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Let’s not forget

April 14, 2020

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Let’s not forget

Gunner Speight showed bravery and resilience in WWII

In these extraordinary times, it is important, now more than ever, not to forget those currently serving in our armed forces, and others who served in our major wars. With public gatherings cancelled this Anzac Day, Mayor Phil Goff says, “Anzac Day will be very different this year. But the bravery and service of our armed forces, past and present, will not be forgotten. Like the wartime generation, it is important that we join together and support each other as we face these new challenges.”

 

In World War I and II, soldiers, nurses and civilians, fought, served and lived through unprecedented times of upheaval, physical danger and fear. Onehunga local man, Gunner Speight, is a reminder of one man’s bravery, resilience and survival in extreme times. In peacetime, Geoffrey George Speight lived in Captain Springs Road with his parents, attending Te Papapa Primary School and Auckland Grammar School, and playing for Manukau Technical Old Boys Rugby Club.  After enlisting in 1940, he was captured in 1941 by the Germans, when their tanks over-ran the New Zealand positions at Sidi Rezegh, which was part of Operation Crusader in South Africa.

 

Gunner Speight was transported to Italy with other prisoners of war; their ship was constantly threatened by torpedo attacks from Allied forces. Once there, he was in a POW camp until September 1943, and then escaped with others when Italy surrendered to the Allies. Still dangerous for the escapees, as Germany occupied the northern part of Italy, Gunner Speight adapted and survived. He somehow got hold of a safe conduct pass, signed by German General Albert Kesselring, which allowed him to travel around relatively freely, disguising himself as an old woman, and living with a partisan family who sheltered him. “Even his own mother would not have recognised him,” wrote the Auckland Star admiringly in 1945. Another narrow escape, which apparently Gunner Speight was reluctant to talk about, was when he was hidden by two Italian women in their bed, as the Nazis were searching the house. The Waikato Independent reported: “The soldier was pushed into a double bed, occupied by two women. He was nearly suffocated, for the women lay on top of him as he sank into the feather mattress. The searchers looked into the room – they were satisfied – they passed on.”

 

Gunner Speight eventually met up with Allied Troops, and returned to New Zealand in 1945, when the war ended.

 

To find out how Aucklanders can commemorate Anzac Day without public gatherings this year, visit ourauckland.nz/anzacday as Saturday 25th April draws nearer.

Vector Lights for Anzac Day will shine poppy-red on the Auckland Harbour Bridge from Tuesday 21st to Saturday 25th April. The Light Path will light up in red also, while Auckland War Memorial Museum will shine in a uniform display of red light from dusk on Friday 24th until dawn Sunday 26th April, all as a commemorative tribute to this important day.