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This is an unassuming book about the wartime escape of a New Zealand reserve sailor, Len Hill. Told by his son David, it is part family history, and part creative non-fiction, with the dialogue between the servicemen being re-created by the author. But it’s a good read, based on an extraordinary maritime escape from Singapore in 1942.
For an appreciation of the story and the perspective of the author it is necessary to actually read the Afterword first. One needs to realise that it is the son who is writing the story of his father and his comrades. The other two main comrades became the author’s godfathers, so this is quite an intimate portrayal. Also, by reading the Acknowledgements it becomes clear that this is an alternate version of the escape from Singapore in 1942, that provides something of a different view to that of a book published by an English survivor who was not part of the successful final voyage.
What we get therefore is very much a New Zealand version, with Kiwi heroes who are hounded by the advancing Japanese forces all the way along the coast of Sumatra. After fleeing in their Fairmile craft ML310 with senior British officers, the New Zealand sailors come aground on the small island of Tjibia. The survivors decide to take a small craft they have found, which only holds five men, through the Java Sea to Batavia, before the Japanese can capture it. They eventually reach the Java mainland with some Dutch sailors, only to have to find another vessel to flee to Australia.
The interaction with the Dutch servicemen, who are also part indigenous, adds an interesting sub-text to the adventure. The author identifies the ethnic tensions underlying the war effort in New Zealand, and the whakapapa element in his own family history, including the loss of Māori great-uncles in the First World War. This theme is explored through his father Len’s dialogue with a Māori soldier on the initial trip of the navy reservists to England in 1941. The soldier, Haami Parata, does not appear again in the story, but his knowledge of tikanga is portrayed as a key influence on the young Len Hill, even though he had really been brought up a Pākehā.
Perhaps it was the author’s choice to enhance this association, which may have otherwise been seen as fleeting, compared with the close bonds forged on the tiny yacht which brought the sailors to eventual safety. There is also the problem that most of the dialogue must be filled in, which is perhaps easier in the combat situation, than in the parts of the book that include visiting the bars and nightspots of Singapore.
Overall, I found this a riveting story and a pleasure to read, and it was obviously a labour of love. Even for those not necessarily interested in war stories this would be of interest, without the cover hinting of the very dramatic adventures inside the book. The book does lack a detailed map of the South Asian area, and perhaps could have placed the archival photographs as a centrepiece rather than as an appendix, with higher quality paper. But otherwise this very personal project was fully realised.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
Close to the Wind
by David B. Hill
Published by Huia Publishers