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Barrowclough, Harold Eric

by J. A. B. Crawford


Harold Eric Barrowclough was born in Masterton on 23 June 1894, the son of Hannah Sibthorpe Gault and her husband, Alfred Ernest Barrowclough, a civil engineer who later worked as a schoolteacher. Between 1907 and 1912 Harold attended Palmerston North Boys’ High School, where he was a successful debater, a member of the rugby First XV and a prefect. He also excelled academically, gaining a university Junior Scholarship in his final year. In 1913 he began studying law, among other subjects, at the University of Otago. While in Dunedin he lived at Knox College and served in the ranks of the Territorial Force.

In January 1915 Barrowclough enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) and in May was commissioned a second lieutenant in the unit that became the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Five months later he was promoted to lieutenant and embarked for service overseas. Barrowclough quickly emerged as an outstanding officer. In March 1916 he was promoted to captain and in July he was given command of a company. For coolness and bravery in vicious trench fighting near Flers on 30 September, he was awarded the Military Cross and the French Croix de guerre.

In June 1917 Barrowclough was wounded. After recovering he was made a temporary major and appointed second in command of the Rifle Brigade’s reserve battalion. He was made a temporary lieutenant colonel in August 1918 and took command of the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. For actions the following month in which he showed ‘conspicuous gallantry and able leadership’ he was made a DSO. He was also mentioned in dispatches for his actions late in 1918: on 4 November Barrowclough’s battalion used scaling ladders in a daring operation to seize the walled town of Le Quesnoy. After the end of hostilities Barrowclough ran the NZEF’s education programme in France and Germany before returning to New Zealand. He was discharged on 29 July 1919.

Under special arrangements for returned servicemen Barrowclough was able to rapidly complete his legal studies at the University of Otago, graduating LLB in 1921. On 6 January that year, in Kaikorai, Dunedin, he married Mary Ogilvy Duthie. Barrowclough soon established a successful legal career in Dunedin, and lectured part time in law at Otago University.

After completing his studies Barrowclough again became active in the Territorial Force, commanding the 1st Battalion of the Otago Infantry Regiment between July 1924 and June 1929. On being promoted to colonel in August 1930 he was placed in command of the 3rd New Zealand Infantry Brigade. In mid 1931 he agreed to become a partner in the Auckland law firm Russell, McVeagh, Bagnall and Macky, which necessitated resigning from military duties. Barrowclough soon became prominent in the Auckland legal fraternity. In 1936 he was one of the main figures behind the re-establishment of the National Defence League of New Zealand, which campaigned for greater defence preparedness. He was also, it appears, very involved in the ‘four colonels incident’ in 1938, in which the government’s defence policy was controversially criticised by four senior Territorial Force officers.

In February 1940 Barrowclough was appointed commander of the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, 2NZEF. Sailing from New Zealand on 1 May 1940 he was promoted to brigadier. After briefly commanding an improvised brigade in England, he joined his brigade in Egypt in October. Barrowclough had high standards and imposed them to good effect on his men. During the ill-fated Greek campaign of 1941 he performed creditably and was awarded the Greek Military Cross (first class) and was mentioned in dispatches. At the end of 1941 he displayed his usual determination, bravery and good tactical sense in the savage fighting around Sidi Rezegh during the second Libyan campaign. For his ‘conspicuous bravery and brilliant leadership’ in the campaign he was awarded a bar to the DSO.

Early in 1942 the New Zealand government asked General Bernard Freyberg to nominate an experienced officer to command the Pacific Section 2NZEF, which was garrisoning Fiji. Freyberg nominated Barrowclough, saying that he had ‘great powers of leadership, courage and knowledge of modern methods of war’. In March 1942 the commander of the New Zealand forces in Fiji was invalided home and because of the serious situation was immediately replaced. When Barrowclough returned to New Zealand the following month he was annoyed to discover that instead of being posted to Fiji he was to command the Northern Division, the home defence division responsible for the upper half of the North Island.

However, early in August 1942, after its commander was accidentally killed, Barrowclough took command of the Pacific Section 2NZEF, which was generally known as 3rd New Zealand Division. He culled the division of officers he thought were not up to standard and embarked on a rigorous training programme to improve its effectiveness. Before his division took up garrison duties in New Caledonia at the end of 1942 he obtained from the government a charter setting out his powers as a national commander. Barrowclough’s division was never brought up to full strength, and throughout his period of command he had to deal with much uncertainty about its role and future.

Barrowclough was a forceful advocate of a significant New Zealand role in the Pacific war and pressed effectively for his division to be committed to action. Between September 1943 and February 1944 the division took part in three successful actions: clearing the island of Vella Lavella of Japanese troops, seizing the Treasury Islands, and capturing the Green Islands. The Green Islands operation was the largest, with Barrowclough commanding nearly 16,500 troops, two-thirds of whom were American. During his service in the Pacific he developed good working relationships with senior United States officers and showed himself to be capable of commanding joint forces in complex amphibious operations.

To conserve manpower, Barrowclough’s division was withdrawn from active operations and reduced in size early in 1944; in October 1944 it was disbanded. Various options for employing Barrowclough were considered by the New Zealand government, but these came to nothing. He was discharged and posted to the reserve of officers in November 1945. In recognition of his valuable services in the Pacific he was made a CB and a commander of the US Legion of Merit.

Barrowclough returned to his law firm, which, like many others, had been badly affected by the absence of staff on military duties. He helped rebuild its fortunes, but although a highly respected member of the Auckland legal fraternity, he did not enjoy a particularly successful period in the courts. In 1953 he chaired a committee that examined the reform of New Zealand’s hospitals, and in November that year he was appointed chief justice of New Zealand. His appointment came as a surprise to many in the profession.

During his term in Wellington as chief justice Barrowclough’s most important achievement was the establishment, after lengthy negotiations, of a permanent Court of Appeal of New Zealand in 1957. He was made a KCMG and a privy counsellor in 1954 and he also received an honorary LLD from the University of Otago. His later years were somewhat blighted by the death of his wife, Mary, in March 1964. Barrowclough retired as chief justice in January 1966 and returned to Auckland, where he died on 4 March 1972. He was survived by two sons and a daughter.

Sir Harold Barrowclough rose to prominent positions in two unrelated fields. He had a reserved and sometimes rather stern manner, but was a modest and kindly man of the utmost integrity. He was one of New Zealand’s greatest citizen soldiers and believed that ‘bearing arms in defence of the State’ was a duty and a privilege. A determined man, he did not suffer fools and was prepared to advance his point of view forcefully. These traits led to some senior military officers regarding him as a talented but difficult individual. Barrowclough was generally considered a better soldier than he was a lawyer, but in both peace and war he inspired great loyalty and respect from those around him.

Links and sources


    Austin, W. S. The official history of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Wellington, 1924

    Gillespie, O. A. The Pacific. Wellington, 1952

    Obit. New Zealand Law Journal. 2 May 1972: 181–184

How to cite this page:

J. A. B. Crawford. 'Barrowclough, Harold Eric', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)