Newspaper Article 2003 – Born to be a battler

Born to be a battler

From fighting Franco as a teenage volunteer in the Spanish Civil War to leading an occupation force platoon in Japan, the wartime exploits of Pedro de Treend could fill volumes. For years friends have been nagging the Hastings veteran to tell his story, and he’s finally given in.

PETER de GRAAF reports.

Hastings war veteran Pedro de Treend had fought in five armies by the time he turned 26. 

He has been captured twice, wounded and permanently discharged three times, and arrested five times by his own side. 

It’s a tale that’s as much farce as adventure thanks to what Pedro jokingly calls a conspiracy to keep him out of the war.

For years people have been nagging him to put his adventures to paper before it’s too late. Now 84, he has relented and filled half a dozen closely typed pages. His stories could easily fill a bookcase. 

Apart from old fashioned modesty, Pedro has resisted telling his story because he doubted anyone would believe it. 

“Who the hell would, if I didn’t have all this documentation?” he asks, flicking through a stack of photographs, yellowed letters and tattered army forms.

Pedro is deliberately vague about his place of birth. Whether this is to retain an aura of mystery, or because a lifetime’s habit of fibbing to the military authorities is hard to break, he will say only that he was born of “Spanish parentage”. 

When still a young lad, his fanatically devout mother placed him in a Catholic boarding school in Ireland, with the idea he would join a monastic order.

“I had a sneaking suspicion she had ambitions of becoming the mother of the future Pope,” he says.

But Pedro had other ideas.  Unimpressed by a God of fear, he ran away at the age of 14 and worked his passage on ships that took him to South Africa, Canada and Argentina.

He had barely arrived in New Zealand, having successfully put as much distance between himself and Europe as possible, when the Spanish Civil War erupted.

Volunteers of Spanish descent were sought to fight Franco’s fascists, and the then “politically naive” 17-year-old heeded the call.  It was to be the first of many. 

He found himself among communists, Trotskyists, Marxists and anarchists – “everything red outside the bullring” – and wondering what he had got himself into.

“It was shocking, all the infighting between the communist units…Both sides were as bad as each other, and even though I was anti-church I couldn’t tolerate the desecration of churches, the throwing priests off precipices,” Pedro says.

After six months at the front he was captured by Moorish soldiers.  It was a time best forgotten, he says, but he does explain their simple technique for ensuring prisoners did not run away: A quick twist of the feet to the left, then the right.  It’s hard to run with dislocated ankles.

He was eventually put to work on the wharves at Malaga, where the crew of a visiting ship helped him aboard.  He jumped ship in Gibraltar and stowed away on another bound for Australia, not quite making it to his adopted homeland.

With a crisis brewing in Europe and a new-found hatred of anything that smacked of totalitarianism, Pedro tried to join the Australian army.  Unfortunately, he told the recruiting officer his place of birth.

“Not a show, mate,” adding that he was lucky not to be interned.  By this time Franco had won the civil war and Spain was allied with Germany.

Pedro worked his passage to Britain and tried again.  This time, thanks to a “Come to Brighton” poster decorating the wall of the recruiting office, his birthplace became an English seaside resort.

ofIn May 1939, he was posted to the Royal Tank Regiment for a nine-month training course.

Things were just getting interesting across the channel when his ankles started playing up again and he was declared permanently unfit for service.

Pedro managed to get his feet fixed and re-enlist but, as he could hardly inform the army he had already been discharged, had to retrain from scratch.

He was stationed on the coast near Southampton where there had been a spate of German airmen crash-landing and bailing out after air raids.

Survivors had taken to hiding out in the woods and waiting for the invasion of Britain – then thought to be imminent – so it was the job of Pedro’s unit to go around prodding bushes with their bayonets.

They were called out before light one morning, when once again there was a conspiracy to keep Pedro out of the war.  A downed German airman shot Pedro in the foot, blowing out 3½ inches of bone and leaving nothing of the boot but a strip of bootlace.

l loved running and had to get shot in the foot…Had I been a great pianist, no doubt my fingers would have been shot off.  Thank heavens I was neither a horseman…nor a great lover,” he quips.

Pedro was again declared permanently unfit and discharged, this time on a pension.  When he volunteered again for the Royal Taofnk Regiment, he told the army doctor the wound in his foot was from the Spanish Civil War and offered to race him around the block.

“Thanks heavens he declined.”

