A gunner’s diary: Jim Quinn’s battle on Crete

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Jim Quinn’s battle on Crete lasted a lot longer than most, and his courageous fighting spirit ripples down through the generations.

One of thousands of Allied soldiers left behind when the overrun Allies evacuated the island in 1941, Quinn was taken prisoner of war by the Germans but escaped and lived rough in the mountains of Crete for 18 months before taking the last boat off the island in a daring British military intelligence rescue.

When he returned from the war, medically discharged after his escape from  the Mediterranean island, Jim Quinn never spoke of his ordeal. Like many servicemen who made it home, the mental wounds from the appalling horrors he had witnessed were too great to forget, and too painful to remember.

Quinn’s surviving children have his war diary, a tiny, dilapidated, hard-bound book he carried with him throughout his war, which began in Greece and ended in Egypt. It contains page after page of the story Quinn never told his wife or nine children, six of whom still live in Southland and one in Australia.

The inscriptions are neatly handwritten, mostly in pencil, and are extraordinary for the cavalier, matter-of-fact way in which they record the dramatic, frequently violent events happening around him.

Some of the pages have smudged and faded over time, so that only fragments of legible writing remain, but throughout, in the finest tradition of any New Zealand man of the land, entries usually start with a summary of the weather.

Thursday, April 24, 1941.

“Nice sunny morning. Fritz planes over in force. Very hard day. German planes bombing or machine gunning. Germans opened attack at 10 to 6 with dive bombers, artillery & tanks.”

From hard-working Irish immigrant stock, Jim Quinn was a South Cantabrian. He grew up on Wainono Station, in the Waimate district, and later had a farm at Willowbridge.

He drove trucks for a living and in his spare time trained trotting horses.

Jim met his love Mollie  – Mary Edna Ryan, of Spar Bush, in Southland – at a dance in Oamaru, where she was working at the Empire Hotel.

He was 25 when he enlisted to join the New Zealand Army, at Timaru, in January 1940.

He would write love letters to his Mollie during the war, but he never mentioned where he was or what he was doing. Censors would have blacked out those details anyway.

He married her in 1943 when he returned from the war, medically discharged, at the Christchurch Catholic Cathedral  of the Blessed Sacrament. There were six people at the wedding.

In 1944, word arrived in Christchurch that Quinn had been twice mentioned in dispatches for distinguished service in the field, although the citations do not record what actions earned him the commendations, or when they occurred.

A few years later the family moved back to Mollie’s home province of Southland, where Quinn had a succession of jobs, from working in the Nightcaps coalmines to pub work in Bluff and Invercargill. He worked for the Invercargill City Council and at the Invercargill Toll Exchange for a time.

He was plagued by ill health throughout his life after the war and died in Nelson on January 10, 1969, from pneumonia. He is buried at the Eastern Cemetery in Invercargill in a grave that does not have a bronze military plaque on the headstone.

It was an inglorious end to the life of a courageous and determined man, who overcame hardships few of us will ever have to endure, thanks to his bravery and that of thousands of young men like him.

The Invercargill RSA has heard his story and has paid for a plaque which will give him due military honour to mark his final resting place this year.

Quinn’s eldest daughter Marie, who lives in Invercargill, is convinced the pneumonia was the result of his weakened health from living rough in the mountains of Crete for 18 hard months during World War II.

Jim Quinn would never have admitted it.

☆☆☆☆☆

The  war began for Gunner James Joseph Quinn 22436 on March 31, 1941, when he arrived in Greece with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s 5th Field Regiment, after six months’ artillery training in England.

He was immediately pressed into action, with his 28 Field Battery positioned in the mountains north of Mt Olympus at Olympus Pass, tasked with halting the advance of the Germans’ 9th Panzer Division.

Initially the Kiwis had success, holding the German advance at bay for three days. Quinn writes in his diary that he fired his first shell of the war at 7.15am on Saturday, April 12, 1941. “Direct hit. Second one dead in centre of road.”

Despite rugged resistance from the Kiwis, though, the Germans drove the Allied forces back, forcing the capitulation of Greece.

Quinn writes that on April 23 they “received word we had to break guns and make for coast”.

On the 24th, the retreating Kiwis came under heavy attack.

“Fritz planes over in force. Very hard day. German planes bombing or machine gunning. Germans opened attack at 10 to 6 with dive bombers, artillery & tanks … Blew up guns and retired under German M.G. fire. Drove all night. 110 miles.”

They enjoyed a “wonderful welcome in Athens” on April 25 then shifted into the hills after dark. After a long march to the coast, the New Zealanders embarked south for Crete on the destroyer HMS Kingston at 4.10am on April 27.

