Press Releases

Piper salutes our war heroes

Kirsty Macnicol
The Southland Times
May 30, 2001

THE re-enactment of paratroopers descending on Crete was an emotional moment for Invercargill man Mervyn Gunn as he thought about his uncle in the same spot 60 years earlier.
Mr Gunn, a sergeant in the territorial force, was selected as the official piper for the 60th anniversary service of remembrance at the Commonwealth war graves cemetery at Souda Bay, on Crete, on May 19 and 20.
In 1941, 42,500 allied soldiers wrestled with the Germans for control of the island in what became one of the fiercest hand-to-hand battles of the war.
Among the forces was New Zealand's 23rd Battalion in which Bob Henry, Mr Gunn's uncle who was also a piper, served.
Mr Gunn said one of the most emotional moments of his trip was watching 36 German paratroopers come down over the airfield at Malenne.
Sixty years ago 10,000 paratroopers came down while the allied forces, including Mr Henry, lay hidden in the grass. Six thousand of Hitler's most elite soldiers were killed that day.
Another 12,000 came down the next day.
"It's pretty hard to imagine. It was quite moving just seeing 36 of them descend out of an aeroplane.
You can't imagine what it was like with 10,000," Mr Gunn said.
Two days later, the Allies took the village of Galatas in a fierce bayonet charge. Their efforts there almost a lifetime ago were still held in awe today, Mr Gunn said.
Although there were many official receptions, a street party turned on by the villagers was easily the highlight of his trip.
"To me that was gratitude from the heart. The Crete people have got a lot of admiration for the New Zealanders and Australians," he said.
Four veterans were among the New Zealand delegation of 68, which also included Prime Minister Helen Clark. They spoke openly of their
experiences, thoughts and feelings at the time, Mr Gunn said.
One visit was to the Preveli Monastery, where the priests had fed and
sheltered Allied troops at great danger to themselves. One of the veterans who was there told the group of his feelings and admiration.Mr Gunn's
primary role was to play the lament at the service of remembrance and it was a great honour, he said.
Nine hundred and thirty-two New Zealanders were killed during the campaign.
Many graves in the cemetery, where British and Australians also lie, are simply marked "unknown soldier." A further 1354 New Zealanders were wounded and 4036 were taken prisoner.
The Allies were eventually forced to evacuate the island over the mountains at Sfakia and many were killed in the rearguard action.
However, the efforts there, particularly in reducing the strength of
Hitler's elite paratroopers, had a significant effect in slowing German
progress in the war.
Mr Gunn joined the territorials in 1977 and was a member of the pipes and drums of the 4th Otago Southland regiment until it folded two years ago.

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