Letters home reveal the chronicle of an extraordinary soldier

By Catherine Masters

By CATHERINE MASTERS

When Ethel Stott died in the 1980s, among her possessions was a little orange cardboard box crammed with faded letters.

It was coming apart at the edges and was almost thrown away as her family decided what to do with the accumulations of an old lady's lifetime spread out on the floor.

But on closer inspection they found Ethel's treasured letters spanned the years 1940 to 1945, and they realised this was one box they would never throw away.

They were written by family war hero Major Don Stott to his only sister and beloved parents, Annie and Robert.

His army career was packed full of adventure, bravery and secrecy but, like most soldiers, he spared his family the graphic detail of war and the misery of fallen comrades.

Of the countless acts of heroism, the boy from Birkenhead, Auckland, simply writes to his mum that things have been a "bit sticky" but he's fine. She should not worry.

The letters chart his transformation from a wide-eyed Kiwi, initially excited by the air battles raging overhead in England, into a supreme commando soldier. His family allowed the Weekend Herald to read the letters and here we track, in his own words, Don Stott's war.

May 28, 1940 On board the HMTS Aquitania, Simonstown, South Africa, en route to England.

"We just got the news that the Aussies have been kicking up a bit of a row in Cape Town, riding donkeys up and down the street and generally kicking up a fuss in true Aussie fashion."

September 10, 1940 Aldershot, England: "I am writing this letter during an air raid, I have just seen a cloud of German bombers and Messerschmitts pass overhead ... they pass right over our heads on their way to London and we have seen dogfights by the dozens, they are scrapping madly above my head now as I write this letter, sitting on a case of high explosive ammunition."

October 29, 1940 Billeted in the English countryside where it's so cold the duck pond has frozen.

"The first ducks down to the pond were funny, they slipped and slid all over the place quacking like mad.

"There was eight time bombs dropped near us last night and we are expecting them to go off at any time."

November 18, 1940: "I am very sorry that I didn't mention in my last letter that the butter had arrived and in very good condition ... "

Their blankets still have not been washed. "It's a bit of a cow when you get the wrong end up by your head, the old feet smell isn't so good."

December 9, 1940: "I have just had my last look at London ... I couldn't get to Aunt Fanny's house because the road had been bombed and it would have taken too long ...

"Miss Henrick, Miss White's niece, was telling me that one night it was so bad that she got hysterical and rushed out into the street where she collapsed amongst flying debris and shrapnel, luckily her boyfriend came along and found her. I could see the difference in her face from the first time I saw her, she looks terribly tired, as nearly everyone in London is."

Around Christmas, 1941: He has been weeks at sea, attacked by destroyers and rammed by a steamer. A "hot naval battle" has been in progress.

"It was an eerie sight as there was a slightly misty rain and we could make out the silhouette of the battleships when they fired by the flash of their guns."

In March, 1941 he has arrived in the Middle East.

"I am on guard duty today and the flies are worrying me. I have a sore lip and I swear that the same fly has been making attempted landings on it for the past hour."

He is soon sent to Crete, taking part in the disastrous Battle of Crete.

He writes home on April 29.

"I spent day after day grovelling on my face in the dirt attempting to dodge machine gun bullets, bombs and cannon shells as they continually dive-bombed us for days.

"We were ankle deep in cold slushy mud and were pretty miserable generally. You would love to see Athens, mum! It is a lovely city."

He is shot and wounded and imprisoned in Greece.

May 29, 1941, from the prison camp: "The wound which I received is not at all severe. I was hit by a bullet just above the knee (right) on the inside of the leg and it did not strike a bone so I was lucky."

June 12, 1941: "I am feeling great now, the wound has healed and hardly left a mark ... The weather is still perfect and we have plenty of time for sunbathing."

Stott does not write again until December, 1941, from Egypt.

He says little about how he got there, but introduces the name of another New Zealander, Bob Morton, who is by his side until the end. He does not yet say how he escaped the prison camp and does not mention the long months working underground with the resistance in Greece. But he asks his mum whether the photo of him "as a sinister-looking Greek" has arrived.

"Did you recognise me in that photo, mum?"

In another letter he explains how he and Morton escaped.

"We rushed the fence late one afternoon, it was pretty sticky for a while, as they fired at us going over the top, but anyway luck was with us and we made it."

They ran for the hills, made friends with Greeks but there was no food and "we were forced to live on octopus, snails and seaweed.

"We [in disguise as Greeks] used to mix freely with the German and Italian soldiers, even going to the pictures and the cafes where they used to congregate in big numbers."

They managed to cross the Mediterranean in a boat to reach Egypt.

On January 23, 1942, he writes that he and Morton are being treated royally by a Greek couple in Cairo, who they met in the Greek resistance.

In March he is in a camp in the Middle East training to be an officer.

He sends a letter that month explaining how he was shot in the knee, describing the surprise German parachute attack on Melame airfield and several ventures to mend cut communication wires, running "slap bang" into a Hun patrol and having a "dual" in an olive grove.

April 20, 1942: Writing from the officer's training camp, he is homesick and the training is intensive. "If I could only lay back in that easy chair in our living room, boy! it would be great."

May 27, 1942: He is granted his commission, nine weeks early for "special reasons". He has been itching to get back to Greece, praising the locals in various letters, and has agreed to carry out sabotage there. He is on "loan" to the British Army but there are delays and in the meantime he and Morton are involved in various Middle East missions.