Quinn and his colleagues landed at Souda Bay, on the northwestern face of Crete. Part of an artillery force without artillery, which they had had to scuttle and destroy in Greece, Quinn joined other New Zealand soldiers in a composite battalion which became engaged in the defence of the town of Galatas.

Quinn made few entries in his diary during the Battle of Crete, a brief, vicious conflict that started on May 20 and ended on May 30.  Just two illegibly smudged pages remain from those desperate days, during which the New Zealanders under Brigadier James Hargest were unable to hold the airport at Maleme and the Battle of Crete was lost.

“Imagine the stress of operating on Crete,” says war historian Dr Aaron Fox.

“They have minimal food, always under the threat of being captured and the mountains around Crete are quite mountainous, really steep.”

Thousands of Allied forces were evacuated off the southern beach at Sfakia from May 28 to June 1, under constant threat from advancing German troops, but many remained.

Once the British destroyers had left for the last time there were about 6500 Allied troops left behind – more than 2000 of them Kiwis, among them Jim Quinn.

They surrendered to the Germans on June 1.

Quinn wrote in his diary that day.

Sunday, June 1: “Fine hot day. Told that we had capitulated at 0930hrs. German soldiers marched us out of ravine at 1000hrs to village nearby treating us very well. Started very hard march on empty stomach. Capt Hardy died on roadside. Slept in stony field. No rations.”

Word of Quinn’s capture arrived at Studholme Junction in South Canterbury a few weeks later, on June 21, when his mother, Lucille, received a telegram from New Zealand Defence Minister Fred Jones: “Much regret to inform you that your son 22436 Gnr. James Joseph Quinn has been reported missing. The Prime Minister desires me to convey to you on behalf of the Government his sympathy with you in your anxiety.”

Quinn records few details of the two-day forced march over the mountains and across the island to a prisoner of war camp set up in a converted hospital near Chania, on the northern edge of the island.

Monday 2: “On march as POW slept alongside a beautiful stream very cold and hungry. Captain Duigan wants me as batman.”

Tuesday 3: “Sweltering day still on march. Arrived at hospital near Cania [sic] 6pm, now a transit camp for POW. Released Italian prisoners very good to us while on march.”

Quinn mentions that the Germans are “very friendly” but “cigarettes very short, rations short also”.

The camp was laxly guarded, and rations were in short supply. On Monday, June 9, Quinn writes that “everyone short of cigarettes, even officers. Rations terrible, mostly lentils”.

Wednesday 11: “Terribly tired tonight, been out all day, walked for miles through Galatas, brought back clothes, blankets and food for Capt D. and myself, also quantity wine, proceeding to drink same”.

On Tuesday 17, Quinn was not feeling well and was sent to the doctor. Three days later illness had swept through the camp, which was now in quarantine.

Life in the camp was not all hardship and deprivation, however.

Quinn writes that on Wednesday, August 20, there was a big dinner in camp. The menu included “brandy, asparagus on toast, tomato and onion soup, baked potatoes, peas, cabbage, baked onions and pork, watermelon, biscuits and cheese, coffee royal, grapes and cigars”.

To amuse themselves, the Kiwis challenged the Australians to a cricket match on Sunday, September 7. Quinn records that the Kiwis won by an innings and 73 runs.

He was sick again in November and spent another week in hospital. He “didn’t like it very much”. Rations were “just enough to exist on, everyone losing weight, no cigarettes at all.

(The Allied naval) Blockade on the island appears to be very effective, nothing coming to the island, plenty of soldiers leaving, presumably for Russia. Jerry has just put plenty barb wire around hospital and very strict guard so apparently are still expecting something to happen”.

On December 1, Quinn’s routine changed when he started “cooking for the boys” in the camp kitchen. “More comfortable living but longer hours,” he writes.

By December 23 as more prisoners arrived in camp from Libya, Quinn was thinking about escaping. He writes: “feet getting very itchy planning move for near future”.

Quinn hatched a plan to escape on the Christmas Eve, along with two other Kiwis.

December 24, 1941

“Xmas Eve, things not looking too bright for Xmas Dinner in Camp. Made big pudding for Capt Raday great success. Have made up mind to escape tonight so hope for the best.”

The escape plan was simplicity itself. Quinn and his mates would lie beside the camp’s barbed wire perimeter and bolt for it when the sentries weren’t looking.

December 25, 1941

“Last night 10 o’clock said cheerio to the boys.

Dick Dunbier Jim Hanson and myself set out to get through the barb wire, past the guards and so leave prison life behind.

