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Freyberg, Bernard Cyril


Dentist, military leader, governor general

This biography, written by Ian McGibbon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in January, 2012.

Bernard Cyril Freyberg was born at Richmond, London, on 21 March 1889. The youngest son of James Freyberg, a surveyor, and his wife, Julia Hamilton, he was nicknamed ‘Tiny’ as a child. He came to Wellington with his family in 1891 and received his early schooling from his mother, later attending Wellington College from 1897 to 1904. Although not academically inclined, he made his mark as a swimmer: he was New Zealand 100 yards champion in 1906 and 1910. He also played competitive water polo, and was a keen yachtsman. Belying his nickname, he stood over six feet tall and had a strong physique; his voice was unusually high-pitched.

Freyberg’s aspiration to be a doctor died with his early departure from school, and he was apprenticed to a Wellington dentist. He was admitted to the Dentists’ Register of New Zealand on 22 May 1911. His first post was as an assistant and locum tenens in Morrinsville, and he would later practise in Hamilton and Levin.

Freyberg’s first military involvement had been in the school cadets at Wellington College. While in Morrinsville he was persuaded by the commander of the local Territorial Force company, Stephen Allen, to become one of his subalterns. He unsuccessfully sought a commission in the New Zealand Staff Corps in 1912, and from January 1913 served as a lieutenant in a senior cadet company.

He took part in strike-breaking activities on the Wellington waterfront in 1913, both as a special constable and as a stoker on a ship plying between Wellington and Sydney. In March 1914 he left Wellington for San Francisco. Upon hearing of the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, he immediately set off for England.

Freyberg secured a commission in the newly formed Royal Naval Division’s Hood Battalion. He was gazetted as a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and given command of a company. Relishing the opportunity presented by the war (‘I am in this with all my heart’), he took part in the brief, unsuccessful attempt to defend Antwerp in October 1914. Early in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 he won a DSO for swimming ashore and setting diversionary flares at Bulair (Bolayir). He was wounded at Helles, returning in June to become commander of the Hood Battalion. He was badly wounded again in July, and eventually left the peninsula when the division was evacuated in January 1916.

Transferring to the British Army, Freyberg was posted to the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, but remained seconded to the Royal Naval Division, with which he proceeded to France in May 1916. During the final stages of the first battle of the Somme, he so distinguished himself in the capture of Beaucourt village that he was awarded a VC; he was again severely wounded in this action and evacuated to Britain. Returning to the front in February 1917, he was two months later appointed to command a territorial brigade in the 58th Division – reputedly becoming the youngest general in the British Army. In September a shell exploding at his feet inflicted the worst of his many wounds. When he resumed duty in January 1918 he again commanded a brigade (in 29th Division), performing with distinction during the German offensive of March–April 1918. He won a bar to his DSO in September that year. Freyberg ended the war by leading a squadron to seize a bridge at Lessines, which was achieved one minute before the armistice came into effect and which earned him another DSO. He had been made a CMG in 1917, and was mentioned in dispatches no fewer than five times during the war. Three of his brothers had also served in the war and two died: Oscar at Gallipoli in 1915 and Paul in France in 1917.

Early in 1919 Freyberg was granted a regular commission in the Grenadier Guards and settled into peacetime soldiering. From 1921 to 1925 he was a staff officer in the headquarters of the 44th Division. He suffered health problems arising from his many wounds, and as part of his convalescence he visited New Zealand in 1921. In May 1922, at the instigation of his friend and mentor Sir James Barrie, he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of St Andrews. On 14 June 1922 he married Barbara McLaren (née Jekyll), a widow with two children, at St Martha on the Hill near Guildford; they would have one son. In the general election of that year he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate.

