General Lord Freyberg VC

The Times 6th July 1963

A Born Fighter and an Inspiring Leader

General Lord Freyberg, V.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.B., K.B.E, D.S.O., Governor General of New Zealand from 1946 to 1952, and Commander in Chief of the New Zealand Armed Forces during the Second World War, died on Thursday, as reported in later editions of The Times yesterday. He was 74.

Freyberg was a born fighter. He was wounded in action time after time without being seriously affected physically or at all in spirit. Sir Winston Churchill likened him to a salamander because he seemed to thrive in the fire, which was perhaps why he chose two salamanders to be his supporters in his coat of arms. Churchill has recorded that one day in the 1920s, when he was staying at a country house with him, he asked him to show his wounds. He stripped himself, and Churchill counted 27 separate scars and gashes. To these he was to add, in the Second World War, another three.

In the First World War he rose to the command of an infantry brigade, and he was continuously in the line except when incapacitated by wounds. In the Second World War, as a divisional and corps commander, his fighting spirit was as keen as ever. In action he commanded from the front line in order, as he said, to keep his finger on the pulse of the battle. His tactical headquarters in the North African campaign were in four Stuart tanks, and he liked sitting on top of one of his tanks in an exposed position where he could get a good view, often under heavy fire. He once remarked that being on a tank gave one a feeling of security, and, to one of his brigadiers who pointed out that it was neither very amusing nor very safe to make a trip up to him, he said, “Shelling doesn’t hurt anybody”.

Concern for his Men

He was regarded by his men as a formidable character. But he won and retained their devotion, not only by sharing their dangers and discomforts, but by his humanity and his anxiety for their welfare. In the Battle of Orsogna one platoon of 18 men refused to attack, a thing unheard of in the New Zealand Division. They were court-martialled, and received sentence of one to two years’ imprisonment. Freyberg held that their offence was not their fault, but that of their leaders; he suspended the sentences except that on the officer, and sent the men to different battalions to give them the chance to redeem their character. On one occasion he recognised a battalion commander who had fought brilliantly and was being brought back wounded from the battle line; he jumped out of his car and embraced him and announced his promotion: “You’re a brigadier.”

His limitations as well as his merits were recognised by the higher authorities, and h was not promoted above the level that suited him so supremely well. He took the war very seriously, and he disapproved strongly of the enemy, particularly the Italians. When he took surrender of the commander of the Trento Division after Alamein, he refused to shake hands with him, telling him that Italy had behaved very badly in entering the war against us.

Bernard Cyril Freyberg was born in London on March 21, 1889, the son of James Freyberg, of Wellington.

He was educated at Wellington College, New Zealand. In August, 1914, he was in California, and he came at once to England to volunteer for service. He had an introduction to Sir Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and he was given a commission as sub-lieutenant R.N.V.R. in the Hood Battalion of the Naval Division, which he accompanied to Antwerp, where he was wounded.

Freyberg went to Gallipoli with his battalion as a lieutenant-commander, commanding a company. When Rupert Brooke died in a French hospital ship, Freyberg was one of his friends who carried him up to an olive grove in the island of Skyros and buried him there. Two days later he was awarded the D.S.O. for a particularly gallant action. His battalion was ordered to take part in a feint attack at Bulair, in order to distract Liman Von Sanders’s attention from the landings which were taking place elsewhere. On his own suggestion Freyberg was put into the water at night, two miles from the coast and, painted brown for concealment, he swam ashore, towing rafts with oil flares and calcium lights. He lit the flares at several points on the beaches in front of the Turkish entrenchments, reconnoitred the enemy’s position, and then swam back into the darkness. He was eventually sighted by the crew of a naval cutter and was hauled on board half dead from exhaustion.

The Victoria Cross

Towards the end of the Gallipoli campaign Freyberg decided to make the Army his career, and, in May 1916, he was gazetted a captain in The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, remaining, however, with the Hood Battalion which he now commanded as a temporary lieutenant-colonel. The Royal Naval Division was transferred to France in time to take part in the Battle of the Somme, and he won the Victoria Cross for his conspicuous bravery and brilliant leadership in the operations at Beaumont Hamel. He carried the initial attack through the enemy’s front system of trenches under particularly heavy fire. The he rallied and re-formed his men, and, inspiring them with his own contempt of danger, led a successful assault on the second objective, and captured many prisoners. During this advance he was twice wounded, but he again rallied his men and held his position without support, under heavy fire, until the next day, when he led yet another attack on a strongly fortified village which he captured with 500 prisoners. In this operation he was again wounded, and, later in the afternoon he was wounded a fourth time, on this occasion severely. But he refused to be carried back on his stretcher until he had issued his instructions for holding the positions he had gained.

In September, 1918, he was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O. for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in the operations near Gheluvelt, the success of which was largely due to his inspiring example. In the last minutes of the war he gained a second Bar to his D.S.O. In addition to his other honours, he was mentioned in despatches six times and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and, in 1919, he was made C.M.G. He had been wounded nine times.

Freyberg’s exploit at Gallipoli emphasized his prowess as a swimmer, and in 1925 and 1926 he made a number of attempts to swim the Channel. His best effort was in August, 1925, when, after swimming in adverse weather conditions from Gris Nez to within 500 yards of Dover, the tide turned and robbed him of the success almost within his grasp.

