Clickbait titles aside, there really are some stories that are stranger than fiction. The story of New Zealand soldier John Denvir is one of them. First published in 1945, and now republished by HarperCollins New Zealand, James Caffin's Partisanopens a new window tells us about this man's incredible journey during World War II.
Born is Glasgow, John Denvir had spent more than twenty years in New Zealand before he travelled over to Europe, first for military training, and then to fight in Greece in 1941. In the years that followed, he escaped from a prison camp (literally right under the eyes of a civilian guard!), and earned the respect of many by leading small groups of partisans against the Italian and German armies. He suffered broken bones, bruises, and scratches to look after his men. These men looked up to him, and by the time he got back in 1944 he had been involved in many actions that had earned him promotions and awards.
Perhaps his biggest achievement, though, was coming back from the dead. Because when Denvir escaped from his prison camp in 1942, his wife was informed of his death. She was not able to find out the cause of his death so never quite believed it, and the various 'miscommunications' her husband tried to send her didn't quench her certainty that he would come home.
Reading this book was like listening to my Grandad tell tales of his time in the war. There are the main characters — Denvir himself, known as 'Rabel Franz', or 'Corporal Frank' to the partisans, — and a selection of others whose names cropped up through the book. There are many more cameos from the normal men, women, and young people who lived in the areas where the partisans were fighting. There were stories of daring, courage, and fear, but also moments of relaxation, relief, and celebration. Physical property is destroyed, personal belongings are wrecked, and huge challenges are faced, but through it all these men and those around them stay focussed on their goal, and come together in a way that sees them achieve that goal.
Partisan is largely based on Denvir's own diary, and so discussion of military action is balanced by his observations on food, drink, and interactions with the locals around him. It is a beautifully-presented little book, with colour maps on the endpapers, and a selection of photographs in the middle section. It does contain a lot of information, so these images made it a bit easier for me to picture what was going on, the terrain Denvir and his men were fighting in, and their whereabouts during their actions. It was not always an easy read, but it is definitely a book that tells an important story ... a story that could easily be overlooked in a war which had campaigns in Normandy, Monte Cassino, Iwo Jima, and elsewhere.
Give this book a read if you're interested in learning about World War Two, finding out what goes on behind the front line, or just reading about people going about their lives, and doing what needs doing, when it needs doing.
Check out some of our memoirs and biographies of other New Zealandersopens a new window doing their part between 1939 and 1945.
by James Caffin
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand