On Sunday 22 October, retired Major General Walter Babington ‘Sandy’ Thomas died at the age of 98. He was born in the South Island of New Zealand, but his last home was in the Australian country town of Beaudesert, 70 kilometres south of Brisbane.
Sandy was a lifetime soldier. As a young officer in 1941, he fought in the Greek mainland campaign and in the Battle of Crete. In the latter he was severely wounded in the leg at the village of Galatas. It was a fateful day. He nearly had to have the limb amputated. The last time I spoke with him he related how he felt ashamed to show his scarred leg to senior officers at the end of the war. He wanted to stay in the army. They did not think he could. But with the support of a sympathetic Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand Army in the Mediterranean, he did so.
At Galatas, Sandy Thomas also experienced an act of kindness that he never forgot. As he lay wounded, young Cretan girls came out of their homes and covered him, and other wounded Allied soldiers, with blankets and provided ‘hot sweet milk’. Later, on the mainland, he escaped enemy captivity and was aided by Greeks in an arduous journey to allied controlled territory in the Middle East. Sandy wrote of these exploits in his autobiographical Dare to be Free published in 1951.
In 2011, the debt he felt he, and his fellow soldiers, owed to the Cretans and Greeks who hid them from the Germans was still evident. In a very public protest, he complained about the lack of New Zealand government financial support for him and other veterans to attend the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Crete. Besides paying respects to his fallen comrades, Sandy had been invited by the Cretan community to deliver an address. Bending to public pressure, the New Zealand government reversed its policy, provided funding and the responsible government minister apologised in parliament.
Sandy travelled to Crete and made his speech at Galatas. He spoke of the ‘sacrifice’ made by the ‘wonderful people’. And that ‘You knew at that time that to take in a Kiwi or an Aussie or one of the British you risked everything’. Families were executed by the Germans for assisting the soldiers. But that ‘You still opened your doors and your hearts to our chaps’. He also related the ‘extraordinary thing’ that occurred with the caring young Cretan women at Galatas. One of them was at that 2011 speech and was brought up to the podium.
I found Sandy Thomas a mixture of a shy and self-effacing gentleman, but one who had seen the horrors of war. He thought highly of the Greeks and Cretans who endured invasion and occupation.
* Dr Martyn Brown is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland’s School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry.