Where the Flaming Hell Are We? by Craig Collie

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Winston Churchill’s insistence on sending Australian and New Zealand troops to defend Greece from Hitler’s juggernaut was an unmitigated failure. The troops were weary from fighting in North Africa, poorly equipped and completely lacking in aerial support. The decision was politically driven and cost the lives and liberty of thousands of good men and women.

If, to paraphrase Field Marshall von Moltke, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, this book demonstrates that retreat is even more chaotic. The Germans took just three weeks to drive the Allies off the mainland and barely two to remove them from Crete.  Under extreme pressure, crucial mistakes were made by Allied command and those in the midst of it were at extreme risk as some troops stayed to fight while others were told to withdraw.

This sounds like a recipe for a very dispiriting book, but Collie manages to construct a compelling narrative. In part, through his forensic analysis of the decision making and communications behind the scenes, as well as the descriptions of the action on the ground. The other part is entirely complementary and comes from the many voices of the ANZACS themselves.  Some of this is harrowing, but there is also bravery, humour and humanity.

Collie’s skilfully evokes rearguard actions that are brave and often audacious, in the face of overwhelming force. The kindness of the Greeks and Cretans is frequently depicted, as is the willingness of citizens – both male and female – to risk their own lives. Human stories from both sides provide welcome relief.  In one memorable vignette, a Kiwi sapper is offered a glass of wine by a German medico as he attends to wounded soldiers during a lull in fighting.

The battles provide for many observations about the different fighting styles of the various nations. The Maori contingents are formidable in close combat and the noise of the haka and war cries as they charged forward were inspirational. “It was the first time that many of these men, always under air and land bombardment, had been in hand-to-hand combat. They were unbeaten men in a beaten army” [p259].

Casualties caused by enemy fire are ever present, but there are many examples of friendly fire and even a couple of instances of the unfortunate side effects of being asleep in the wrong place – a group of men run over by a truck while sleeping on the roadside and another waking up alone in a sinking ship that had been evacuated by everyone else.

The book’s title and the cover photo suggest a group of lost soldiers waiting for something to happen. But the title is ironic, from a satirical poem penned by an Australian infantryman, who correctly suspected that Churchill’s promised air support was a fantasy: “….This smells distinctly like a rort/ For if in Greece the Airforce be/ Then where the flaming hell are we?” [p189].

After the final evacuations  from the mainland and from Crete, it was obvious to those left behind that another British promise had been broken  “Churchill’s assurance to the two dominion governments [Australia and New Zealand] at the outset, that all their fit troops would be evacuated if that become necessary, was no longer discussed. Already, thousands had been left behind on the Greek mainland” [p261].

The countless books on World War 2 (Amazon is said to have 70,000 titles) mean that this a crowded literary space. Collie’s gripping book is a welcome addition, with meticulous detail on events on land, sea, air and war rooms combined with the human perspective from hundreds of eye witness accounts.  Once again, we are reminded of the high price paid by ordinary people from wartime devotion to a fading empire.

Craig Collie is one of Australia’s leading writers of military history and author of the critically acclaimed The Path of Infinite Sorrow, Nagasaki, The Reporter and the Warlords, Code Breakers and On Our Doorstep.

Where the Flaming Hell Are We?

(August 2023)

By Craig Collie

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978 176087 919 8

$34.99; 384pp

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