We first meet the main characters in the story as they sail into Piraeus Harbour, Greece, in the early morning of 27 March 1941. There is a distinct air of anticipation aboard ship, for this will be the first time the Second New Zealand Division has been sent into action as a complete force.
The book’s characters are fictional, but the depiction of their experiences in Greece is based on fact. Second Lieutenant Neil Rankin (the eponymous rabbit hunter) commands one of the infantry platoons of D Company, 23 Battalion, while his close friend Boney Anderson commands another. The battalion comprises volunteers drawn from every corner of New Zealand’s South Island. We follow the two platoons and other personnel of the battalion from the nightlife of Athens to Mt Olympus, where they dig in and await the enemy’s arrival.
Their introduction to the realities of war takes place on the slopes of the ancients’ most revered mountain. The forces are not evenly matched, however. Greece’s neighbours collapse and Allied withdrawal down the length of Greece swiftly follows. We gain insights into the life the men had led before they joined up, and those left behind minding the home front. Harried by the ever-present Luftwaffe, the army is forced to travel by night and hide by day. Things go from bad to worse when the Allied front disintegrates altogether, putting their designated evacuation beaches out of reach.
They cross the Corinth Canal by the skin of their teeth, fighting an intense rear-guard action against German airborne troops in the process. Finally, arriving at the southern port of Monemvasia, they must “earn” their passage on the last Royal Navy ship to leave Greece.
The book aims to give the reader an understanding of what it was like to take part in New Zealand’s first major land battle in the Second World War. This story is perhaps less well known than those of the battles that followed it. The stakes were high, for the individual soldier and for the country. Virtually the whole of New Zealand’s national army was committed to this Balkan adventure and by one measure, at least, the battle resulted in an ignominious defeat.
The country held its breath, just as it had done exactly 26 years earlier, when these men’s fathers had landed not so very far away, at a place called Anzac Cove.
The book is set in the Battle of Greece, in April 1941. The first part covers the arrival of the final elements of the New Zealand Division in Athens and their deployment to the north of Greece. The Division made up a significant part (along with British and Australian troops) of the force sent to defend the country against the invasion threatened by Nazi Germany.
Greece was already at war with Italy, whose fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had decided to recreate the Roman Empire. The invasion had proved very troublesome for the Italians, who had been pushed back over the Albanian border by the Greek army. However, the Greeks were hard-pressed and had few reserves to face Germany.
Hitler, unbeknownst to Britain and her allies or to Mussolini, needed to secure his southern Balkan flank for his pending invasion of the Soviet Union, planned for June. He intervened by ignoring the neutrality of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, pouring in 12 German divisions, which swept in from north and west, threatening to cut off the British expeditionary force occupying fixed defensive positions.
First contact with the enemy was soon followed by withdrawal. Greece’s position quickly deteriorated once the Germans invaded, and in order to save civilian lives the Greek government surrendered. This precipitated the hasty retreat of the British expeditionary forces, including the New Zealanders, down the length of the country.
The withdrawal from the initial defensive line across the Corinth Canal to an evacuation port near the southern tip of Greece is covered in the second part of the book. The story culminates with a bloody assault on a small fishing village to secure the evacuation port and the tense wait for shipping to make good their escape.
the Rabbit hunter
Anybody whose parent is a serviceman will appreciate The Rabbit Hunter. It creates a vivid image of what daily life in WW2 was like: a topic our fathers seldom talked about.
The transition of Neil Rankin from a young country boy to an active fighter and leader of men explains the journey our soldiers experienced. Weaving the story into actual events of the battle of Greece bought it alive and allowed me to associate with what my father experienced. The Rabbit Hunter is such an engrossing book that urged me to read more.
As the editor of The Rabbit Hunter, it was difficult not to get drawn into the story as a reader, transported to the front lines of WWII. From the real-feeling characters to the thrilling battles, I could almost say I was there in Greece experiencing the confusion and horror of smoke clouds and skull-thumping explosions.
I would recommend this book to any reader inside or outside New Zealand who has an appreciation of history and what was experienced by young men and women in such times.
Truly a masterfully written story.
I have recently had the pleasure of reading The Rabbit Hunter written by Christopher Worth. I found the book exceedingly well written, which made the book easy and enjoyable to pick up but difficult to put down – the book being based on World War Two battles and locations.
The fictional characters in the book all have their own strong personalities. These personalities really come to life and you can almost imagine the stress and difficulties they had to endure, both on the front line fighting and in their downtime when being so far away from their homeland and loved ones.
I would highly recommend this book to any age group, as it really makes you appreciate the hardships that war causes on both the soldiers and civilian population.
Once again a must-read. Five out of five stars.