Page 1: Biography
Stott, Donald John
Soldier, resistance leader
This biography, written by J. A. B. Crawford, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Donald John Stott, the son of Annie McKay and her husband, Robert Edward Stott, a butcher, was born in Birkenhead, Auckland, on 23 October 1914. He was educated at Northcote School and Takapuna Grammar School, where he excelled in athletics. He grew into a tall, thin young man with red hair, and after leaving school worked at the New Zealand Herald as a rotary machinist.
Stott enlisted in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in December 1939 and was posted to the 5th Field Regiment, New Zealand Artillery. He embarked as a sergeant in May 1940 and served with his unit in Greece and then Crete, where in May 1941 he was wounded and captured by the Germans. In August, Stott and his close friend Bob Morton made a spectacular escape from a prison camp near Athens by pole-vaulting over its perimeter wall in broad daylight. They evaded recapture for seven months before escaping from Greece.
In May 1942 Stott was commissioned as a second lieutenant and volunteered for service with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). He took part in an abortive operation behind enemy lines in North Africa in October that year, and in March 1943 parachuted into Greece to join the SOE mission supporting and co-ordinating resistance to the Axis occupation. After working with a Greek guerrilla band, he played a pivotal role in the SOE operation to destroy the Asopós railway viaduct in June 1943. This mission involved an exhausting trek through what had been considered an impassable gorge to blow up the heavily defended viaduct, severing the rail link between Salonika and Athens. Throughout the operation Stott, who had just been promoted to lieutenant, showed an indomitable spirit which inspired those around him. He was recommended for a VC for his ‘complete disregard for danger in the face of the enemy’, but was instead made a DSO.
In July 1943 Stott was promoted to temporary captain and made liaison officer with the communist-dominated ELAS guerrillas in Attica and Boeotia. He suffered a head injury early the following month while blowing up a road culvert. In September he set about establishing a clandestine organisation to carry out attacks on German airfields in the Athens area, demonstrating considerable diplomatic skill in getting Greeks divided by both ideological and personal differences to work together.
Through his local contacts he learnt that the quisling mayor of Athens wished to meet him to arrange talks with senior German officials. In what became a controversial incident Stott, apparently acting on his own initiative, met German officials in Athens in November 1943 to discuss allowing the occupying forces to withdraw from Greece unmolested to help avert a possible communist takeover. Later that month, with German assistance, he went by boat to Turkey and then Cairo to report to the SOE. Although some elements of the British government may have favoured a deal with the Germans over Greece, the SOE was opposed to Stott’s unauthorised political discussions and decided that he should not return to Greece. In recognition of the bravery he had shown during his dealings with the Germans and the useful intelligence he had obtained, he was awarded a bar to the DSO.
He returned to New Zealand in May 1944, and on 10 June, in Auckland, married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Kathleen Snow, the daughter of the Birkenhead police constable. In July he began training in Australia for special operations behind Japanese lines with the Services Reconnaissance Department (also known as ‘Z’ Special Unit), and in December he was promoted to temporary major. In March 1945, just a few days after Mary Stott had given birth to their son, he embarked as leader of a 12-man team to operate in Japanese-occupied Borneo. On the night of 20–21 March Stott and his second in command disappeared as they attempted to paddle ashore from a submarine near Balikpapan. Extensive investigations found no trace of him and in 1946 it was officially concluded that he had drowned. He was survived by his wife and son.
Don Stott was a charismatic man with a lively sense of humour and great powers of endurance. His outstanding, almost reckless, bravery and conviction that he was essentially indestructible undoubtedly contributed to his death, which ended a notable career in special operations.