Private Bill – In Love and War

first_imgIn 1941, two years into World War II, Crete formed the final Greek stumbling block for the Axis powers, as they looked to take control of the Mediterranean. A sensational battle ensued on the island, with an unsuccessful Commonwealth-led defensive trying to protect it from falling into Nazi hands. Reports claim that Adolf Hitler blamed, in part, the fall of his empire to the unexpected heavy losses it faced in Crete. Australia formed part of that Commonwealth defensive, and ABC political commentator and host Barrie Cassidy is writing a book detailing the life of his father, Australian Private William (Bill) Cassidy, who served in the Battle of Crete. Private Cassidy was captured (in a sense), following its eventual German capture, and transported to Stalag XVIII-A prisoner-of-war camp in Wolfsberg, southern Austria, via Thessaloniki, where he served for four years. The book, titled Private Bill – In Love and War, is set to be released in late October, and details his father’s journey, from his departure in Australia through to Europe’s liberation in 1945.Despite the heroics of Commonwealth soldiers, the eventual fall of Crete to the Germans was one of epic proportions, brought about by never before seen measures, including large scale parachute invasions by the fallschirmjäger (‘parachute hunters’).Barrie’s journey began in Askifou, a small village in Sfakia, southern Crete, where he visited a museum littered with artefacts from the war. The museum is owned by local Andreas Hatzidakis, whose father George witnessed the effects of the war, and at age 14 set about assembling his collection in its entirety, at the defeat of Nazi Germany.Andreas, who maintains his museum without the help of Greek authorities, and relies on the generosity and assistance of passers-by, was the starting point for Barrie, his wife Heather and their daughter Caitlin, as they set out to recollect his father’s steps. “In Crete it was essentially filling in the gaps and seeing for myself first hand the geography of the battlefields and particularly outside of Herakleion, just beyond the airport. The Allies were camped there to protect the airport and there are two cone shaped hills and dad had described these hills and told me exactly where he was when the parachute invasion happened.“It’s quite remarkable to get there and say ‘wow, there they are, exactly as described’. It’s an experience that I wanted to see for myself so I could then describe it accurately in the book.”The Insiders host says that “the Battle of Crete is one of the most under-appreciated battles of World War II”. Notably because of large scale “ferocious civilian resistance” against the Axis invaders, the fallschirmjäger, and because of remarkably unprecedented circumstances that saw Allied and Axis personnel share a Red Cross hospital in Adele, eight kilometres east of Rethymno. “To this day I’ve spoken to a lot of war historians and none of them have been able to identify another example where a hospital was genuinely shared by the two competing sides. “It came about almost by accident. The Allied troops stumbled on this German Red Cross centre and they were talking about the battle in the valley beyond Rethymno, and it just made sense to them that they shared this Red Cross facility, and they did.”“Depending on where you were in the queue, whether you were German or Australian or English or whatever, you might get a German surgeon or an Australian surgeon or an English surgeon.”His father was taken to the hospital after being wounded in two places by shrapnel and a bullet, and shared a tent with an Englishman and two German soldiers. There he found himself engaged in extensive dialogue with the enemy about Adolf Hitler’s objectives. “He [his father] asked one of the Germans whether he ever believed that they could successfully invade England, and the German said to him ‘if that’s the Führer’s will, then we’ll do it’. He took away from that that this guy was a fanatic.”His father had told him about the hospital, but Barrie was sceptical due to the circumstances that his father found himself in. “Because dad’s recollection was slightly vague I was never satisfied that he didn’t in some way become confused – he was wounded after all – and that he might have been confused by who was really running the hospital.”“But I’ve since been able to establish that. It certainly existed and it existed in those circumstances.”Barrie pointed out that the events leading to his father’s capture were unique, because it wasn’t so much a capture as a transfer – from hospital patient to war prisoner.“Most people’s vision of how somebody becomes a PoW is that they’re captured in the field. Dad’s circumstances were exceptional again because after the Allies evacuated the island, a group of Germans walked into the hospital one day and said ‘your mates have left the island, you’re now prisoners of war’.” Remnants of the hospital still remain in Adele. A lone white building with a Red Cross sign can be located, which locals believe formed the basis of the hospital. “To walk away from Crete with that confirmation, knowing 100 per cent that that’s the way it operated, and to find the location, was one of the most satisfying things that I did.”His father’s treacherous seven-day journey to Austria following his capture was one of survival of the fittest. His passage led him through former Yugoslavia on a “cattle train”, with very limited food and water. Barrie puts his father’s survival down to the fact that he had been nursed back to health in the hospital beforehand, and had recovered from his injuries. He spent the next four years in various roles in Austria as a PoW until Europe’s liberation in 1945.Barrie explains that the title of the book Private Bill with its subheading In Love and War, is more than just a tale of the world’s greatest armed conflict. His father was both a private in the army, and also a very private person, who did not openly discuss his experiences with family and friends. The subheading, he details, was due to a life changing event, sparked 50 years after the Battle of Crete. Barrie’s mother received a letter from a lady who wrote to her saying ‘I understand you’re my mother and I want to meet you’. Consequently his father had to confront the realities of war again, and the fact that his wife had had an affair and adopted out a child. “This created all sorts of tensions within the family, and so the book picks up on that theme. To the extent that, the impact of war never leaves you. Here’s my father in his 80s having to deal with the impact of the war and then partly as a result of that [the affair], but also because of what he had experienced through the war, in his 80s he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder.“So it’s a lifetime story, it’s not just a war story, and that’s what picks up the subheading In Love and War.” Facebook Twitter: @NeosKosmos Instagramlast_img

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