“I was first to go. Guards were attentive so had to take things very slowly. Lay near wire for about half an hour (seemed like a week). One guard a little suspicious, opened fire one shot but even the smoke had nothing on me.

“Then came the changing of the guard so took the risk as soon as they had passed, crawled through the wire and off.”

Quinn writes that in their desire to put distance between themselves and the guards, while they were still just 50 yards from the sentries Hanson was crashing about “making about as much noise as an elephant in a China shop”.

The three raced up a creek but found it tough going, so they went through a grape plantation and decided to cross a river. Quinn had to stand on Dunbier’s shoulders to get over the bank on the other side, because it was too tall and slippery, then Hanson was next up, then the pair at the top pulled Dunbier up.

They walked all night, evading the pockets of Germans they could hear and passed quietly through villages. They followed a road and hugged “Mother Earth very lovingly” every time they saw a car’s lights approaching.

“Wonderful feeling to be free again,” writes Quinn, “especially Xmas Day.”

Dunbier and Hanson left Quinn on December 30, both heading for different towns.

So began the next phase of Quinn’s war: 18 months of living rough in the mountains in central and southern Crete.

He crossed paths with other fugitive Kiwis and Australians, seemingly at will, and was put in contact with Cretans who were friendly to fellow Allied soldiers on the run.

He slept rough, avoiding recapture by hiding in caves, and ate plants, snails or whatever he could forage. Cretans showed Allied escapers what weeds they could eat. Occasionally, he would get a feed from his friendly hosts.

☆☆☆☆☆

The group of Allied “evaders”, as they called themselves, were scattered far and wide throughout Crete. They lived and slept rough in the mountainous, rugged terrain that is the spine of the island, in constant fear that their presence would be betrayed to the Germans or that they would be discovered and captured.

While some evaders settled into pairs or small groups, initially many were alone.

In the book On The Run, written by Sean Damer and Ian Frazer, New Zealand evader Jim McDevitt, who crossed paths with Quinn on more than one occasion, described these times as “periods of abject loneliness and acute starvation”.

Six months after his escape from the POW camp at Chania, Quinn became gravely ill with malaria. In June 1942, there were fears that he might die.

McDevitt writes in his own book, My Escape From Crete, that: “I have an idea that Jim’s complaint was a type of virulent malaria.

“His Cretan friends placed lighted candles and holy pictures all around his sick-bed, and the local papas gave him the blessing for the dying! We even heard that the good people of the neighbourhood went to the trouble of preparing some ‘kallyva’. These meal cakes are made from boiled wheat, to which are added such herbs and seeds as origami, caraway, poppy and coriander. The eating of ‘kallyva’ has for centuries been regarded by the Greeks as an essential part of their ritual mourning ceremony.

“Once again we were relieved to hear that our second gravely-ill patient eventually rallied but I don’t know what happened to all that ‘kallyva’ which was going begging!”

Cretan people put themselves in great personal danger by helping evaders like Jim Quinn. To the Germans, helping Commonwealth soldiers was the same difference as being a resistance fighter, a partisan – the Cretans were either aiding the enemy or they were the enemy.

After the Allied surrender on June 1, 1941, the invaders wasted no time signalling their intent on how they would deal with partisans.

The first massacre occurred at the village of Kondomari the following day, June 2, when 25 village men were taken to an olive grove and shot by firing squad. Such executions were commonplace throughout the occupation.

Regardless of these atrocities, the Cretans still helped.

The association between fugitive soldiers and their Cretan hosts was as remarkable as it was dangerous, Dr Ian Frazer and John Irwin write in their detailed record of events, The Final Evacuation.

Soldiers were taken in and treated as part of the family, given food, shelter and medical treatment.

“This was dangerous for both parties, under constant threat of being discovered and losing their lives and all their possessions,” Frazer and Irwin write. “However, a loosely connected underground community slowly formed between the dispersed soldiers, keeping in contact and sharing news as best they could.”

In his 1991 documentary, In Rich Regard, Irwin portrays the kindred spirit felt between the Cretan hosts and their New Zealand guests.

They were similar types of people, tough, from the land or small businessmen, humble, fiercely proud of their freedom and with a particular hatred for Hitler and what he represented.

Fox says the Cretans had special cause to harbour an overwhelming determination to maintain their freedom. With the 253-year Turkish occupation of Crete having ended only 43 years earlier in 1898, their independence was still “really, really fresh” when the Germans invaded in 1941.

“They’re very, very staunch freedom fighters,” Fox says. “They’ve given the Turks a hell of a time for an extended period and they are fiercely independent …

“They’re hardy people. They’re tough. They’re used to living on whatever they can produce on that island. Some harvests on Crete are pretty harsh.

