This is the story of how the island of Mangaia formed a link between 18, 20 and 28 Battalions of the New Zealand Army, the battle for Greece, the escape of the King of Greece from the Nazis and the battle for Italy.
PART 1 OF A HISTORICAL FEATURE BY ROD DIXON;
Monday, 20 May, 1941 on Mangaia was a sunny day – the sky a deep Pacific blue. The hurricane season had just ended, and the orange picking season was underway. For the past six months there had been no contact with the outside world other than by radio. The last newspapers received were six months old and told of the fall of Greece and the flight of the King and Government to Crete. Now on 20 May, 1941 news came of the German invasion of Crete and a Nazi plot to capture the King and the Royal family.
All this must have seemed very remote to the Mangaians, half a world away. Yet five men – four already well known on Mangaia and one who soon would be – were on Crete that day as the sky rained German paratroopers, in the first and largest airborne invasion of the War.
Among the soldiers exchanging fire with the invading Germans were Private Popoare Tangiiti from Mangaia, Lieutenant Colin McGruther, his elder brother Second Lieutenant J. R. (‘Jock’) McGruther, and Sergeant Dick Aubin. The McGruther boys were the sons of John Ruki Hone Pohepohe McGruther and his wife Mary Te Kurawhakaari, (‘Daisy’) who lived on Mangaia from 1924 – 1937, he as Resident Agent and Headmaster and she as Island Nurse. Popoare Tangiiti was of an age to have been one of McGruther’s former pupils.
Dick Aubin was a friend of the McGruthers, from their family home near Te Awamutu. Dick was a champion swimmer, at the time reputedly New Zealand’s 440 yards titleholder. The Waikato Times, (9 March 1928:5) reported an example of his swimming prowess -
Mr Richard [‘Dick’]Aubin, residing in Kawhia, was returning from Kinokahu when his motor-cycle broke down. As it was necessary for him to be home for a certain time, he decided to swim the harbour. The distance across is between six and seven miles. Part way across he landed on a sandbank and astonished some Maoris who were picking pipis. ….Mr. Aubin re-entered the water and continued his long swim, reaching Kawhia in about two and a half hours.
In 1940, Dick, together with Martin Alfred Clark, was awarded the Bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society for rescuing a man and his two sons from drowning on a strong outgoing spring tide (Auckland Star, 6 July 1940; 10)
McGruther had recruited Dick Aubin for the job of store manager for the Cook Islands Native Association store on Mangaia based on their family ties. Dick spoke Maori and played the guitar, ideal qualities for a social life on Mangaia. He was also an energetic tennis player, taking advantage of the tennis courts at Tuviriviri, near the current Mangaia hospital site.
The Second World War
On the outbreak of war, Private Popoare Tangiiti had joined the 28 Maori Battalion, while the other three men joined the First Echelon of the 18 Battalion and Armed Regiment of the New Zealand Army. Having served in the Middle East they now found themselves in Greece. Jock was wounded in the fighting in Crete by a bullet from a ME 110 fighter plane and repatriated to New Zealand, returning later to fight in Italy. Three of the men would end their war in the battle for Italy. Only one of the four would survive.
In Crete, Second Lieutenant Jock McGruther was given Platoon Command in 18 Battalion in April 1941. On exactly the same day, Second Lieutenant Win Ryan was given command of B Company, also in 18 Battalion, also on Crete. Lieutenant Ryan was not known to the Tangiiti, nor to the McGruthers nor Dick Aubin, but in 1943, during the battle for Italy, Colin McGruther came under Ryan’s direct command as Reconnaissance Troop officer of Headquarters Squadron. It is more than probable that Colin McGruther shared stories of his boyhood days on Mangaia with Ryan. After the war, Major Win Ryan made the journey to Mangaia, as Colin’s father had 23 years earlier, as Resident Agent for the island (1947 – 1950).
