Obituary: Jack Hinton VC

Victoria Cross winners are a rare breed. The New Zealander Jack Hinton was a shy and modest man who shunned the limelight, maintaining that it was his wartime mates who should receive the accolades. Gentle, dignified, and intelligent, he commanded respect wherever he went. There was an air of humility about him, a sense of honesty and forthrightness, which disarmed people and endeared him to them. He is referred to in military history as "the defiant hero - a good man, who like so many of his generation, was not prepared to sit idly by when faced with evil".

Hinton was one of the first to enlist when the Second World War broke out. He joined New Zealand's 20 Battalion, the Canterbury Regiment, and was posted to Egypt and later Greece.

In April 1941 the war in Europe was some 19 months old. The New Zealanders had been in Greece for six weeks as reinforcements to help the Greek nation rout the Germans from their beloved country. However Greek resistance had crumbled swiftly as the Germans occupied Greece, entering on 6 April, and the retreat and evacuation of Allied troops had to be done as quickly as possible. By late April the Germans had captured all the evacuation beaches and ports except Kalamata.

It was at Kalamata that the New Zealand troops waited for the evacuation ships - part of a force of some 8,000 men. The area was under constant air attack from the Luftwaffe's JU87 dive-bombers and Messerschmitt fighters. On the evening of 28 April the enemy had gained a solid foothold in the town of Kalamata, and the main road through the town was blocked by the Germans. German infantry, self-propelled guns and armoured cars raced for the quay to cut off all avenues of retreat.

Defeat seemed inevitable, but when the order to surrender was given, Sergeant Jack Hinton shouted: "To hell with this talk of surrender - who will fight with me?" Armed with only a .303 rifle with fixed bayonet and a pocketful of hand grenades, and accompanied by a small party of men from 20 Battalion, he ran down the street, smashing open the doors of houses with his boot, throwing grenades, and bayoneting the Germans inside.

Without a thought for his own safety, and with machine-gun fire and heavy mortar bombs exploding all around him, Hinton led his small band of men on to the waterfront which was heavily defended by big guns. He ran to within several metres of the nearest gun. The gun fired, just missing him. With every ounce of strength in his weary body, he hurled two grenades, one after the other, at the gun. He put his hand in his pocket and drew another grenade. It was his last. As he threw it he was severely wounded in the stomach by a German Spandau, and was captured.

Hinton's heroic actions had an inspiring effect on the troops waiting in the olive groves for the destroyers, cruisers, and merchant ships to take them to safety. By the end of the morning the Germans had virtually been driven out of Kalamata, and the New Zealanders had taken more than 150 prisoners.

However, the Germans, regrouping, forced their way back into the town, and, using their superiority in numbers, armour and artillery, inflicted heavy casualties. The following day, the local army commander, Brigadier Parrington, to avoid needless loss of life, surrendered to the Germans.

The gallant counter-attack which Hinton led with such vigour and skill, rightly earned for him the highest award for valour - the Victoria Cross. As Sir Geoffrey Cox, who himself fought in Greece, said: "Jack Hinton was a product of the times in which he lived, the New Zealand of the 1920s and 1930s, which shaped him, and which produced the soldier, who, given only one chance to fight, did so with consummate daring."

John Daniel Hinton, "J.D." to his friends, was born in 1909 at Colac Bay in Southland, at the bottom of the South Island in New Zealand. He was always tough. He had to be. He had left home at the age of 12 and survived for a time on his earnings as a galley hand on board an Antarctic whaling ship. He later became an errand boy and swagman during the Great Depression. Although his early life was one of extreme hardship, it was also full of adventure. By the time war broke out in September 1939 he was a foreman with the Public Works on the West Coast of the South Island.

When he returned to New Zealand after four and a half long years as a prisoner-of-war he became a publican, managing hotels throughout New Zealand. He retired in Christchurch in 1980.

As the representative of a generation which displayed courage and resolution, Jack Hinton received full military honours at a state funeral in Christchurch.

John Daniel Hinton, soldier and publican: born Colac Bay, New Zealand 17 September 1909; VC 1941; twice married; died Christchurch, New Zealand 28 June 1997.

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