“So they’re a formidable enemy, and they’re a lifelong friend.”

An  “immense trust” developed between the Cretans and the Kiwis, Fox says.

Murray Elliott writes of the harsh, spartan existence of the Kiwi evaders in his book, Vasili: The Lion of Crete, about New Zealand war hero Sergeant Dudley Perkins, who fought with the Cretan resistance.

“The search for food occupied much of their time.  Sometimes eels could be caught, and large freshwater crabs which came out at night to forage near the banks of streams.

“Once or twice they joined a fisherman in the hazardous sport of dismantling mines around the coast, using the explosives to blast a haul of octopus, squid or other fish.  They learned, too, how to make a meal with the aid of the fungus which grew near the roots of the olive trees.  Boiled with tomatoes and onions, with olive oil added, it was quite delicious.  There were also mushrooms to be found.

“Less appreciated for the most part were snails.  These were first boiled to remove the slime and then, after rinsing, were dropped still in their shells into a vegetable stew into which a liberal amount of olive oil had been poured.

“Meat was never plentiful, but occasional rabbits or hares could be snared.  In Western Crete partridges and pheasants were fairly abundant, but this was sometimes a disadvantage as their presence attracted unwelcome parties of German hunters.

“Mulberries, raisins or grapes were often to be had, and a kind of tea made from sage, or some of the German ersatz coffee made out of ground roasted acorns and barley.  Of course there was wine, and the potent spirit tsikouthia, or raki and ouzo.  Such spirits were not always drunk.  They might be rubbed into tender feet, or used as a skin lotion after shaving off a ten-day growth with a blunt German blade.  They were also valuable for the rheumatics and lumbago which followed long exposure to rain and damp sleeping places.”

Sometimes, the cave dwellers harvested snails to trade with Cretan villagers, who in return would give them fare more palatable to Westerners, such as olive oil and lentils.

A year after Quinn’s brush with death he met McDevitt again, when Quinn found himself at Ground Zero of the final evacuation effort, a cave in the mountains a few kilometres north of a village called Koutsouras.

The Cretan locals called the cave “Nerospile”, which means Water Cave.

McDevitt writes: “Sometimes, we also called it ‘the Big Cave’. It got its name not only because it was endowed with its own internal supply of fresh water trickling from its rock face, but also because it was quite spacious. The cavern faced southwards and its wide entrance seemed to invite all the icy, winter winds inside.”

He said of the newcomer Quinn: “Back home, he hailed from South Canterbury where he had something to do with training trotting horses. It was he who was at death’s door in June the previous year. Jim was loud in his praise of the kind people who had nursed him back to full health in those critical days of June 1942.”

The mountainous terrain around the Water Cave and others like it was so steep that war historian Aaron Fox observes the villagers have a particular way of walking through the hills, bent forward, bouncing on the balls of their feet, like mountain goats.

Allied soldiers who stayed on and fought with the Cretan resistance found the gait almost impossible to replicate and, being generally taller and fairer, stood out from the Cretan fighters.

The plot to ferry the evaders off the island was organised by Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Cairo, on behalf of the British agency MI9 (Military Intelligence – Escape and Evasion).

Frazer and Irwin write in The Final  Evacuation:  “Between July 1941 and May 1943 there were six evacuations altogether from four different places. Initially it was estimated that there were over 1000 Allied soldiers at large in Crete. When rescue attempts ended, less than half had been rescued; the rest, except for a small number who escaped independently, were captured and became POWs.”

The plan’s go-between on Crete was a Kiwi, Staff Sergeant Tom Moir, but in a cruel blow he was captured by the Germans less than a week before the final evacuation mission was due to be carried out. The date set was May 7, 1943, labelled “R-night” (rescue night).

In Moir’s absence, a band of Australians including several who had been living in the Water Cave with Quinn, Charlie Hunter, Jack Simcoe and Frank Ezzy, finished what Moir had started.

On the nights of May 7 and 8, 1943, in a daring rescue mission, Quinn was among the final group of soldiers taken off the beach at Tripiti, on the south coast of Crete at the foot of the White Mountains.

In total, there were 38 “British and Imperial strays” and 14 Cypriots in the group, which also included some Cretan refugees.

The rescue motor launch ML355, skippered by Royal Navy Lieutenant Geoffrey Searle, sailed for Mersa Matruh in Eqypt.

Until this point, Quinn’s official record incorrectly assumed that he was still a prisoner of war and that he had been transferred with other New Zealand prisoners from Crete to Stalag Luft VIII-B, a notorious POW camp near the town of Lamsdorf in German-occupied Poland.

