To Winston Churchill, he was “the Salamander of the British Empire,” like the mythical creature that could pass through fire unharmed. To a subordinate, Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger, he was “simple as a child and cunning as a Maori dog.”
Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg indeed was an extraordinary figure. He achieved one of the most remarkable records of personal courage in World War I, and in World War II he organized and commanded the New Zealand Army Expeditionary Corps, which has been called “one of the toughest, most hard-hitting formations of the war,” and earned the admiration of several Axis foes while fighting in North Africa and Italy. Along the way, though, he became embroiled in two of the latter war’s bitterest controversies.
Born in London in 1889, Freyberg was taken by his family to New Zealand at the age of 2. Although he arguably would become his adopted country’s greatest soldier, the young man would have an unusual start to martial life, training first to be a dentist before deciding to join the Territorial Army. He had barely established himself, however, when the wanderlust that had originally taken his family to New Zealand compelled him to embark on adventures of his own. He was in California when World War I broke out in August 1914.
Eager to be where the action was, Freyberg left quickly for London. Commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, he was part of a token force that Churchill sent on an ineffectual, short-lived effort to defend Antwerp, Belgium—the beginning of what would be a close friendship and patronage with the future prime minister. It was the following year at Gallipoli, however, that Freyberg made his first true impact.
Freyberg’s platoon in the Royal Naval Division was assigned to stage a mock landing at Bulair in the Gulf of Xeros as a diversion to the British army’s main landings along Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula. Freyberg, a champion swimmer in New Zealand, convinced his superiors to let him complete the mission alone.
Shortly after midnight on April 25, 1915, a naked Freyberg, painted brown and heavily oiled, slipped from a naval cutter two miles offshore and began swimming in the icy waters with a small raft containing flares. Ninety minutes later, he reached the coast and—to simulate a landing party—quickly lit three flares along 300 yards of beach before swimming back to his ship. For that feat, Freyberg was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Britain’s second-highest decoration.
Freyberg’s division was in the thick of the fighting on Gallipoli. In July 1915, he was wounded in the abdomen, and then in the stomach two months later. After being evacuated to Cairo, Egypt, he was given little chance of recovery, but two months later he was back leading a battalion at the front. “I guess he’s made of Indianrubber,” an Australian nurse remarked.
From Gallipoli, Freyburg was transferred to the British army on the Western Front. On November 13-14, 1916, during the Somme campaign, the lieutenant colonel led his battalion toward the key village of Beaucourt, in the Valley of Ancre. Wounded twice on the first day, he continued pushing his men forward through the enemy trenches while rallying lost troops from other units. The next day, he spearheaded the assault on the heavily fortified village that captured more than 500 German prisoners. His division’s official history concluded that it probably “was the most distinguished personal act in the war.”
It almost proved to be his swansong. Freyberg was wounded twice more on November 14, the second time shortly after Beaucourt fell when he was struck in the neck by shrapnel during a German artillery barrage. “There was a bang, a curious ringing note in my ear, and I lost consciousness,” he recalled. “When I came to, my head gave me a great deal of pain, and as I lay face downwards hot blood was dropping from my nose and chin. I thought at first my head had been smashed, but I located the wound in my neck with two dirty fingers.”
Freyberg eventually made his way to an aid station and was put in the tent reserved for those expected to die. Then, in a semiconscious state, he heard an order that he be moved out and treated. Twenty-five years later, in a hotel lobby in Cairo, Freyberg heard that voice again and finally met the doctor who had saved his life that day.
For his performance in the Ancre, Freyburg was awarded the Victoria Cross. After five months in a London hospital, Freyberg returned to the front as the youngest brigadier general in the British army. In 1917, at Ypres, Belgium, he was wounded five times, including in the lungs, but came back from another long hospital stay to command a brigade (and earn a bar to his DSO) at Passchendaele. He was promoted to major general, the army’s youngest at that time, but in June 1918 he was blown through the air by a German shell, suffering injuries to his head and leg.
The general kept fighting to the end. In fact, in the final 90 minutes before the Armistice was signed in November 1918, he led an attack on horseback and captured a bridge at Lessines and 100 German soldiers, earning a second bar to his DSO. During the assault, an enemy bullet pierced his saddle.
