- Murray Horton
As is the case with all too many CAFCA members, we knew nothing at all about Allan Yeoman. We didn’t even know that he had died (in September 2007, aged 93) until his December Watchdog was returned to us from his Katikati rest home, in the Bay of Plenty. We’d never met him and I’d only ever spoken to him once, on the phone – I had to ring him, at that home, because I couldn’t read his handwriting advising his change of address. When I said my name, he replied “the man himself”, so I deduced that he enjoyed reading Watchdog.
A quick Google search greatly whetted my appetite. Here was a man who turned out to have been one of NZ’s greatest prisoner of war (POW) camp escapers of WW2, having written a book about it in the 1990s and starred in the 2006 TVNZ series Kiwis At War. Nor was he one of those boring old buggers who dine out on their war exploits for the rest of their lives. Allan had lived a very full peacetime life and as recently as the mid 90s had managed to wedge himself firmly up the noses of the fundamentalists in his beloved Presbyterian Church (and the broader Protestant churches), by publishing a booklet which caused such a reaction that the hurt was never healed in his lifetime and he refused to have his funeral held in his parish church that he had served for decades. Then I realised that he was pushing 90 when he first joined CAFCA, in 2003. He remained a member until his death and he sent donations to both us and to the CAFCA/ABC Organiser Account, which supplies my income.
Having had a father who was also a POW escaper (although without any of the derring do of Allan’s multiple escapes) and being myself a lapsed Presbyterian from donkey’s years ago, I could relate to at least part of his life story. I set out to find out as much as I could and I am indebted to the staff of his retirement home and to Lauren Owens of the Bay of Plenty Times, who very promptly and without demur, supplied its October 2007 obituary and photos.
Fighting Fascism: Serial Wartime Escaper
“Mr Yeoman was born in 1914 in Opouriao Valley, inland from Whakatane, and went to school in the Eastern Bay before finishing at Auckland Grammar. He returned to the Bay to farm and also took up singing - a lifelong interest - and joined the 6th Hauraki Regiment, earning the rank of lieutenant in the years leading up to the (Second World) war. The (Presbyterian) church was also a key part of his life and it was at Bible class that he met Nellie Reid. When war broke out in 1939 he left his sweetheart Nell behind and joined the 21st Battalion as a platoon commander. He served in Greece, Crete - he was evacuated on the last ship out after the ill-fated battle - and Egypt before being captured in Libya in 1941. He spent much of the next 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Italy, Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia. As an officer, he was committed to trying to escape, and succeeded a couple of times before being recaptured. His escape attempts were retold in a television documentary (in 2006). More than once he faced death, recalling one incident in (the former) Yugoslavia where, after being recaptured following two months on the run with the partisans, he and his fellow POWs were told: ‘You will be shot in the morning. You are all dead men’. He lived to tell the tale and committed it to print in 1991 when he published his wartime memoirs, ‘The Long Road to Freedom’” (Katikati Advertiser, 9/10/07, Lauren Owens).
Allan Yeoman’s extraordinary feats as an escaper were the subject of an episode of the 2006 series “Kiwis At War” entitled “Allan Yeoman: The Man With Nine Lives”. The publicity blurb on TVNZ’s Website reads: “After a disastrous start to World War Two, Yeoman spent three and a half years inside, trying to get out. This episode of Kiwis At War runs the roller coaster of his capture and several bold escape attempts. ‘Standard book of field service regulations says that it is the duty of an officer in the British Army, once captured, to escape’, declares 91 year old Katikati resident Allan Yeoman. So he did.
“On more than one occasion he could very easily have been shot. Although he was imprisoned in Italy, Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia, Allan Yeoman never lost his determination to be free. He survived some rather dodgy escape plans, one of which saw him escaping from a four story building using little more than a rope of sheets. In a heart-wrenching moment, dangling 15 metres off the ground, Allan was spotted by the armed guard.
"’And the only reason I'm here today’, laughs Yeoman, ‘is that the sentry was late back for duty from the town, and instead of going to the barracks to get his rifle, he went past the armoury and grabbed the first rifle he could see, not knowing it was faulty’. Yeoman and his comrade got away, and spent nearly three weeks getting to the coast, only to be spotted by an Italian guard lurking behind a building. ‘We were sent back on the train - it took 19 days to get to the coast, and nine hours to get back’, he smiles. At the time, his escape was a record. He was met at the camp gates by the Commandant, who offered a warm handshake with one hand, but kept a pistol firmly gripped in his other. ‘There was a fair bit of fellow feeling between soldiers. It was as though 'we didn't start his war, and on the battlefield you are my enemy, but that's no reason why I should dislike you'.