The error has not been corrected on his New Zealand war record, which insists that in 1942 Quinn was then transferred to “German camp unknown POW No 1479.”

Then, on May 17, 1943, a handwritten line records that Quinn is “now safe in base Camp Egypt” and that next-of-kin have been notified.

His real story would no doubt have been noted with great interest by military intelligence during the rigorous debrief he underwent in Egypt, but it is curious that his official New Zealand war record makes no mention of it.

On June 15, 1943, Quinn’s war was over: Still suffering from the effects of his privation, he left Egypt and returned to New Zealand, where he was medically discharged in November that year.

*****

After Jim and Mollie were married, daughter Marie was born on June 16, 1944, the eldest child of nine. The Quinns moved to Blackmount in Southland, in 1946, where Jim worked on Glenderg Station.

In the next few years the growing family moved around western Southland, first to Wairio then, in 1950, to 9 Leithen St, Nightcaps, where Quinn worked in the coal mines.

He injured his hand when it was caught in a winch and couldn’t make a fist. Marie recalls that to regain strength in his hand her father would squeeze a tennis ball.

Unable to work in the mines, he found employment as a barman at the Golden Age Hotel in Bluff, while the family still lived in Nightcaps. He would come home at weekends, or on his days off.

Later he worked in Deschler’s Hotel, the old Kelvin Hotel and the Clyde Tavern, then the Invercargill City Council and the Invercargill Toll Exchange.

Battling ill health, Jim Quinn moved to Nelson, where he died in 1969, aged 54.

War medals were not issued until 15 years after the war ended, in 1960, and over time Quinn’s were lost. As replacement medals can be issued only during the lifetime of the recipient, Marie set about collecting a duplicate set, as keepsakes for his dozens of grandchildren.

She even found a Cretan service medal, which Quinn would not have known he was entitled to, on Trade Me.

Marie Quinn and members of the family were invited to the 75th and final commemorations of the battle on Crete next month, but Marie has decided to travel privately to Crete next year when, free from the formal itinerary of a tour group, she can follow the paths her father walked on, and see for herself the Water Cave where her father survived those desperate months during the war.

*****

GLORIOUS WAR

Inscribed in the back of Jim Quinn’s diary is a poem he wrote, entitled Glorious War. It was recognised by the International Library of Poetry in Australia in 1999 when it was a semifinalist in the library’s international open poetry competition, and was published in an anthology.

Although Quinn never spoke of his part in World War II, the poem leaves the reader in no doubt how he felt about his experiences:

 

I’d like to meet the man who writes of war as Glorious War

He must have been well behind the lines and never a battle saw

More likely he writes it all at home, by a fire in a cushioned seat

With lights turned low, a radio, atmosphere complete

For there is no such thing as “Glorious War” and I who write this mean it

He’s painted a picture that’s all a lie, for I’ve been there and seen it

 

You kneel and crouch and cuddle the earth

While machine guns chatter with vicious mirth

From planes above you that roar and sweep

While your heart in unison near loops the loop

Each screaming siren, whistling bomb

Seems to say, “You’re Gone, You’re Gone”

And you pray to God for night to come

For your frayed nerves need that shot of rum

 

You see your mates go one by one

Your heart goes cold and your feet grow numb

You smell the stench from men who lie

Unburied for days neath the blistering sky

With sightless eye and meaningless grins

Mangled limbs and their heads caved in

And you look around and your best friend’s gone

But you can’t stop for the fight goes on

And after a while you just don’t care

If the next round gets you, when or where

 

But then when it’s over and your leave you’re given

And you realise that you’re still livin’

You look for wimmen and wine you bet

All you want to do is forget

Let’s paint the town and paint it red

After the next fight you may be dead

So you booze and spend, and the fun goes on

You’ve plenty of friends till your money’s gone

 

Then you’re drunk and you’re broke but you don’t care

And you sleep in the gutter or anywhere

Till the picquet comes round and collects you at night

And takes you back for the next big fight

 

Then you go home and your wife or son

Says, “Dad, tell of us all that was done

“Tell us of all the things you saw

 “In that great game called Glorious War”

Then your thoughts turn back and you live again

Those days of horror, those nights of pain

Once more it seems you are in that trench

And your nostrils are filled with dead men’s stench

And your heart grows cold and your feet like lead

And you wake at night to shiver and sweat

Over things it seems you’ll never forget

 

So I’d like to meet that writer man and I’d have plenty to say

I’d like to take him, back with me, just for a night and a day

Take him to places where I have been

And show him the things I saw

And never again would he write of war as Glorious War.

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