Paul Murray, in West Australian, 8 October 2017,where the title reads “Brutal bayonet charge at Battle of 42nd Street hidden in grim landscape”
It seems illogical to think that places could retain a memory. Surely they can only invoke one? But we’ve all been somewhere that the surroundings — the place itself — made us feel uncomfortable, perhaps for no particular reason. That creepy, uneasy sensation that something is not quite right there. My strongest experience was visiting Culloden in Scotland, the scene of a gruesome massacre in which military incompetence sacrificed a thousand soldiers supporting the Scottish Jacobites — many with little personally invested in the outcome — pitted against their new Hanoverian rulers.
Even though I had a rough understanding of what had happened, nothing prepared me for the sense of foreboding and deep sadness the site provokes just by being there. Sure enough, it was a gloomy and bitterly cold day on the moors — as it was for the battle on April 16, 1746 — but that didn’t explain the black hole in your guts.
Port Arthur in Tasmania, even before the most recent despicable atrocity, has the same feel. You know bad things happened there when faced only by bare walls.The same sensation came to me at a site from the Maori wars in New Zealand where both sides resorted to trench warfare — as grim as battlefields get.
I ended up in another one this week on the Greek island of Crete where in 1941 a superior force of crack German troops was slaughtered by Anzac soldiers, many of whom later admitted they were shocked by the ferocity of their own actions.
But this historic site is different. A major highway now runs through the middle of the battlefield, strangely draining any sense of the drama I expected the place might hold.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine the exhausted Australian and New Zealand soldiers fighting side by side in the most brutal bayonet charge of modern warfare. It wasn’t the last time bayonets were used in an offensive, but it was the last one of such size and ferocity.
The battlefield went by the disarming Diggers’ moniker of 42nd Street, parodying the Hollywood musical, but was actually named after a regiment of British engineers originally stationed there. Tsikalarion Road, as the locals know it, is on the outskirts of the ancient city of Chania. It was among its peaceful olive groves that the Anzacs encountered German soldiers swarming down from the mountains on the other side of what is now the highway.
The Allied soldiers had been forced off mainland Greece by poor leadership and better German numbers and tactics. They were in bad shape. Thousands arrived without weapons, hoping to be repatriated before the Germans could catch up with them.
The biggest aerial invasion in history began the morning of May 20. Ralph Honner, from WA’s celebrated 2/11th Battalion, was defending a vital airfield at Rethymno just along Crete’s northern coast from Chania: “It was a spectacle that might have belonged to a war between the planets. Out of the unswerving flying fleet came tumbling lines of little dolls, sprouting silken mushrooms that stayed and steadied them, and lowered them in ordered ranks into our consuming fire. And still they came, till all the fantastic sky before us was filled with futuristic snowflakes floating beneath the low black thundercloud of the processional planes, occasionally flashing into fire as if struck by lightning from the earth.”
Seven days later, two Victorian-based Australian regiments, a Greek unit and five from New Zealand, one all-Maori, met an estimated 400 advancing Germans at 42nd Street. The Anzacs had their backs to the sea with nowhere to retreat. The bayonet charge was spontaneous and desperate.
“The forward companies of 21 Battalion had scarcely lined the sunken road when they heard yells that could only come from Maori throats,” the NZ battalion’s official war record says. “It was a blood-stirring haka. The Australians produced a scream even more spine chilling than the Maori effort and the sight of the Maori battalion charging with vocal accompaniment sent the whole line surging forward.
“The forward elements of the enemy did not wait. They threw away their packs and ran. They were shot from the hip and those who hid in the scrub were bayoneted. Some mortar teams that tried to get into action were over-run and dealt with.”
The Anzacs chased the terrified Germans for more than 1600m, putting to the sword an estimated 280, though both sides’ exact figures vary.
The distinguished 2/7th Aboriginal soldier, Reg Saunders, recalls rushing to the first German he engaged: “When I got there I was terribly sorry about it. I looked at him and he was a blond, blue-eyed bloke … his eyes were still open, blood was running out of him, out of his mouth. It was an awful experience.
“I rolled him over to have a look at him and I thought, ‘Jesus, you’re about the same age as me’. I wished I could say, ‘Come on old fellow, get up and let’s get on with the bloody game’, you know … thinking football. After that many Huns appeared, and for them and us it was pretty confused. It was crazy, crazy, the most thrilling few minutes of my life. We were all obsessed with this mad race to slaughter with the bayonets. When we got there they were real men excited like us and some of them terribly frightened.”
Forty years later, Australian Ted Randolf of the 2/7th Field Ambulance recalled: “A sickly, sweet smell drifted through the area getting stronger until one could taste it in the mouth. The smell was of the dead. I can still taste it. Once it is with you, you never forget it!”
The 2/7th lost 10 men with 28 wounded. The Kiwis had 21 casualties with most of the dead from the Maori battalion, highlighting New Zealand’s huge sacrifice on Crete where they lost three times as many as us.
Were we on the side of right in the Battle of 42nd Street? Unquestionably. Was it worth it? Without doubt because Hitler had to be stopped. That doesn’t explain the terrifying nature of the fighting. Only soldiers facing imminent death can really understand that primal instinct.
Standing next to the highway overpass this week at a small memorial, trucks whizzing by overhead and a bare-chested young Greek bloke hanging out his washing at the closest house, there was no sense of the terrible events that happened there.
The horror has passed and the new landscape has swallowed its grim secrets.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten.
About the book on the Battle described earlier by Paul Murray, namely that by PETER MONTEATH
At what point does the will to survive on the battlefield give way to bloodlust? The battle for Crete was at once the most modern and the most ancient of wars. For a week Australian and New Zealand forces were relentlessly hammered from the skies by the Luftwaffe and pursued across Crete by some of the most accomplished and best equipped forces Hitler could muster. On the morning of 27 May 1941, however, all that was about to change. When a unit of German mountain troops approached the Allies’ defensive line — known as 42nd Street — men from the Australian 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions and New Zealanders from several battalions counter-attacked with fixed bayonets. By the end, German bodies were strewn across the battlefield.
Acclaimed historian Peter Monteath draws on recollections and records of Australian, New Zealand, British and German soldiers and local Cretans to reveal the truth behind one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War.
About the Author: Peter Monteath is Professor of History at Flinders University in Adelaide. His best-known books are POW: Australian Prisoners of War in Hitler’s Reich (Macmillan 2011), and, most recently, Escape Artist: The Incredible Second World War of Johnny Peck.