The Battle for Crete
With a German invasion of Crete imminent, the Commander of the NZEF Sir Bernard Freyberg tasked Second Lieutenant Win Ryan and his platoon of twenty four New Zealand infantrymen with protecting the King of Greece from the advancing Germans. His order were to deliver the King and his ministers to the nearest port for embarkation to Egypt, thence to London to set up the Greek government-in-exile. Ryan’s orders were to shoot the King if he fell into German hands.
The evacuation plan was for the royal party to be escorted over the mountains from Canea to Agia Roumeli on the south-eastern coast of Crete. From there they would be evacuated by a Royal Navy destroyer to Egypt.
This plan was activated on 20 May, 1941, when large Luftwaffe gliders were seen circling over the house where the King was sheltering and German troop-carrying planes appeared from the west. German paratroopers began dropping from aircraft less than half a mile from the house. They came in such massive numbers (at least 10,000), and for so long (from early morning to dusk), that Ryan recalled “A strange aspect of landing parachute troops was the monotony they caused…..It was like counting sheep, the result being just as wearying” (Northern Advocate, 29 May, 1941).
Lieutenant Jock McGruther reported “we had just finished our breakfast when the bombers came over in force and straffed the area. Then came troop carriers and gliders. The air was full of planes. Then the troops dropped out from about three hundred feet. It was a marvelous sight. A lot of them never got to the ground alive and all in our area were cleaned out” (http://pirongiabells.blogspot.com/2014/02/john-robert-mcgruther.html).
The King’s house was quickly overwhelmed by German troops. Ryan and the King fled, with Ryan’s men firing on the pursuing Germans at 100 yards. “We ran into one batch of about 28 parachutists and shot our way through them without losing a man (Private R. Ward, Gisborne Herald, 3 October, 1941).
Their three day journey to the south coast of Crete took them over the White Mountains – a snow-covered mountain range bisecting the 35 kilometre-wide island, with crossings at 7,000 feet. The Royal party led by Second-Lieutenant Ryan, slept in caves with shepherds and lived off raw goats meat, ewes milk, goats cheese and rations.
En route, Ryan persuaded the King to remove his conspicuous outer-coat. “The King was dressed in the full uniform of a Greek general, covered with brilliant braid with four rows of brilliant ribbons on his chest. After all he was a King, and we did not like to ask him to take off his coat, although we were afraid it would, attract one of the German aeroplanes which were prowling overhead. Eventually I decided to take a chance and explained the situation. He shed the coat without a complaint” (Evening Post, 2 June, 1941).
“Hundreds of planes were whizzing about in every direction. …Prince Peter said he could see the faces of the rear gunners in the planes” (Gisborne Herald, 27 May, 1941). The royal party also came under ‘friendly fire” from the 2nd Greek Regiment, who mistook them for German parachutists. Pinned down by rifle fire, Prince Peter shouted to them in Greek, and they replied, “Germans also speak Greek and wear Greek uniforms”. Eventually convinced that the royal party were not German, they were allowed to pass.
Throughout the journey, according to Ryan - “The King was splendid. You just had to say to him, ‘Things are a bit tough. Get in that corner, will you?’ and he would obey quite simply” (Evening Post, 2 June, 1941).
At the rendezvous point, SOS signals were sent out to sea and drew an answering flash from HMS Decoy some miles out. The royal party and Ryan and 16 of the New Zealand soldiers were evacuated from shore, under cover of darkness, arriving in Alexandria in Egypt on 25 May 1941.
Following successful completion of his mission, Second-Lieutenant Ryan was invested on June 28, 1941 with the Greek honour of Knight of the Silver Cross, with Swords, Order of George 1, and in October 1941with a second honour, Knight of the Silver Cross, 5th Class of the Order of George I, Military Division.
In the weeks that followed, more than half of the 32,000 British and Commonwealth force of 32,000 were evacuated from Crete to Egypt, but the evacuation was chaotic. It is believed that Private Popoare Tangiiti was among those killed but further details are unavailable.
- To be continued next week