Freyberg had suffered an astonishing 27 wounds in all, though he always made a point of stressing, “You nearly always get two wounds for every bullet or splinter because they have to go out as well as go in.” Many New Zealanders had not been so lucky during the war: The colony had 18,000 men killed out of a total population of 1 million.
Following the war, Freyberg remained in the British regular army and also made an unsuccessful bid for the House of Commons. In 1937 he was forced to retire from the army when a routine physical indicated heart trouble; his response was to take up mountain climbing.
He was recalled to duty in 1939 but was stuck in an unglamorous post in Salisbury. To Freyberg’s good fortune, following a visit to London by New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, he was appointed general officer commanding the New Zealand Expeditionary Corps, with the rank of lieutenant general. The appointment included a charter allowing Freyberg to communicate directly with the New Zealand government for guidance.
The New Zealanders were too late to help save France after the Germans invaded in May 1940, and saw their first action during the improvident British intervention in Greece in April 1941, an operation Freyberg said was “ill conceived and [violated] every principle of war.” In the fighting around Thermopylae, Freyberg received orders to evacuate ahead of his unit. He refused, saying he was “busy fighting a battle,” and then stayed with his men until they could be withdrawn to Crete 200 miles away. For Freyberg, though, it was out of the proverbial frying pan of Greece into the fire of Crete, where he was charged with defending the island against the Germans’ remarkable airborne invasion of May 20-June 1.
At the end of April, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell, the British commander in the Middle East, told Freyberg he would lead a combined force of British, Commonwealth and Greek troops on Crete. Wavell’s directive dismayed Freyberg, particularly when he was informed that a German attack was imminent.
There were about 7,700 New Zealanders in Freyberg’s 32,000-man army, which lacked an adequate supply of arms, ammunition, artillery and antitank guns. Freyberg initially informed Wavell that the forces “at my disposal are totally inadequate to meet [the] attack envisaged,” but then cabled his old friend Churchill a few days later to say: “Cannot understand [your] nervousness; am not in the least anxious about airborne attack; have made my dispositions and feel [I] can cope adequately with the troops at my disposal.”
As the German paratroopers of Brig. Gen. Karl Student’s Fliegerkorps XI opened the invasion on May 20, Freyberg said he watched from the key Maleme airfield “enthralled by the magnitude of the operation…hundreds of planes, tier upon tier coming towards us…white specks mixed with other colors suddenly appeared beneath them as clouds of parachutists floated slowly to earth.” Despite heavy losses on the first day, the Allies managed to hold possession of several critical airfields.
The next day, the Germans captured the Maleme airfield and began flying in a large contingent of Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops). The Allies ineffectively attempted to retake the airfield, and within five days Freyberg reported that his men had reached the limit of their endurance. Informing his superior that “our position here is hopeless,” he was given permission to lead a withdrawal across the White Mountains to Sphakia.
In Sphakia, working out of a cave, Freyberg organized a seaborne evacuation to Egypt, which had only limited effectiveness because incessant Luftwaffe attacks were decimating the Royal Navy ships. Some troops, and Freyberg and his staff, managed to leave the island, but six destroyers and three cruisers were sunk and the evacuation was called off on May 30, stranding some 5,000 men.
Commonwealth casualties in the entire campaign were approximately 3,500 killed and wounded, with nearly 12,000 taken prisoners. Although the Royal Navy was able to evacuate 18,000 men, it was at a cost of 1,828 dead, 183 wounded and the loss of several vessels.
Criticism of Freyberg’s handling of his forces during the Battle for Crete dogged the general for the remainder of his life. His chief of staff said that his failure to retake Maleme after the initial German onslaught “amounted to accepting the loss of Crete.” Also, though he had done so for reasons unknown at the time, he was faulted by some for holding back troops waiting for a German seaborne invasion that never arrived. The general sentiment was that if Freyberg had consolidated his forces to resist only an airborne assault or launch a stronger counterattack once Maleme fell, the outcome of the battle might have been different.
But there was another key factor that wasn’t revealed until after Freyberg’s death in 1963—a secret the general had confided to his son that in hindsight forces a reevaluation of his performance.
