Books

Peter Monteath
Battle on 42nd Street

World War II continues to be mined for popular histories extolling Digger courage and endurance. At first glance Peter Monteath’s Battle on 42nd Street looks like such a book – but it is in fact a deeper, compelling narrative by an academic historian.

The forgotten 1941 campaign in Greece began accidentally. Hitler invaded to rescue Mussolini from his failed conquest. Against military advice, Churchill then sent Australian and New Zealand troops from North Africa. Their fighting retreat across legendary ground, including a skirmish at Thermopylae itself, ended on the island of Crete, where the troops regrouped under New Zealand’s Bernard Freyberg to meet the airborne invasion he knew from Ultra signals intelligence to be coming. The Luftwaffe controlled the daytime skies; the Royal Navy, the seas at night. With 42,000 Anzac, British and Greek soldiers at his command, Freyberg had more troops, but his mistakes led the Germans to secure an airfield, allowing transports to shuttle in elite mountain troops.

Because neither side had much heavy weaponry, it was close-quarter fighting suited to an Anzac specialty: the bayonet charge. “There was no weapon more visceral,” Monteath writes, and the Australian soldier from Gallipoli onwards had a reputation for using it with a “relish” encouraged in training so that “in the mind of the infantryman the command to fix bayonets would trigger a hyper-aggressive state”. The sight of cold steel left elite German troops cowering and running. In the biggest battle, along the road nicknamed for the 42nd Field Company – as well as the 1933 musical – the Anzac charge left an entire German battalion with few survivors. The Wehrmacht hardly used airborne attack thereafter.

Monteath demonstrates a mastery of British, Anzac and German archives, as well as oral and written accounts by soldiers on both sides. The result is a book without jingoism, not exaggerating this sideshow’s importance, flowing dreadfully towards its outcome for Crete’s defenders and population. The wider fascination, and horror, comes from Monteath’s theme of the bayonet.

There was a line in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds from the boys who came back from the war: “Oh Mum, the things we had to do!” In this book, Monteath explains precisely how ordinary young men were turned into berserk killers.

Hamish McDonald

NewSouth, 272pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Peter Monteath, Battle on 42nd Street". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Hamish McDonald