Page 1: Biography
Soldier, prisoner of war, partisan leader, taxi driver
This biography, written by Ian McGibbon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
John Denvir was born at Glasgow, Scotland, on 5 May 1913, the son of Michael Joseph Denvir, a dock labourer, and his wife, Jeanie Ambrose. He came to New Zealand around 1925 and attended the Marist brothers’ school in Christchurch before finding employment on a farm. He married Edna Joan Musson at Westport on 26 June 1934; they were to have four children. Denvir worked for a time as a storeman in Christchurch, but was residing at Māori Point, near Karamea, when he enlisted in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He entered camp in October 1939, and departed with the 1st Echelon as a member of 20th (Canterbury–Otago) Battalion in January 1940.
After prolonged training in Egypt, Denvir proceeded with his battalion to Greece in March 1941. Now with the rank of corporal, he demonstrated his leadership qualities during the brief campaign in Greece, but further advancement was prevented by his capture by German forces in the vicinity of the Corinth canal on 26 April. He was subsequently moved north to a prisoner of war camp at Maribor in occupied Yugoslavia.
On 19 September 1941 Denvir escaped with two companions; recaptured in Zagreb within a week, he was condemned to three weeks’ solitary confinement. A second escape on 9 December, again with two companions, was more successful. They managed to reach the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. Abandoning plans to make their way to neutral Turkey, Denvir and an Australian gunner (later killed) joined a partisan band on 6 January 1942. They became machine-gunners, but Denvir soon formed and led a 60-strong mounted infantry unit which was active over a wide area. From October 1942 he was a member of the 1st (Ljubo Sercer) Battalion, Krimski Odred, and later of the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Slovenian National Freedom Shock (Ljubo Sercer) Brigade.
Universally known among the partisans as ‘Corporal Frank’, Denvir impressed them by his bravery and leadership in action. After commanding a company, he was promoted to battalion commander in August 1943, and in October was awarded the rank of lieutenant of the National Freedom Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia. Mistakenly, the New Zealand military authorities believed that Denvir had been shot dead while escaping in February 1942; it was not until January 1943 that his presence among the partisans became known.
For his part in an attack on a train in August 1943, Denvir was immediately awarded a DCM. He suffered a bad wound in his right arm during a battle at Krvav Pec on 2 September 1943 – the fourth time he had been wounded in action. Although appointed a brigade commander in December 1943, soon afterwards he was evacuated by sea to Italy for medical treatment. He later worked with Force 133, the secret organisation which arranged British assistance to the partisan forces in Yugoslavia. Promoted to the rank of sergeant on his return to the New Zealand Division (backdated to the date of his capture in 1941), he was subsequently commissioned as a second lieutenant. For his service Denvir was awarded the Soviet Medal for Valour; he was the only member of 2NZEF to receive this during the war. Denvir returned to New Zealand on furlough in June 1944. Although he was at first deemed fit for further service, a later medical board classified him as unfit for front-line action. He was demobilised on 10 September 1944.
Denvir operated a taxi business in Temuka immediately after the war. He later lived in Christchurch, before moving to Blenheim. In 1955 he revisited Slovenia, and was awarded a number of decorations for his partisan service and given the rank of honorary major in the Yugoslav army. He visited Yugoslavia again in 1967 for a reunion of the battalion he had commanded. He died at Blenheim on 11 March 1973, survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.