Pedro spent about a year in North Africa before his tank was hit and he found himself on a hospital ship called The Empress of Russia, invalided out for a third time.

Next he tried the French Foreign Legion which had its headquarters in London.  When they discovered he was a trained “tankie” they seconded him to a French tank unit and he landed in France three days after D-Day.of

And there Pedro’s frustrations really began.  As a Franc Tireur, a non-Frenchman serving in the French army, he was not permitted to cross the Siegfried Line into Germany and join in the action.  He was sent back to Paris, where he tried applying for citizenship.  Unfortunately the French were too busy reorganising France at the time.

A group of American soldiers gave him a lift to Holland and pointed him towards the border, where he promptly ran into the Oranje, the Dutch security force, one of whom produced a “beautiful Luger pistol”.

“l observed it was well oiled and unlikely to misfire, and I also had a distinct impression he didn’t want to sell it to me, seeing as it was investigating the depth of my navel…I would have liked to inquire how he had come across such a fine weapon but judged the time inappropriate,” he says wryly.

ofPedro was arrested as a suspected spy or saboteur and interrogated by counter-intelligence officers.  A French officer, who had sailed the South Pacific in a schooner, softened when he heard Pedro considered New Zealand his home.

He was taken to a displaced person’s centre and again the authorities warned him not to cross the border, “which was ridiculous seeing as that was my reason for coming so far”.

Driven by his desire to fight, or possibly by the smell of garlic, he sneaked out and joined a group of

I loved running and had to get shot in the foot… had I been a great pianist, no doubt my fingers would have been shot off. Thank heavens I was neither a horseman … nor a great lover
– War veteran Pedro de Treend

ofPhoto captions –

ON THE MARCH: War veteran Pedro de Treend is a familiar sight on the streets of Hastings, where he practises his “non-agricultural crutching” for three hours a day, six days a week. HBTODAY PICTURE: ANDREW LABETT

RETURNED SOLIDER: This photograph appeared in The Evening Post in 1948, when Pedro de Treend returned from Japan.

Born to be a battler

American infantrymen for a few exciting weeks  “of general scrapping, shooting and advancing”.

The fun was short lived. Military police spotted him and he was locked up in Aachen, Germany, before being returned to the displaced person’s centre.

“Surely there was an army somewhere in the war, apart from the Germans, that would accept me into their ranks.  I was not asking for much, just a weapon, ammo and some tucker,” he says.

More escapades and another arrest followed – far too convoluted a story to go into here – before Pedro managed to track down his original regiment, the 1st RTR, somewhere in Belgium.

He was taken to a major who demanded his release papers from the Foreign Legion or the Free French, which needless to say Pedro did not have, and roared: “You’re a bloody deserter.  You can’t just walk in here and ask to join our bloody army.  If we take you in, every Tom, Dick and Harry will leave their armies and want to join ours.”

So Pedro was ordered to return to Paris and get an official release from the French.  But Paris was more than 100 miles in the wrong direction, away from the front and the country was swarming with grim-faced military police itching to get their hands on anyone who looked like a deserter.

There were many close calls, but Pedro managed to get to Paris by wrapping a grubby bandage around his head, adopting a limp, and approaching any military police he saw to ask for directions. They never asked for his papers.

Although it was late in the war, Pedro joined the British 6th Airborne and crossed the Rhine with an armoured reconnaissance unit.

He fought with them for about five weeks, until his light “recce” tank was hit by two panzerfausts – a shoulder-held anti-tank weapon, much like a bazooka.

“The gunner was dead and the Commander was in a bad way, he was moaning and his clothes were on fire.  In spite of the lead buzzing around, we managed to get him out and carry him over the road to a house, where a young woman came out with a bowl of water…and before we knew it we were surrounded by Germans,” Pedro says.

The survivors were marched “practically the length of Germany” to Bremerhaven in the north, and from there to a semi-concentration camp at Sandbostel.

The story of that forced march would fill a book on its own, Pedro says – passing through hostile towns, running into “arrogant swine” Hitler Youth, the mock executions, and how a guard, “a fine looking blonde lad” shot a prisoner through the head moments after showing off photos of his wife and family.

Of the camp’s 22,000 inmates, about 15,000 were Allied troops; the rest were political prisoners of the Gestapo.

Pedro says he was lucky because the British were left alone and fed three potatoes a day and some ersatz coffee.  Other prisoners were reduced to eating the dead, and when the camp was liberated about five weeks later he saw “bodies stacked up like cords of wood”.