From 1929 to 1931 he commanded the 1st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment, and from 1931 to 1933 was Assistant Quarter Master General at Headquarters, Southern Command. After two years as G.S.O. first grade in the General Staff at the War Office, Freyberg was promoted major-general in 1934.

Breakdown in Health

He was next posted in India to command a district, but then his health broke down and he was invalided out of the Army in 1937. However he had recovered when the Second World War broke out, and he was recalled and appointed G.O.C. Salisbury Plain Area. In November, 1939, he was chosen to command the New Zealand Forces Overseas.

In the spring of 1941 he was in action again, when the New Zealand Division was sent to Greece and took up a position on the Abakhmon Line to oppose the German southward drive on Athens. When the collapse of Yugoslavia and the disintegration of the Greek army made withdrawals inevitable, Freyberg conducted a succession of rearguard actions with great skill and stubbornness, and inflicted severe losses on the enemy: his New Zealanders played a vital part in holding up the Germans long enough to enable the British force to pass through the Larissa bottleneck.

His division was one of those evacuated to Crete and provided its principal defence. When it was decided that the allied troops in the island should be placed under a single command, Freyberg was chosen for the post, and he conducted the fight with the greatest gallantry and determination. But the struggle was a hopeless one. Our troops had lost their guns, equipment and transport in the evacuation from Greece, and our totally inadequate air forces could provide no defence against the massive attack launched by the German 11th Air Corps, the first large-scale airborne attack in the annals of war. Nevertheless Freyberg’s hard and well sustained resistance broke the structure of the German Corps, which suffered, according to their own reports, “exceptionally high and bloody losses”, and it never appeared again in any effective form. With the help of the Royal Navy he managed to evacuate more than half his force of 30,000 British and Imperial troops.

When it had been reconstituted, his division next took part in Sir Alan Cunningham’s offensive in the Western Desert, in the course of which the New Zealanders captured Sidi Rezegh. In this operation the division suffered such heavy casualties that it had to be withdrawn. Freyberg expressed his strong disagreement with the conduct of operations by the Desert Command under Auchinleck, and in particular with the way the New Zealand Division had been handled. Having in mind his special responsibility to the New Zealand Government, he became firmly convinced, as he has recorded, that, at that time, “the only way to safeguard the interests of New Zealand and the Division was to get the Division away from the Desert Command”. At his instance it was sent to Syria to retrain and reorganize, and it spent six months there until it was drawn into the line again, in June, 1942, after the loss of Tobruk, to take a share in stemming Rommel’s advance on the Delta. In the first stand near Mersa Matruh, Freyberg was severely wounded, and the division was cut off and nearly lost; but, under General Inglis, it broke out and made a daring night march through the enemy’s lines, and was soon deployed at Alamein where it played a gallant part in Auchinleck’s defence.

Freyberg was back, with his wound almost healed, in time for Montgomery’s great attack, and he and his division were in the thick of the fighting throughout the advance to Tunis. It was Freyberg who carried out the decisive turning movement which decided the Battle of Mareth.

In November, 1943, the New Zealanders were moved to Italy and took part in the Battle of the Sangro, which was one of the bloodiest of the whole war; on its conclusion the division was transferred from the Eighth Army to the American Fifth Army on the other side of the Apennines. Freyberg was now given the task of taking Cassino, where a first attack by the Americans had already failed. For this purpose he was put in command of a specially formed New Zealand Corps which comprised, besides the New Zealand Division, an American Combat Group, and, later, a British Division. The German positions were immensely strong, and the defenders, who fought with remarkable toughness, were aided by the nature of the country, which consisted of knife-edge hills, rocky escarpments and deep ravines. Freyberg’s difficulties were increased by the heaps of rubble left after the bombardment of the town and monastery, on which he himself had insisted and which is now generally agreed to have been a tactical mistake. He conducted two gallant slogging attacks in February and March, and, although he failed in his object, he captured key positions which were of value in the final attack, which took place in May after his corps had been withdrawn.

Governor General

In 1945 he won a third Bar to his D.S.O. During his tenure of the New Zealand Division he had won the confidence of the New Zealand Government and of the people to a remarkable degree, and his appointment as Governor General in 1946 was a popular one. For Freyberg himself there could have been no better preparation for his new duties than his close association with the men of the overseas force. Their division was regarded by the New Zealanders as “an outstanding example of democracy in action”. Every officer had come through the ranks, and Freyberg was known to have taken a special pleasure and pride in this fact. During his six year term of office he and Lady Freyberg won the warm affection of all classes.

On his return to England in 1952 Freyberg was appointed Deputy Constable and Lieutenant Governor of Windsor Castle.

He was created K.B.E. and K.C.B. in 1942 and G.C.M.G. in 1946. He was raised to the peerage in 1951. He was honorary D.C.L., Oxford, and honorary LL.D., New Zealand. In 1922 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Law at St. Andrews University, at the same time as Sir James Barrie, who was his best man when he married in the same year.

His wife was Barbara, widow of the Hon. Francis McLaren, M.P., and daughter of the late Colonel Sir Herbert Jekyll. His heir is his only son, Major the Hon. Paul Richard Freyberg, M.C., Grenadier Guards.