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A pair of Anzac survivors of the battle of Crete evacuated to Alexandria, in Egypt. Photo/Getty Images

Crete’s brutal bayonet battle

A new history of the WWII German invasion of the Greek island focuses on a bloody last stand by Anzac troops.

The bayonet is a ghastly weapon. Heard from an enemy trench, the sound of it being whetted is enough to instil fear. The sight of it led even hardened soldiers to panic and break.

For sheer psychological impact, writes Australian historian Peter Monteath in Battle on 42nd Street, there is no more visceral a weapon. And if used effectively, it makes an awful mess of men, as it did on the island of Crete on the morning of May 27, 1941.

With Allied troops led by the New Zealand Division’s General Bernard Freyberg near collapse in the face of, by then, an unstoppable German invasion of the island, men, predominantly Australians and New Zealanders, fixed bayonets and, in what Monteath styles as a “bloody last stand”, charged their enemies.

This small, gory action left 122 Germans dead, but gained no ground and did nothing to change the course of the battle, which ended in Allied defeat five days later.

In the standard popular history of the campaign, Antony Beevor’s much-praised 1991 book Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, this bloody last hoorah by the Anzacs before retreat rates no more than a paragraph. So why has Monteath decided to focus his sturdy history of the Crete debacle around this so-called battle on 42nd Street (“42nd Street” being the Allied soldiers’ nickname for a local road where the charge began)?

The answer is threefold, and the bayonet is key. Monteath argues the Crete campaign, with its first major use of massed paratroops (by the Germans), along with its bloody hand-to-hand fighting, was both the most modern military action to that point, but also crudely primitive. As well, from World War I onwards, death and injury by the bayonet was a rarity, which makes the butchering of scores with the weapon in a single morning an awful throwback to pre-industrial warfare. And then there is the matter of the Anzacs’ state of mind; it is no small thing for a man to run another through, and Monteath examines how ordinary men can find themselves able to do it.

As a study of the day-by-day action, and of Anzac and, to a lesser extent, German and British experiences on Crete during “12 days of unremitting bloodshed”, Monteath’s history can be vivid when drawing from recollections of individual soldiers, such as the Australian who witnessed the 28th (Māori) Battalion in action: “This Māori boy got up with a Bren magazine, and did a Haka! … [then] up got the Māoris and we went with them … [the Germans] couldn’t stop us, they got up and ran, and we just shot them, chased them a mile.”

In his broader narrative, Monteath’s writing is rather less redolent, and he is no revisionist or contrarian. He agrees with the now well-established view that Freyberg’s obsession with a sea invasion, despite clear intelligence of the airborne assault being the main attack, was what ultimately led to the island’s fall and brutal occupation.

When the shooting stopped, some 6000 of all nations were dead, thousands taken prisoner (including my great-uncle Don), and Crete was under the merciless German boot. The victors of the “battle of 42nd Street”, at least most of them, escaped by navy ships to Africa, with a chance to use their bayonets another day.

BATTLE ON 42nd STREET, by Peter Monteath (NewSouth, $39.99)

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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