“But his escapades soon got Allan bundled off to the Italian equivalent of Colditz (the German maximum security prison reserved for escapers and high risk POWs. Ed.), the imposing Gavi Castle. Now labelled 'molto pericoloso' - very dangerous - Yeoman was shifted around camps, and into Austria. He made another audacious escape by posing as a Frenchman and fled through the mountains, where he spent time fighting with the Yugoslav partisans. Captured again on his way back to Italy, Yeoman narrowly avoided a firing squad, and saw out the rest of the war in Germany. It was a tremendously long road to freedom, that makes Allan Yeoman one of the greatest Kiwi escape artists of the war” (http://tvnz.co.nz/view/page/442303/843525). In Matthew Wright’s 2006 book “Escape! New Zealanders’ World War 2 Stories”, Allan detailed the escapers’ methods. “We had three fairly distinct approaches: tunnelling – slow, laborious but relatively safe; finesse – requiring disguise, acting ability and a quick wit; and surprise – often needing good judgement, physical fitness and a willingness to take a risk”.
“…By the time Mr Yeoman returned to New Zealand in 1945 with the rank of major, he had been away for six years and, as he recalled years later, he and Nell ‘met as strangers’. ‘We lost all the years we should have had together’. The couple married and moved to Katikati where they bought a large dairy farm... Mr Yeoman was soon involved in local affairs, convincing the local catchment authority to raise the (local) stream's stop banks. The resulting walkway to the harbour now bears his name. His name also graces the pensioner flats… which he pushed hard for in the early 1980s. ‘If anything is to take my name I am happy for it to be these units’, he said modestly at the time of their opening in 1983. By then Mr Yeoman was at the end of 15 years' local government service. He had joined Katikati Town Committee in 1968 and was elected to Tauranga County Council in 1977, serving two terms. Other than pensioner housing, his achievements included modernising the sewerage system and other infrastructure, and the purchase of Katikati saleyards to be the nucleus of the industrial zone. Mr Yeoman was also a long-time Rotarian, serving a term as president, and was involved with Federated Farmers, while Mrs Yeoman, who died in 1999, was a nurse during the war and later became patron of the Red Cross in Katikati.
Fighting Fundamentalism: A Breach Which Never Healed
“In 1989, Mr Yeoman was formally thanked by St Paul's for his 35 years' service to the Presbyterian Church, 29 as a session clerk. But more than 20 years earlier, around 1967, Mr Yeoman had already begun to question the role of the church, prompted in part by the heresy trial of Lloyd Geering. In a 2006 interview Mr Yeoman said, ‘I found myself agreeing with him and at odds with many in my church'’. It would not be until 1995 that he made his liberal views known widely, with the publication of the 48 page booklet, ‘Where Have All The Christians Gone? (And What Should We Tell Our Children?)’. Mr Yeoman was alarmed by changes in religious observance, particularly what he saw as the rise of charismatic fundamentalism, something he described as a step backwards towards pre-science Christianity. More traditional minded members of the church felt feelings of loss, grief and anger, he said. In the booklet, he predicted that by the year 2000 the church could become ‘an interesting relic ... a warm and loving service club with strange outdated beliefs and customs, an anachronism, irrelevant'” (Katikati Advertiser, 9/10/07, Lauren Owens). Lloyd Geering favourably reviewed the booklet: “….Yeoman has observed how ‘some fundamentalists… have set out to take over the structures of the established churches’, leaving many people grieving for the loss of the more open church they once knew” (Sea Of Faith NZ Newsletter 14, December 1995).
“The booklet prompted unprecedented debate in the letters pages of the Katikati Advertiser and accusations of heresy by at least one local minister. The rift that developed was never repaired and after Mr Yeoman died…, his funeral was held not at St Paul's Presbyterian Church, but at the Katikati RSA…. It may be argued now that Mr Yeoman's book had no long-lasting effect on the church, but the division affected him personally for the rest of his life. He continued to attend St Paul's until about 2000 before the differences between him and the session became too great and the breach became permanent. His daughter Judy, who is a lawyer in Auckland, said the controversy made him very sad, but he never wavered from his views. ‘He was deeply hurt at how they treated him. He felt he could never go back to the church. Before he died, he said to me `I am not under any circumstances to have my funeral at St Paul's Church'. Instead, he aligned himself with the Sea of Faith, a global non-denominational organisation for liberal-minded Christians. ‘He had a huge faith, he never lost his belief’, Judy said. He read extensively and was reading the latest book by the Sea of Faith's most prominent figure, Bishop John Spong, just weeks before he died” (Katikati Advertiser, 9/10/07, Lauren Owens). That obituary concluded: “The controversy could not overshadow a lifetime of outstanding service to his family, his community and his country”.
It was only after all this that Allan joined CAFCA, in 2003, aged nearly 90, and remained a member until his death four years later. It never ceases to amaze me just what an interesting bunch we have for members. What a life, fighting fascists and fundamentalists (who have more than a little in common)! We never knew him but we owe him a vote of thanks for a life well lived and a fight well fought.