He was flown back to Britain where he forfeited his rights as a prisoner of war and rejoined the 6th Airborne.  He was hoping to take on the Japanese in the Far East, but the atomic bomb intervened.

Instead Pedro was diverted to Palestine for a year, before returning to New Zealand and signing up for the J Force that occupied post-war Japan.

The memories of his time there as a Kiwi platoon sergeant are especially fond.

The country was beautiful, and it was such an easing off after the war – it would’ve been hard for a front-line soldier to go straight back to civilian life.

Back in New Zealand he became an army instructor, and was sent to Hastings to start up a territorial unit.

He bought himself out in 1950 and a few months later fighting broke out on the Korean peninsula. This time, the war would have to get by without him.

“I went and presented myself for the K Force, but was rejected because my bullet wound had become progressively worse over the years, and the two panzerfausts that entered the tank had provided my own telephone exchange in my ears,” he says.

For the first time since he was a teenager running away from Ireland, he had to work out what civilians did for a living.  In Pedro’s case, it was teachers’ college and a job teaching in the islands for 12 years.

Samoa also gave him plenty of skindiving, his own outrigger canoe, and a beautiful young wife. Little wonder he returned to a more temperate climate only when a tropical illness left him no choice.

He was deputy principal at Frimley School in Hastings for nine years, under the “wonderful headmaster” Jim Norton, and taught at Hastings Boys’ High until he retired in the mid-1980s.

About the same time, Pedro’s years of fibbing to authorities about his place of birth finally caught up with him.

Internal Affairs discovered he had never been registered in Britain; and Pedro discovered he was not a New Zealand citizen, despite serving in the New Zealand army, voting in New Zealand, and working as a New Zealand teacher on secondment to the islands.

He was stateless for three years, after which he was allowed to apply for citizenship.  And to this day officials at Internal Affairs scratch their heads in bewilderment as to how he travelled the world for decades without a passport.

So what was the appeal of army life all those years?  Why was he always fighting to get in, while other men were desperate to get out?

Pedro is adamant that there is nothing romantic or glorious about war; that it is, in fact, “a disgusting affair”.

Instead, it was the chance to fight for a cause and the rush of adrenaline, a sense of living on the edge, that kept drawing him back.

“Sometimes I also feel there’s something primitive in a man, that this is our destiny – I suppose it seems a bit ridiculous, but you could be there shivering at night, cold and soaking wet, and yet you have this feeling of elation.”

These days Pedro lives alone in a modest flat in central Hastings.  He and his first wife drifted apart after more than 20 years of marriage; he met his second wife in a cathedral in Malaga, the town where he escaped from his brutal captors during the Spanish Civil War.

She has since had to return home to England, but Pedro still writes to her twice a week.  His son Ricardo visits occasionally from Palmerston North.

He reads Greek classics and Harry Potter, and spends about three hours a day practising his “non-agricultural crutching” – charging around town on a pair of crutches, the legacy of a failed hip replacement almost four years ago.

As well as the chunk of bone shot away by a German airman, Pedro has lost his large intestine to cancer which he believes is the result of a post-war stint in Hiroshima; both knees have been replaced and he is minus one kidney, much of his hearing and a good amount of hair.

Yet he is resolutely upbeat, or as he puts it, happy 90 percent of the time.  The other 10 percent he is “just cheerful”.

Pedro ends his brief memoir with these words: “I still consider that my gains outweigh my losses. Nothing can deprive me of my memories of my army life, the comradeship, the team spirit and the sacrifices men are prepared to make for each other.”

Surely there was an army somewhere in the war, apart from the Germans, that would accept me into their ranks. I was not asking for much, just a weapon, ammo and some tucker
– War veteran Pedro de Treend

Photo captions –

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE: Pedro in his Free French Army uniform.

RIGHT: A few of Pedro’s wartime photos and papers: “Who the hell would believe my story if I didn’t have all this documentation?”
HBTODAY PICTURES: ANDREW LABETT

Original digital file

NE19072003HBT_DeTreend.pdf

Subjects

People

  • Peter de Graaf
  • Pedro de Treend
  • Ricardo de Treend
  • Andrew Labett
  • Jim Norton

Date published

19 July 2003

Format of the original

Newspaper article

Publisher

Hawke's Bay Today

Accession number

1703/1820/45100

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