneo, was the highlight of the 8000 pictures he has taken to date. "What that man did defies belief," says Bunn. "I was just fascinated by him. If he had been an American, there would have been a film made of him, with John Wayne or Sylvester Stallone in the starring role."

Stott, the son of a butcher on Auckland's North Shore, was working at the New Zealand Herald, operating the printing press, when war was declared in 1939. The 26-year-old immediately enlisted in the army, starting his active service in Greece. He was wounded and captured in Crete when German paratroopers overran the island. Held in a POW camp near Athens, Stott and fellow Kiwi Bob Morton devised an ingenious escape plan. The athletic Stott, a keen runner and rugby player, and the robust Morton believed they could use an upcoming camp athletics meeting as an opportunity to get away. They practised pole vaulting until they were sure they could safely clear the 2m-plus perimeter fence.

Fellow prisoner Jack Hinton, who was later awarded the Victoria Cross for Gallantry in Greece, remembers watching the escape and being "amazed" at how high Stott managed to jump.

The German guards, lulled by watching athletics, were stunned when they saw Stott and Morton leap the fence, and quickly opened fire. Attracted by the gunfire, Greek police also set out after Stott and Morton. But instead of firing at the Kiwis, they fired into the air. When the escaping pair made it into bush out of sight of the Germans, the Greeks deliberately went the wrong way, still firing their pistols, thereby leading the Germans away from the escapers.

Stott and Morton spent months hiding in southern Greece, learning rudimentary Greek. Eventually, they secured a small boat and sailed to Alexandria in Egypt. As a result of their Greek exploits, Stott and Morton were asked to join a special unit to be dropped back into Greece. They were to liaise with the Greek Resistance and sabotage vital infrastructure. It was a job Stott did spectacularly well.

In May 1943, two months after parachuting into German-held territory, Stott was asked to help co-ordinate an attack on the Asopos Viaduct, a vital 200m-long bridge in the rugged and remote mountains above the Gulf of Corinth. The plan was for a force of 1000 Greek patriots to attack the heavily guarded viaduct, which was suspended in a gorge 100m-above a wild river, lit up by massive searchlights sweeping the area. British command believed the viaduct's destruction would put the German army's supply operation out of action for up to 10 weeks.

Three days before the attack, the Greek force was ordered by its political wing to pull out. Stott, according to Christchurch author Gabrielle McDonald in her book Secret Heroes, then told the British "we can do it ourselves". McDonald describes access to the viaduct as being "worse than its reputation".

Stott's plan was to attack the bridge by stealth from the gorge below. But the gorge was considered impenetrable. In the area of the viaduct, the river passed through a deep gorge with 300m-high cliffs, treacherous rapids and 20m waterfalls. Stott and his team spent almost a month finding a route up the gorge. To overcome one waterfall, they climbed a sheer 50m cliff-face, chopped down a tree, then fashioned it into a ladder. In many sections they had to battle their way through the freezing river.

On the night of June 20, 1943, they were below the bridge. A German guard was silently killed and his body washed down the river. Then, dodging the searchlights, the men attached time-delayed explosives to the viaduct.

The original Asopos Viaduct before its destruction.

When the viaduct blew up a few hours later, the Germans were stunned. As the bridge hadn't been attacked, and it was considered impossible for anyone to have penetrated the gorge, German high command in Greece suspected sabotage by troops guarding the bridge. According to McDonald, the German officer in charge of guarding the bridge and his entire garrison were executed by firing squad. Weeks later, the Germans found a rope made from British parachute cords and realised saboteurs had been responsible.

The attack on that viaduct as well as on others on the Greek rail network, including an operation by Morton in which he destroyed another bridge and the ammunition train passing over it, convinced the Germans the British were planning to attack Greece from North Africa, prompting German leader Adolf Hitler to send extra divisions there and not to the actual Allied target of Sicily.

Stott remained behind German lines until late November 1943, at one stage acting as a go-between in a failed peace deal between the Mayor of Athens, the Germans and the British. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery in leading the team that destroyed the Asopos Viaduct and a Bar for his peace-deal attempt.

His commanding officer, British Brigadier Eddie Myers, recommended Stott for the Victoria Cross for the viaduct destruction, describing him as the bravest man he'd known. In a foreword to McDonald's book, Myers wrote Stott would undoubtedly have been awarded the Victoria Cross "had a shot been fired during the destruction of the Asopos Viaduct".

Stott returned to New Zealand and married childhood sweetheart Mary Snow. Her wedding dress was made from the parachute Stott used to land in Greece. A month later, Stott was back training, this time as part of a special Australian unit that was placing men behind Japanese lines. In March 1945, just a few days after the birth of his son, Stott set off on a mission to operate on the Japanese-occupied island of Borneo.

He and another New Zealander, Captain Leslie McMillan, were dropped off in Borneo by a US submarine. They set off for the shore in a kayak, but weren't seen again. Their bodies were never found.

Visit the New Zealand War Graves Project at


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