Albert Asher is a 98 year old veteran of the Second World War and New Zealand welfare system. Born into a large family who couldn’t afford to keep him, granddad spent his first 20 years in foster care. From there, he became a milkman, and just a few years later, joined the army where he spent four years in England, Syria, and Egypt.
I’ve just bought a voice recorder for interviews (yep, I’m one of those journalist wannabes), and can’t think of a better person to start with than my great granddad. Unlike many others his age, granddad is undeniably still all there. He’s lucid, talkative, and has a wicked sense of humour.
Before I meet with my Great Grandfather at the rest home where he lives, I get a piece of advice from my father on talking to him. “Make sure you give him lots of breaks. His voice gets sore and he probably won’t tell you.” Even whilst living in a rest home with a medicine dictated schedule (“a bloody nuisance”), he wants to give me the best interview possible.
When a lawnmower interrupts our conversation, he takes care of it. “Get out of here, you rowdy devil. My granddaughter’s trying to interview me for varsity and you’re kicking up a fuss.”
I soon give up asking questions as his chronic deafness makes the hassle not worthwhile. He talks enough anyway, giving me story after story of his time in the Second World War.
Scrounging to Survive
“1939, I volunteered.”
Why did you decide to go? I ask.
“Oh I just wanted to do my bit.”
Of his time in Tripoli unloading boats, he says, “the New Zealanders got a name for themselves. Freiberg – our General – and his 40,000 thieves. One for the officers and one for us. So we lived very well while we were there.”
Times were not always so easy, though. He describes the trip down from Syria to Egypt, sitting on the back of a truck with kit bags, having to scrounge food all 1000 miles of the way.
“While we were actually in the desert each gun was independent for food. We used to have our own supplies and do our own cooking and everything. We ended up scrounging – you had to fend for yourself. You could buy a sparrow for sixpence.”
He launches into another narrative, this time about his experience during Apartheid in South Africa.
“They wouldn’t let the Maoris go ashore, until a general said he’d control the party that went with him. Once he got ashore he said ‘you boys are too big for me, I can’t control you,’ so they all took off. While I was there with the Maoris at one of the big department stores, talking to the girls, they went ‘oh’ and cringed away from the Maori boys. They said “no, no, keep away from us.” Being Apartheid they weren’t going to have anything to do with Maori. I said to them “look at that chap. I bet he’s had better education than you, and he’s a famous New Zealand pianist.” And they said ‘is that right? Do they speak English?’”
More than outraged, he seems amazed that people could think this way. I feel proud of him for challenging people’s racist assumptions, even if it was just two department store girls.
My Great-grandfather is half Maori himself, so I asked if he’d experienced any racism in South Africa. He simply said that he’d stayed with some people in South Africa who were “lovely, but the mother was a little bit off, because she knew I had a bit of Maori blood.”
Trenches and dressing stations
Injuries play a large part in his most shocking stories.
One time, the army commanders carelessly instructed the troops to place their guns in the middle of an open plane during the middle of the night. Next day, when the Germans flew around and saw the easy target, they dropped their bombs. He explains,
“The only ones that were killed were the ones that dived into the trenches. I was in another hold and got blown out of it. I didn’t remember much about it, they told me about it later on.”
“Those poor beggars in the trenches. It was a darn shame because this boy Peter put his age up to get into the army, he was only about 18.”
In another instance, they were in the desert following the white tape through a minefield – the only safe way to do so, when they saw two big German tanks up ahead. Thinking they’d be safe reversing the way they came, they headed back. Unbeknownst to the driver, the back wheel was resting on a mine. A recurring theme starts to manifest itself.
“I don’t remember anything more, next thing I was in the hospital.”
Death was sudden and in-discriminatory. Ross Williams, a close friend of my grandfather’s was no exception. A broken nose resulted in Williams having to be taken out of the battlefield in an ambulance. The next day, after having broken through the German line someone told granddad “they’re burying Ross Williams over there,” to which he said “don’t be silly, he’s only got a broken nose.”
Evidently, rules of war went unheeded in many cases, as it turned out he’d been killed in the ambulance.
“The thing is, same time, General Freiberg, whether the Germans knew it or not, he was wounded too and he was going out in the ambulance.”
Ross Williams’ memory lives on as my great-uncle’s namesake. I ask whether any of his army friends are still around today.
“I don’t think so. I watch the papers (obituaries) all the time. There wouldn’t be any of my guns. That’s the trouble with getting old – you lose all your friends.”
My granddad contemplates more of the illegal tactics Germans used in war, one of which included torpedoing the New Zealand hospital base.
“They did diabolical things like exploding chocolate and exploding pens… you daren’t kick anything in the desert. Kiwis have got a bad habit of kicking everything they see, you know playing football. The Germans got onto it, they booby trapped everything that was around. You’d rush underneath something for shelter and it’d blow up on you. You had to be very careful.”
Christmas morning off the coast of Sierra Leone brought an armed raid attack. When I compared this to the popular story of German and English soldiers playing football on Christmas Eve and how the reality was a lot harsher, I was impressed to hear his lack of bitterness towards the ‘enemy.’
“The soldiers, they don’t want to fight. When I was in the desert, I was a guard for a truckload of Germans, taking them in from the desert into the prisoner of war camp. And they’d bring out their photos – one gave me a photo of his wife and kiddies.”
“Nobody wanted to fight. I’ve got a leaflet there that they dropped over our lines, saying ‘Men of new Zealand, what are you fighting for?’ They dropped it in the wrong place, we happened to find it by mistake.”
He goes on to talk about the 900 German prisoners of war on board the boat back to New Zealand getting dropped off at American camps along the way.
