Magazine | March 5, 2012, Issue

O Valiant Hearts

Here is a story from World War II. The place is the island of Crete; the date, May 1941. The Wehrmacht was busily occupying Greece. The British expeditionary force in that country, overwhelmed, was being evacuated. Some of the Allied troops were moved to Crete, to fortify the rudimentary defenses of the place. They were there when Hitler launched Operation Mercury, the greatest airborne assault in history to that point, with the aim of occupying the island.

A defensive line north of the little hilltop village of Galatas, a few miles from Canea on Crete’s northwest coast, was held by a unit of New Zealanders. The German paratroopers attacked the line on the first day of Operation Mercury, May 20, but were beaten back. Further attempts were repulsed until, on the afternoon of May 25, following intense mortar and aerial bombing, the Germans attacked in major force.

Galatas fell; but the New Zealanders’ 23rd Battalion under Colonel Howard Kippenberger regrouped and counterattacked to save the line. A night of fierce close-quarter street fighting ensued, much of it in pitch darkness. The official history of the action records that “bayonets, rifle butts, pistols and bare hands were all used in what was the closest . . . fighting in which the 23rd ever engaged.”

Galatas was regained; then, in one of those cruel necessities that characterize war, it was evacuated the following night, senior Allied commanders having concluded that Crete could not be held. The battalion marched 30 miles under enemy fire and air attack to embarkation beaches on the island’s south coast, into the chaos of evacuation grimly memorialized by Evelyn Waugh in Officers and Gentlemen.

There was heroism aplenty in that terrible night of close fighting at Galatas. The battalion history records the following particular action by No. 18 Platoon of D Company: “When they did find themselves forced to charge up a narrow street, a machine gun held up the attack for a minute or two until Private David Seaton broke the spell by striding forward firing his Bren gun from the hip. While he kept up steady bursts, others edged round to a flank and knocked out the machine gun with grenades. Seaton was killed but the attack surged on again.”

Seaton was 33 years old. He came from Portobello, in New Zealand’s South Island. The battalion history lists his peacetime trade as “tractor driver.”

My father, discontented with life in England, had lit out for the colonies 15 years previously, as young Englishmen commonly did. He had washed up in Christchurch, New Zealand, sometime in the late 1920s. In 1931, he returned to England to deal with a family crisis, and he never saw New Zealand again. In his later reminiscences his New Zealand years shone bright, an oasis of youthful freedom and adventure in a life otherwise not blessed with much success or happiness.

#page#When Dad died in 1984 I acquired his meager effects, among which was a box of old photographs. One of them, plainly a studio picture, shows him seated in front of two sturdy young men wearing the uniform of the New Zealand armed forces: battledress blouses, webbing belts with brass buckles, “lemon squeezer” campaign hats. I dimly recalled Dad telling me that the picture had been taken in World War II, when two of his old New Zealand pals had passed through Britain in transit to some posting in Europe or the Middle East. They had looked Dad up, and the three had had a photograph taken for old times’ sake. There was a separate photograph of one of the Kiwis, obviously from the same session. Handwritten on the back of that photograph was: “Pte. David Seaton.”

That box of photographs rested among my own effects for 20 years. Then, setting up my personal website, I reckoned that such family mementos stood at least as good a chance of survival in cyberspace as in my attic, so I scanned them into what I call my “virtual attic” (“The Straggler,” October 8, 2007). As a consequence of having them all out there on the Internet, I get occasional e-mails from distant relatives previously unknown to me, who find an item in my virtual attic by chance while doing family research.

Such an e-mail arrived a few weeks ago. This was not a relative, however, but the editor of a British military-history magazine, Britain at War. He had come across my picture of David Seaton and wondered if he might use it to illustrate an article the magazine was planning on the Battle of Crete. I of course gave my assent, asking in return for a copy to be mailed to me.

The February 2012 issue of Britain at War duly arrived. Private Seaton’s picture is on page 95. It is satisfying, though humbling, to have contributed, even in such a tiny way, to the remembrance of this brave soldier. The Battle of Crete article is well done — as is the whole magazine — with some colorful details. I particularly liked this, on the deadly marksmanship of the Kiwis, who had had little formal training: “This was a result of their upbringing in the rugged South Island of New Zealand where a rabbit plague on valuable farming land had made them into marksmen as they attempted to not only reduce rabbit numbers but also take advantage, during the Depression years, of the prices paid for rabbit skins.”

David Seaton’s open, farm-boy features look out at me across 70 years. What antics, I wonder, did he get up to with my father and the other young roughs of Christchurch all those decades ago? Other young men, too, gaze out from the pages of Britain at War: fighter pilots and bomber crews, tank commanders and dispatch riders, submariners, an entire company of World War I engineers.

Johnson: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.”

Boswell: “Lord Mansfield does not.”

Johnson: “Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would shrink; he’d wish to creep under the table.”

Private David Seaton rests in the British Commonwealth War Cemetery at Suda Bay, five miles east of Galatas.

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