Apparently, before the attack, Wavell had informed Freyberg that British cryptologists at Bletchley Park, using the Ultra machine, had intercepted and read important German Enigma codes. Wavell had gone on to warn him, however, that he could not reveal to his staff the source of his information and, critically, could not use it solely to conduct the battle without being able to offer another plausible explanation for his troop dispositions. “The authorities in England would prefer to lose Crete rather than risk jeopardizing Ultra,” Freyberg told his son.
The key Ultra intercept Freyberg received seven days before the invasion spelled out the German attack but did not specify Maleme as the prime target— Freyberg, in fact, expected it to be at Heraklion. It was on the basis of another Ultra report that he held back troops from a counterattack on Maleme to confront a seaborne landing he believed was the main invasion. (The Germans attempted two token seaborne efforts during the battle, both foiled by the Royal Navy.)
Ultimately, Crete was lost for Freyberg even before the first German paratrooper landed. A week before, following his confident cable to Churchill, Freyberg learned from Ultra that his troops were in fact not properly situated to meet the invasion, and he warned Wavell. The British commander reminded Freyberg by special messenger that he could not compromise Ultra.
An inquiry in Cairo exonerated Freyberg over Crete, and he went on to command the New Zealand Corps in Operation Crusader and the battles of Mersa Matruh, Alma Halfa and El Alamein. He was wounded five more times.
Because of the New Zealanders’ performance in combat, German General Erwin Rommel came to respect them probably more than any other Allied troops. Freyberg had instilled in his men a “Go for them with the bayonet” philosophy and an attitude of “Ever been wounded? Why the bloody hell not?” They even had a reputation for informality in the extreme. A British general once complained to him, “Your people don’t salute very much, do they?” Freyberg responded: “You should try waving to them. They always wave back.”
The Kiwi commander found ill will with some in the British hierarchy. General Sir Alan Francis Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, felt Freyberg was “casualty conscious.” In addition, Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery changed his previously high opinion of Freyberg, believing that he had allowed a defeated Rommel to escape from El Alamein—his best division commander was now “ a nice old boy, but a bit stupid.”
Freyberg was effectively demoted when his corps was placed under the command of Lt. Gen. Brian Gwynne Horrocks, a younger and junior officer. According to the British official history, Freyberg was “grim” upon receiving the news, and Horrocks was “embarrassed.” In the end, Freyberg at least had the satisfaction of being the one to receive the surrender of the last Axis commander in North Africa, Italian First Army chief General Giovanni Messe, on May 13, 1943.
In the Italian campaign, Freyberg led the New Zealand Corps, and to his misfortune became involved in another bitter controversy on February 15, 1944—the destruction of the ancient Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino. Freyberg had argued relentlessly for bombing the abbey, though even his subordinate, General Kippenberger, admitted, “Opinion at NZ Corps HQ as to whether the Abbey was occupied was divided.”
U.S. General Mark Clark, who commanded the Fifth Army in which the New Zealanders fought, said later that he would have ignored Freyberg’s advice if he had been an American, but respecting the commander’s position in the British army, he passed his request on to Field Marshal Harold Alexander, Allied commander in Italy, who backed Freyberg without hesitation. “When soldiers are fighting for a just cause and are prepared to suffer death and mutilation in the process, bricks and mortar, no matter how venerable, cannot be allowed to weigh against human lives,” Alexander said.
The bombing ultimately turned the abbey into an easily defensible ruin for the Germans, and it took the Allies three months to drive them out.
In March 1944, the town below the abbey was also bombed and shelled into rubble, at which point Freyberg threw in his troops. In five days, the New Zealanders lost 287 killed, 1,582 wounded and 237 missing. Freyberg eventually broke off the attack.
Freyberg was later injured in a plane crash but, as indestructible as ever, returned to have his troops reach Trieste the day the German army in Italy surrendered on May 2, 1945. New Zealand’s losses in WWII were less than in WWI: 10,033 killed, 19,314 wounded, 8,453 prisoners and 2,129 missing.
Despite the controversies over Crete and Cassino, Freyberg’s popularity remained so high in New Zealand that his appointment as governor-general, the country’s ceremonial head of state, was a foregone conclusion. Returning to Britain after his term, he was made Lord Freyberg and was holding an honorary position at Windsor Castle when he died. The cause of death was not the heart trouble reported decades before, but something even further back: His old stomach wound from Gallipoli suddenly flared up.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.