“We used to have concerts on the ship coming home. They’d come up the stairway, and sing. Beautiful voices, the Germans – everyone would stop and listen to them.”
Of his many medals, he is modest.
“Oh they just give them to you for anything. They’re just for service, you know.”
I ask about ANZAC Day and what significance it should have to us all today. I am met with a puzzled,
“You think they should celebrate ANZAC Day more, do you?”
I explain that it feels like a day that largely goes ignored – by young people especially. His reply is sobering.
“In a way, it brings back the memories. Even at night sometimes, it comes. You can’t get away from it, what you go through. You see people killed and all that sort of thing. Things I’ve seen at the dressing station.”
He describes a gory situation he went through, getting a bit of shrapnel stuck in the bone pulled out of his leg. When he “screamed blue murder”, he was told “you got nothing to moan about.” When he asked why, he was directed to the advanced dressing station where he saw a man who “had his whole stomach ripped open with this shell casing.” The Germans were “outside moaning their heads off because they weren’t being attended to; we had to attend the New Zealanders first.”
It seems he associates little glory with the war, and understandably so.
The folly of commanders is at times breath taking. According to granddad, one initiative involved three men forming a ‘tank hunter’ crew. The idea was that; one man would sneak up on a tank with a crowbar and put it in the tank tracks to stop it moving, another would cover the tank crew with a Bren gun, while the other threw a ‘sticky bomb’ up against the tank where it would explode.
“Ohh suicide. And I volunteered for it!”
Throughout the war, Granddad was always the Bren gunner, nicknamed the ‘ak ak’ because of the aircraft they had to shoot at. He was good at his job.
“You can take your Bren gun to pieces and put it together with your eyes shut.”
On the last boat trip out of Syria with room for only a few more, Albert climbed over nets to get aboard, Bren gun and all. When a soldier told him “throw that thing away, you don’t need that anymore,” granddad replied, “look I’ve carried it this far and I’m going to keep it now”
The number of near death experiences my ancestor has had is astonishing. He describes one such instance,
“When we were leaving Syria… the Germans were picking off everything because the sky was clear. But when we were moving up from the mountains, the clouds came down and covered us as we headed out. Margaret (my grandmother) always says it was an act of God. Alright, it could be, too.”
Whatever it was, I’m glad that he came home. It’s eerie to think that my whole family and I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t. I enquire what it was like to come back home to New Zealand.
I am told how they were at base camp out by the pyramids (the pyramids! Despite all the horrors of war, I’m still jealous of all the places he got to travel), and the reinforcements who’d just arrived from New Zealand were on a mess parade. On hearing the phone ring while out on the parade, Albert rushed in to answer it. The person on the other end wanted to speak to him.
“Right. Be over here in 10 minutes with all your gear mate, you’re going home.”
So he walked down to the troops and said, “I don’t know who’s capable here, but I’m off. I always wondered what happened to those troops.”
Even the trip back home was eventful.
On the boat back to New Zealand, they picked up a lot of civilian Americans who’d been working in the air force base. There were also a lot of women on board which required the Kiwis to do ‘guard duty’ on their cabins, to stop the Yanks.
“You’d be on guard in the corridor, and the Yank would come along and knock on the door of one of the women. We’d tell them to get the hell away, and next second she’d say ‘oh come in.’ If the women were quite willing, what could we do. Most of these women were going home to marry Yanks, anyway.”
He thought this was all quite amusing, and again I was astonished at how progressive his views were for the time.
Despite seeing some truly atrocious things in the war, my granddad has many more positive stories to tell than the negative ones that I’ve focused on here for the sake of ANZAC Day. In amongst the fighting, there was a strong sense of camaraderie in the troops, and numerous “funny episodes” that almost made the war seem like a hoot. Almost.
He was married within a few months of being back in New Zealand to his wife Beth, and had a “very nice time” with her. Together they raised two children, and lived for 60 years in Mt Albert, with granddad working as a silversmith. Recounting what it was like to live through the Depression, he tells me he bought his house in a day, with a deposit of only 10 pounds.
Despite all the emotional discussion of the horrors of war, my granddad looks the saddest whilst talking about losing his wife, Beth.
“She never should’ve died. It was carelessness on the part of the doctors. After that I had a very lonely life.”
His final story to me is of when he was 12 and living in a Wellington foster home in 1928. While feeding the cows, he saw the sky light up.
“I was scared. I’d never seen anything like that before.”
From reading books later on, he deduced that this must’ve been the flares Moncrieff and Hood let off. With no idea what he was talking about, I looked the names up when I got home. These two men had attempted to fly across the Cook Strait from Australia to New Zealand for the first time, but didn’t make it, and their bodies were never found.
“And so, I said to one of the boys later on, what I’d seen. And he said ‘oh, there’s so many stories going around, Albert’. And he says ‘I wouldn’t say anything, being a welfare boy, they mightn’t believe you.’”
“Well since I’ve been in the army I’ve seen bags of flares, and I swear to this day that what I saw were flares. I realised I must’ve been the only one that saw. I think Moncrieff and Hood could be credited with having reached New Zealand first.”
No one can deny that Albert Asher knows how to spin a yarn, and I will definitely have to go back to undertake some more family history research. Great Granddad has aged well; still driving and gardening, with ‘Fluffy’ the cat to keep him company. Falls set him back sometimes, and he can’t go to the rest home social outings because of his medicine’s constricting schedule. Despite all this, his closing words to me about the discrimination he faced as a welfare boy convince me that he’s content;
“You didn’t dare open your mouth, you know. Nobody believed you. But here I am. I’ve got a memory. I can remember.”