Australian Philhellene sheds light on the Battle of Crete

“Crete was a bloody affair, but the mutual friendships of Cretans and Australians have much to do with the shared memories of the Second World War,” says Professor Peter Monteath

“The battle for Crete was at once the most modern and the most ancient of wars.”

With those words, Brisbane-born Professor Peter Monteath introduces the readers to his new book titled Battle on 42nd Street, in which he draws on recollections and records of Australian, New Zealand, British and German soldiers, and local Cretans, to reveal the truth behind one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

“I was inspired to write about the Battle for Crete from multiple perspectives. For anyone interested in the history of the twentieth century, the Battle for Crete in World War II was certainly fascinating; both hi-tech and savage,” says Professor Monteath who attended the University of Queensland, Siegen University (Federal Republic of Germany) and Griffith University and has taught previously at The University of Queensland, Griffith University, Deakin University, The University of Western Australia and The University of Adelaide.

The acclaimed historian, who writes about various aspects of European and Australian history, says that he has been interested in Crete during the period of the Second World War for many years and particularly in respect to one battle during the campaign, the so-called Battle on 42nd Street.

“It took place on a defensive line established by Australians and New Zealanders in the vicinity of Suda Bay. On the morning of 27 May 1941, an advancing German battalion of mountain troops was attacked on 42nd Street, and large numbers of them were killed violently. The unusual and distinctive thing about the battle was that the Australians and New Zealanders charged the Germans with fixed bayonets. That was quite unusual in the Second World War,” says Monteath, who is also a Professor of History at Flinders University in Adelaide, lecturing modern European history.

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For a week, Australian and New Zealand forces were relentlessly hammered from the skies by the Luftwaffe and pursued across Crete by some of the most accomplished and best equipped forces Hitler could muster.

On the morning of 27 May 1941, however, all that was about to change.

When a unit of German mountain troops approached the Allies’ defensive line — known as 42nd Street — men from the Australian 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions and New Zealanders from several battalions, counter-attacked with fixed bayonets.

By the end, German bodies were strewn across the battlefield.

“A lot of histories of war in Australia look at how men are sent away to die in the service of their country. In this book I wanted to shift attention to the harsh reality that war is largely about killing. In my view, killing does not come naturally to most men, and even in war there are many who are reluctant to kill. So, the book is in part about the question of how ordinary men become killers, perhaps even engaging in something we might call bloodlust. The war in Crete was a very bloody affair, and the bayonet charge on 42nd Street was perhaps the best example of how the circumstances of war can make men kill.”

Professor Monteath has also been Adjunct Professor at The University of St. Louis Missouri and the Technical University of Berlin, where he was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow.

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He is also President of the History Council of South Australia, a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and a Trustee of the History Trust of South Australia.

For his new book he required approximately three years, and worked on it in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Crete.

“It was a great honour to be able to visit the island again. I love Crete. My impression is that Australians are very well received and treated there. I am sure that to some extent that is because Cretans and Australians temperamentally are similar in many ways.

But I suspect that the mutual friendships of Cretans and Australians have much to do with the shared memories of the Second World War in Crete,” says Monteath further noting that in Australia people have a poor understanding about what Australians did in Europe during the Second World War and that New Zealanders know that history in more depth than Australians do.

Despite his Anglo-Australian cultural background, Monteath studied in Germany, speaks fluently German and has devoted himself as a researcher and teacher of German history.

He admits that Germans feature significantly in his book.

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“I am hoping to shed some light on what really happened in Crete and my aim is to also help the reader gain a better sense of what it means to fight in a war, and what consequences it can have for soldiers and civilians alike. While the main focus is the violence on the battlefield, the book also considers the violence inflicted by occupying Germans on the local Cretan population, and in particular in the little village of Kondomari.

“It’s time to tell the story,” concludes Monteath who plans to launch his book in Adelaide at the beginning of December.