Kiwis at War

The final episode of the ‘Kiwis At War’ tells the dramatic tale of Eric Batchelor, a soldier’s soldier, whose record ranks him one of the very best infantrymen among the millions who fought in the ‘Second War’. Despite his impressive achievements, he refused promotion to the officers’ ranks, preferring life as a humble sergeant.

Saturday 2 December, 7.00pm, TV One

Our most decorated living soldier is a quiet resident of the tiny south Canterbury town of Waimate. During WWII, they called him ‘The Ferret.’

“Batch was notorious for sneaking up on German strongholds from behind,” says producer Gary Scott, “and leaping in through the back window while his platoon kept them diverted from the front. He regularly captured whole German platoons with his surprise tactics.”

As a result Batchelor received two Distinguished Conduct Medals, which rates him among the best of the best. Only one other WWII Allied NCO received similar honours.

“I was always restless, always keen to get out and see what was doing,” says Batchelor, “and I guess, if you go looking for trouble, then you’re going to find it.”

A country larrikin and an expert woodsman, Bach was a perfect infantryman. As a platoon commander during the Allied advance through northern Italy, he was often at the front of patrol operations, moving quietly at night behind enemy lines, constantly risking capture and death.

“Well, we were pretty small in those days”, says Batchelor, “so we didn’t make much of a target. And the Germans,” he smiles, echoing a comment made by Kiwi war hero Captain Charles Upham, “were pretty poor shots. Or at least I thought they were.”

For such daring raids, Batchelor received his first Distinguished Conduct Medal. A medal that his commander signed, knowing that it was a very rare honour.

“The commendation was commented on by Kippenberger and Freyberg,” says Major General Sandy Thomas, “and they got to know Batch as well. They would often ask me, ‘and how’s The Ferret getting on?'”

Very well, as it turned out. Until a communication error put him and his platoon behind enemy lines and in the target area of a full Allied advance. Batchelor walked into a big Italian villa expecting a friendly rendezvous, but instead stumbled into the German area command.

Which he quickly captured.

As a result Batchelor received a second DCM, which rates him among the best of the best. Only one other WWII Allied NCO received similar honours.

At war’s end Eric returned to the sleepy little town of his birth, Waimate and (almost) resumed life where he left off. Now in his early 80s, he’s been a dairy owner, a taxi driver and an odd jobs man. A simple life in a modest home for one of New Zealand’s greatest heroes.

Wounded many times, famous for taking risks others would not, Charlie Upham was the most highly decorated Commonwealth soldier of WWII. No small achievement for a farmer from Canterbury.

Saturday 18 November, 7.30pm, TV One

“He was the archetypal fearless warrior,” says producer Gary Scott about the subject of this episode of ‘Kiwis At War’. “There are many reports of his courage on the battlefield, how ferocious his behaviour, how loud his voice, but in the end everyone says how much of an ordinary Kiwi he was.”

“He hated the attention,” adds Major General Sandy Thomas. “A hell of a nice bloke and just the kind of guy that you would be happy to sit down with and have a beer.”

Upham won the Victoria Cross not once, but twice, the highest commendation a Kiwi soldier could win. Upham was the only man among millions of Allied troops from WWII to be awarded both the V.C. ‘and Bar’.

This episode of Kiwis At War captures the intense drama of the campaign on Crete in 1941, during which Upham won his first V.C.

Crete was a ten-day pitched battle in which exhausted New Zealand troops were slowly overrun by the Nazis. Upham repeatedly saved the lives of his men by sneaking up on German positions. Single-handedly, he attacked the deadly machine gun nests with grenades and then his gun.

Despite Upham’s heroics, New Zealand troops lost vital positions and were forced into a desperate two-day march over barren mountains to meet the evacuation ships.

Upham’s leadership was recognised by his superiors. His comrade, Bill Allison, tells of a platoon of the German Mountain Division stationed high in the mountains, threatening the retreat. Upham was suffering from dysentery, a badly wounded shoulder and had a bullet in his foot. Despite this, Allison recalls how Colonel Kippenberger specifically asked for Charlie Upham and his men to be sent to deal with the lethal Nazi snipers. Which Upham did, with typically brutal efficiency.

Upham finished the war in the notorious Colditz prison. When the King asked if Upham deserved a bar to his V.C., Colonel Kippenberger is said to have replied that in his ‘respectful opinion, Captain Upham has won the V.C. several times over.’

But Upham always claimed he was only doing an ‘ordinary man’s duty’, a reluctant hero to the end.

Kiwis at War goes to air on Saturday October 21st at 7.00pm. This seven part series tells stories of escapes and near misses from WW2. It features lady spy Nancy Wake and war hero Charles Upham (VC and Bar).