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People > Life Stories > The Battle of 42nd Street, Crete, and Captain Reg Saunders

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submitted by Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 09.12.2012

The Battle of 42nd Street, Crete, and Captain Reg Saunders

The Nicholas Anthony Aroney Trust, the Kytherian Association of Australia, and have fostered the work of Maria Hill and others in uncovering details about the Anzac campaign in Greece and Crete during WWII, particularly through Maria Hills exhaustive study - Diggers and Greeks. The extraordinary relationships that developed out of this encounter between Greeks and Australians have endured over two generations, and continue to be maintained.

This story of an indigenous Australians encounter with his Cretan 'protectors' deepens the Australia-Greek relationship further.

Broadcast Radio National: Saturday 28 May 2011 8:50AM

On 27 May 1941 a young Aboriginal soldier was involved in a fierce battle in Crete referred to as 42nd Street. He was also left behind on the island, having to evade capture from the German soldiers for almost 12 months. Through the generosity of the locals, he survived and went on to become the first Aboriginal to be a commissioned officer in the Australian Army.

Geraldine Doogue: There is another anniversary that we would like to honour today, and that's the 70th anniversary of the Battle of 42nd Street in Crete, during World War II. Now it was a vicious battle and I'm sure most Australians don't know about it, one of those rare times in the so-called Greek campaign that Anzac troops, fighting side by side had the Germans on the run.

One of those Australian soldiers fighting was Reginald Saunders, a young Aboriginal man who later became the first Indigenous commissioned officer in the Australian Army and who went on to fight in PNG and Korea.

The story of the battle of 42nd Street, what happened to some of the soldiers involved, and the life of Reg Saunders, are all fascinating stories within themselves, but to bring them all together I'm joined by one of Captain Saunders' daughters, Glenda Humes. Glenda, welcome.

Glenda Humes: Thank you.

Geraldine Doogue: Why did he enlist in World War II in the first place, your father?

Glenda Humes: Oh I think there was two parts to that. One was everyone in the district who was young and playing football with Dad, enlisted; and the second was certainly because of the fact that he was Aboriginal. And that they were warriors, the Gunditjmara people from the Western Districts of Victoria, and they'd had lots of battles. And his father was also a First World War soldier.

Geraldine Doogue: Did he ever talk to you about his time in the army, and what it was like to have been selected as the first Aboriginal commissioned officer?

Glenda Humes: On numerous occasions. He would talk about what a great honour that was, an unexpected one as well, because Dad had – I think even though he had the qualities of leadership and courage, he was also a person who always stood up for his life, and certainly in the army, he got name-called and had been demoted from sergeant back to corporal because he'd had a fight with some bloke calling him 'Black so-and-so'.

Geraldine Doogue: It's 70 years, as I said, since this Battle on 42nd Street. Could you tell us about that battle, and incidentally, why on earth it's called '42nd Street'?

Glenda Humes: Ah, well, it's called 42ndStreet because it was named by the British garrison which was established on Crete in November, 1940, and the road was occupied by the 42nd Field Company of Royal Engineers. I have been on 42nd Street and was very honoured to go there, but 42nd Street was a battle where you quite rightly said, had the Germans on the run, and they were with a number of the 2nd/8th Battalion and the 2nd/7th Battalion, they were Victorian battalions, and they were with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 I think New Zealand battalions, one of which was the 28th Maori Battalion.

Geraldine Doogue: And they'd had to retreat from Greece, hadn't they?

Glenda Humes: Oh, they had come all the way down from Greece and had been popped across to Crete and were still on the run. So they were being routed all the way to Greece and Crete, and they'd stopped on 42nd Street and the Germans were coming towards them. In some of the books I've read it said that it was the last really bayonet charge of the war, and it was so ferocious that it left about a couple of hundred Germans dead, and the Germans actually reported the Australians and New Zealanders to the War Crimes after the war...

Geraldine Doogue: Seriously?

Glenda Humes: ...saying it was quite ferocious.

Geraldine Doogue: So after this charge and this battle – and this is the incredible twist in the tale – your father and several hundred soldiers were left on the island of Crete, because they missed the evacuation boats and they had a choice to either surrender to the Germans or to basically hide out on the island and try to escape. Now your father chose to go bush. How long did he have to hide away?

Glenda Humes: Close to 12 months, and the majority of that time he spent with a family in a village called Labini, and they looked after him, and a New Zealander and another Australian, so there was three of them. They fed them and they would hide them when they knew the Germans were coming into the village. But in particular they had a church that was probably about seven kilometres outside the village, where they spent a lot of their time; it was an abandoned church and they would sleep there for the night, and it was very safe, and the children would walk the food in for them. And we went over to Crete in October of last year...

Geraldine Doogue: Yes, you took all your family over, didn't you?

Glenda Humes: I did. And we met that family and it was the most wonderful experience of my entire life.

Geraldine Doogue: Was it?

Glenda Humes: Incredible.

Geraldine Doogue: So who was alive from that family?

Glenda Humes: Two of the children.

Geraldine Doogue: The children of this remarkable woman whom your father writes about, who was so brave, because the Germans took terrible revenge on people who helped the allies, didn't they?

Glenda Humes: They had absolutely no respect for the people of Crete. They would shoot them before they'd even think about it. They were less likely to do that for Australians or the allies that were over there, had a different type of view about soldiers, but absolutely no respect for the Cretan people, which was a real shame.

Geraldine Doogue: Yes, I think 3,000 were executed, who were shot by the Germans over the whole time.

Glenda Humes: Men, women and children.

Geraldine Doogue: So this family, they were all safe I take it, they protected your father and these other two soldiers until they were eventually taken off the island by a British ship, I gather.

Glenda Humes: That's right. I think it really did come to a head when the lady who was looking after Dad, her brother got taken away, he was eventually shot by the Germans, and Dad and his little crew thought that that family was at particular risk and they had to leave because they just thought the family would be under enormous pressure.

Geraldine Doogue: Look I'm just going to hop over ... because he eventually came back and he certainly had a will to live and he, as I said, was raised to this rank of captain in Korea, came back and become one of the first to work in Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra after the 1967 referendum. So he had all the leadership skills. But there's just this amazing little coda to the story that he spent a lot of his time, didn't he, at the Canberra Services Club, and in a rather bizarre event, it was almost completely destroyed in a fire last month. They even named a room after him, the Reginald Saunders Room, and the only room that was saved was the one dedicated to your father.

Glenda Humes: I know. Well we at the time that that room was ... we did a lot of ceremony in that room, you know, we had called the elders, we did the blowing of the chalk by the Ngunnawal people, so there was a lot of protection around that room, and I think that's why the room got saved. It was an amazing thing.

Geraldine Doogue: It is. And when did your father, who was made an MBE in 1971, when did he die, Glenda?

Glenda Humes: He died on 2nd March, 1990.

Geraldine Doogue: Is this something that you would like – you clearly want to recognise him more; you think he does act as quite a role model for young Aboriginal people, do you?

Glenda Humes: Oh, absolutely, not just for them but I think for the wider Australian population, I had so many non-Aboriginal people who remembered Dad and his war experiences, still coming up to me because their fathers told their sons and daughters about Dad and the experiences that they had with him, so a lot of people know about Dad. And he's got a couple of streets named after him in Canberra, but well I was really after going to 42nd Street, there is nothing there that – there's no memorial or nothing indicates that great battle of 42nd Street and what the New Zealanders and the Australians did on that day, and I'd just love to have a memorial put up on the old site. Because the olive groves are still there, and while we were there, my brother-in-law found a bullet casing, brought it back to the War Memorial, and the War Memorial staff told us that that was from an Enfield rifle that would have been fired on the 27th May 1941, from either an Australian or a New Zealander, and we just thought that's it, that's Dad.

Geraldine Doogue: His spirit lives on.

Glenda Humes: Absolutely.

Geraldine Doogue: All right, Glenda, well thank you very much for telling us this terrific story.

Glenda Humes: Thank you, very welcome.

Geraldine Doogue: Glenda is the daughter of Captain Reg Saunders, and you can see how much she adored him; the first Aboriginal man to be made a commissioned officer, and there's so much in little facts in this story, in fact we're trying to persuade producer Kate MacDonald to make a whole Hindsight on this. Captain Saunders volunteered for service in Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force straight after the war, but the government would not accept Aboriginal people for this operation. So there was a way to go.

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