Book Review: Greece Crete Stalag Dachau, by Jack Elworthy

In bookstores now. Jo Elworthy will be speaking about her father’s war diary at Unity Books in Wellington, Thursday 10 July 12 – 12.45pm. cv_greece_crete_stalag_dachau

This personal story touches some of the rawest parts of New Zealanders’ experiences of the Second World War. Greece Crete Stalag Dachau is the tile of Jack Elworthy’s eyewitness of heavy defeat in Greece and Crete, of staunchness in surviving the privations of being a prisoner of war in two of Germany’s Stalags and the horrors encountered with the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.

The names in the title are some of well-known headlines of the war. This story ranges through these areas frankly and honestly in an almost diary-style of writing. What is not a regular feature of many other war memoirs is the revelation of the personal toll that leaving and returning to his family after seven years had on Jim, his wife and young child. Settling back into ‘normality’ was hard for all of the family.

Jack Elworthy was a professional soldier who joined the army in 1935, and rose to the rank of Warrant Officer 1st class  (a rank more popularly known as Sergeant Major). He stayed in the army after the war, retiring in 1956 with the rank of Captain.

Officers command men, sergeants lead their men. That seems to have given Jack a closer focus on the experiences of the rank and file, because he was part of what happened to the ordinary soldier. When taken prisoner on Crete, he was not separated from his men, as officers were. His account of that battle is real, personal, sometimes humorous, often bitter.

Image of British POWs at Stalag VIIB, Lambsdorf from http://www.lamsdorf.com

Image of British POWs at Stalag VIIB, Lambsdorf from http://www.lamsdorf.com

His POW experiences included having to lead prisoners from his own side into forced labour in coalmines. His care for his men often got him into trouble.

It is difficult to understand what really drove him to do quite extraordinary things after he was released from the Stalag in March 1945. Released prisoners were not allowed to return to the fray, but Jack did, by teaming up with an American unit which was fighting their way through Germany. He had the chance then and often later to go back to New Zealand, and chose not to do so.

Jack was court marshaled for being AWOL, but the charges were dismissed when it was realised he “wanted to do something further in the war.” He got back to England after a number of incidents, only to break the rules once again and hitchhike back into Ally-occupied Europe to have another wander around, before getting back to England and an interview with MI5.

The chapter on his return to home and family is poignant as well as a letter to his daughters on their visit to Crete in 1993.

This book is not the first time Jack’s story has been told. The genesis of the publication is a never-screened documentary prepared in the mid-1980’s and then turned into a radio programme. However, now as a book, publisher Awa Press has done an excellent job in bringing this experience to full public view. The indices, bibliography, timeline, appendices, end notes, add a lot to the personal account.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Greece Crete Stalag Dachau: A New Zealand soldier’s encounters with Hitler’s army 
Written by Jack Elworthy
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249123

 

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