In June 1942 he writes: "It's pretty hot and I'm willing to guarantee, there isn't a more cruel battleground than the Libyan desert." In the midst of it Ethel has sent "four quid" to buy whatever he thinks fit.

"You've taken a terrific risk, you might find yourself owning a couple of snakes, an arab rifle and a mongrel pup."

In August he writes while marooned on a small desert island in a wind storm.

"We had an unusual dish the other day, we shot a stork (keep it quiet, I think they're protected) as they flew over us migrating from Europe ... we appreciated it I can tell you as we'd had no fresh meat or vegetables for over a fortnight ... "

A week later he is back in Cairo, writing to his mum: "Another chap I know got a parcel from home and it had liquorice allsorts in it - you know how I love liquorice allsorts, mum ... I'd much rather have some lollies than a balaclava or a scarf ... "

August 29: "You know I've been home dozens of times, that is of course in my day dreams. Sometimes I just wander up the back steps when you're making morning tea and say 'well, mum, here I am!"

He is now at parachute school for sabotage missions in the Middle East and Greece. On October 12, 1942, he tells his mum that he went for a jump in the dark.

"I landed a bit hard and fell on my face and was dragged for about five yards on my knee. So I've got a lovely big swollen scabby nose."

On his birthday, October 23, Morton is almost killed as they attempt to parachute into enemy territory on the Alamein border. The aircraft is hit by fire and the mission aborted. Morton survives. Stott writes: "I had a very, very hectic birthday, but can't say anything about it, so you'll just have to accept my word that I'm okay."

At Christmas he turns up in Palestine.

"I forgot to mention we can see the village of Nazareth quite plain from where we are living."

February 1943 and he is back in Cairo sitting around waiting, "raring to go".

"I haven't been doing any jumping lately, in fact, they won't let us practise these days, afraid we'll get hurt or something, I think that is the joke of the week."

There is little news until September. Stott has been back in Greece and is decorated for bravery after being the key in blowing up the strategic Asopos Viaduct under the Germans' noses.

In late September he writes: "I think you'll understand ... that if 'old Hitler' is going to be stopped not one man can sit back."

The next day he parachutes into Greece again. In the months to follow, as the war turns in Europe, the Germans contact him putting out "agreement feelers". He meets them, risking his life and earning a bar to the DSO.

He picks up contact in December, 1943, back in Cairo and is off to bed: "Wish you were here to tuck me in mum."

By January, 1944, he is in England waiting for an operation and enjoying backchat with Irish nurses.

He had been hit in the head with a piece of concrete while blowing up a culvert. There is a gap in the letters until August. Stott was finally granted leave to go home, where he married local girl Mary Snow. By now he was seconded to Z Special Unit, a secret commando unit attached to the Australian Army, recruiting and training men for missions in Japanese-occupied Borneo. He disappeared off the coast on his first exercise.

On August 12, 1944, he had written to his mum from Queensland: "I was so pleased to receive your letter and more than pleased that you obviously 'hit it off' with Mary ...

"I have so much to live for now that I have a wife - and an approaching family (keep that a secret for the time being, though, mum.)"

The last letter is dated March 3, 1945.

He had made it through the war in the Middle East and Europe but was about to embark on a Borneo mission. "I leave at midday today, mum. You can imagine how happy I am to depart with the knowledge that I am now the father of a son."

It is a thoughtful letter. He writes how unfortunate it is that Mary's brother is dead at this late stage and talks about lives that have been lost.

But there was work to be done. Perhaps he had a premonition this would be his last adventure.

He tells his mother that even though he is now married and has a son, he will never forget his mum and tells her he has left Mary financially secure.

"You can imagine my keenness to see my son. Unfortunately, war once more plays its shady hand and forbids it."

And for the last time he signs off "your loving son, Don".

Daring exploits carried out under nose of the enemy

Don Stott's letters home are typical of war. But his war was far from typical.

It lasted more than four gruelling years until he mysteriously disappeared off the coast of Borneo just before the fighting stopped.

He rose through the ranks to Major and was decorated twice for bravery, but his decorations only hint at his exploits, parachuting into enemy territory in the Middle East and Greece and training other New Zealand soldiers in commando war.

His citation for the Distinguished Service Order describes the sabotaging of the heavily guarded Asopos Viaduct on the main railway line between Athens and Salonika. Stott and his men climbed mountains and forded icy cold waterfalls, carrying explosives and using ropes made of parachutes.

They were sometimes forced to turn back but Stott kept going, at one stage alone, walking through water up to his neck and getting within 10m of enemy workmen in broad daylight.

In June he guided the whole party there, creeping up to lay explosives, displaying "untiring energy and complete disregard for danger in the face of the enemy".

In September 1943, he parachuted into Greece to sabotage German aircraft. He organised a system of agents to help from the inside.

During his time in Athens the Germans approached him to discuss peace proposals. He met the head of the Gestapo in southeastern Europe and was escorted back to Cairo by the Germans, gaining precious intelligence used for numerous sabotage operations: "His life was at the mercy of the Germans throughout ... "

As the war wound down in the Middle East and Europe, his war continued with Z Special Unit, a highly secret unit of commandos and saboteurs.

In March 1945, he set off for Japanese-occupied Borneo. He disappeared on a night of high seas and was not seen again.

Herald Feature: Anzac Day

Related information and links

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 21 Dec 2014 07:02:46 Processing Time: 1104ms