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Helen Clark Book Launch - 'The Desert Road'

Tuesday 5 April 2005

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Launch of the book
The Desert Road:
New Zealanders Remember the North African Campaign

Edited by Megan Hutching


The Grand Hall, Parliament

Tuesday 5 April 2005

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure for me to launch the latest book from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage based on a series of interviews with veterans from the Second World War.

The Desert Road gives us insights into the experiences of sixteen New Zealanders who served in the North African campaign from 1940–43. I am particularly delighted to see so many veterans here today, some of whom were interviewed for the book.

Over the last few years, oral historians in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage have interviewed veterans for a series of books about the experiences of New Zealanders at war. This oral history project originated in 2000 when I was at Gallipoli and thought about the thousands of young men who served and gave their lives there. Some of our First World War veterans had had their stories recorded, but it was simply too late to record more. But it was not too late to collect the stories of men and women who served during the Second World War.

The Ministry has already released three oral histories based on interviews with our World War II veterans, and this is the fourth:
- First came A Unique Sort of Battle, containing interviews with veterans from the Battle of Crete, came out in 2001.
- In 2002, we released Inside Stories, containing interviews with former prisoners of war.
- Last year, A Fair Sort of Battering was published , containing the stories of those involved in the Italian campaign.
- Later this year, we’ll see Hell or High Water, based on the stories of merchant seafarers.
- Over the next two years, there will be books based on interviews with veterans of the war in the Pacific, and with those who served on the home front.
- We have also developed a major new oral history project, ‘From Memory’, and our historians are now interviewing more veterans from the Second World War, and subsequent wars.
- A publication on New Zealand’s D-Day veterans will be released next year.

With The Desert Road, we enter the dry and dusty environment of the North African desert where there was too little water and too many flies. It was there in late 1941 that the New Zealanders in the ‘Div’ were sent, after being on mainland Greece and then on the island of Crete. The aim was to relieve the Allied forces in Tobruk, and it was a victory of sorts, followed by a later retreat.

Then followed the battles of El Alamein which occupied the New Zealand Division in the second half of 1942. Veterans recall the violence of the opening barrage at El Alamein on 23 October, when the sky lit up like fireworks on Guy Fawke’s night.

In the end, the Allies prevailed in North Africa, but at a cost. Almost 3000 New Zealanders lost their lives; around 4000 were taken prisoner; and about 7000 were wounded.

There is a wide range of stories in this book. We sense the chaos and fear of being under fire; and we hear of loyalty to mates. We learn of great feats of courage during that most courageous of events, the break out at Minqar Qa’im [pronounced Min-car Came] in 1942 when the New Zealanders forced their way through the ring of German troops. ‘Probably one of the most breathtaking actions that the New Zealanders ever were in’, Jim Barclay recalled with typical New Zealand understatement.

Like Kiwis in other places during this war, and in other wars, those in the Middle East had a strong will to make the best of appalling conditions and injuries. One of the most moving of a number of very moving stories comes from Maiki [pronounced Mikey] Parkinson on discovering that he’d lost part of a leg: ‘I cried. I thought it was the end of the world….All the dancing had gone….Here I was, still in my teens.’

In late 2002, I was privileged to be with veterans at El Alamein for the sixtieth anniversary of the battle. It was sobering indeed to see the exceptionally harsh environment in which the New Zealanders fought, and to be part of the service of remembrance in the stillness of the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery where so many New Zealanders lie.

Not every New Zealander who fought in North Africa was in the Div. Among those who feature in this book is former railway sapper Bren Campbell, who was in one of the so-called non-divisional units. Ron Verity was in the Royal Air Force; Howard Anderson was on the Royal Navy ship Bramham on that most famous of Malta convoys, the Pedestal convoy; Jean Chalmers was a VAD (or Women’s War Service Auxiliary) at 1 New Zealand General Hospital in Helwan near Cairo; and Eleanor Fraser served as a Tui in the New Zealand Forces Club in Cairo.

Already, sadly, some of the veterans interviewed for this book have passed away — Eleanor Fraser and Cliff Vause — and I acknowledge their families who are present today.

I congratulate the team at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage for the production of another fine book, and thank publisher HarperCollins for producing this series. I particularly want to acknowledge those who put this volume together:
- Alison Parr, who helped with the interviews.
- Ian McGibbon, who wrote the introduction.
- And, as with the other works in this series, oral historian Megan Hutching, who took the lead role. Megan has done a wonderful job once again in ensuring that these memories of epic events are never lost.

Most of all, I want to pay a special tribute to those veterans and their families who so generously gave their time to this project, and allowed us to learn more about their service for our country more than 60 years ago, and to all their comrades who served in our name.


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