After a further staff appointment, at Headquarters Eastern Command, Freyberg was appointed to command 1st Battalion, Manchester Regiment, in 1929. Staff appointments in Southern Command (1931–33) and at the War Office (1933–34) followed. In 1933 he published a treatise on logistics, A study of unit administration. With his promotion to the rank of major general in 1934, at the age of only 45, he seemed headed for the highest echelons of the army. However, medical examinations prior to a posting in India revealed a heart problem. Despite strenuous efforts to surmount this, Freyberg, who was made a CB in 1936, was obliged to retire on 16 October 1937. He became a director of the Birmingham Small Arms Company, and secured nomination as a Conservative party candidate for the general election scheduled for 1940. He also engaged in property development.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Freyberg assumed command of the Salisbury Plain Area, where he was involved in preparing units for the British Expeditionary Force in France. Hoping for more active involvement, he managed to have his medical grading restored to a level that would allow active service overseas. He had meanwhile offered his services to the New Zealand government. After meeting with the acting prime minister, Peter Fraser, in November 1939, he was appointed to command the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force and its fighting arm, the 2nd New Zealand Division. A visit to New Zealand over the Christmas – New Year period allowed him to discuss prospective problems and meet the senior officers of his new command. Before he set out for Egypt with 2NZEF’s 1st Echelon on 5 January 1940, he was issued with a directive that clarified his role. Although 2NZEF would serve within a British formation, Freyberg was the servant of the New Zealand government with a right of veto over the use of the division. This dual responsibility was to produce clashes with his military superiors.

Freyberg’s first task was to weld a cohesive formation. The fact that he was, with his British Army background, essentially an outsider was to cause tension in the upper echelons of the force in the early stages. Moreover, he faced difficulties in concentrating the New Zealand troops in Egypt. The 2nd Echelon was diverted to Britain and Freyberg spent from June to September in England. On his return to Egypt he had to assert himself vigorously to gather his dispersed forces together. Not till early 1941 was the whole division concentrated, at which point it took part in the ill-fated Greek campaign.

Freyberg performed well during the evacuation to Crete, and was subsequently appointed commander of the Allied forces there. Although the forces available were deficient in many areas, he enjoyed a significant advantage in the form of very detailed information of German intentions, provided through ULTRA intelligence. Once the battle began, his preoccupation with the possibility of a seaborne invasion hindered his response to the more serious threat posted by the Germans’ initial airborne assault. In particular, when the key airfield at Maleme was lost because of the poor judgement and lethargy of some senior officers within the New Zealand Division, Freyberg failed to respond vigorously enough, with the result that the loss of the island became inevitable.

Following the evacuation to Egypt, several of his subordinates criticised his performance behind his back, both in Cairo and London. Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who had been angered by Freyberg’s failure (due to a misunderstanding) to consult properly with Wellington before the dispatch of the New Zealand Division to Greece, conducted a detailed enquiry into the two campaigns, but wisely decided that no change of command was warranted, especially after Freyberg’s superior officers strongly endorsed him.

Despite these tribulations, Freyberg had enhanced his standing with his division in Greece and Crete. His concern for his troops was manifest in the lengths to which he went to ensure their welfare, especially in setting up clubs. Those enjoying a closer acquaintance with him grew to admire him. To one of his subordinates he gave the impression of ‘a huge boy scout’, and was, one of his staff officers later recalled, ‘kind, considerate, gentle, compassionate, always ready to listen, always approachable’. He was also loath to criticise his subordinates, exasperating his staff officers by going out of his way to avoid doing so. He could also be stubborn and obtuse, much to the amusement of some of his fellow generals.

During the desert campaign of 1941–43 Freyberg, who was made a KBE and promoted to the rank of lieutenant general in early 1942, came into his own as a divisional commander. Earlier reticence among his officers was dissipated, and he became an inspirational figure for the New Zealanders. His determination to be well forward during actions with the enemy led him to take considerable risks, and in 1942 he was badly wounded; Winston Churchill would later describe him as ‘the salamander of the British Empire’. In the climactic battle of El Alamein in October–November 1942, the New Zealand Division played a vital part in the Allies’ final breakthrough; for his leadership of it Freyberg was immediately made a KCB. During the ensuing pursuit of the Axis forces across North Africa to Tunisia, where they surrendered, he led the New Zealanders on a series of well-executed left hooks designed to outflank successive enemy defence lines.

Freyberg adhered to his promise, made in November 1939, to remain with the New Zealand Division rather than accept a permanent corps appointment, for which he was eminently qualified. Ever mindful of his role as a dominion commander, he regarded it as his duty to conserve New Zealand’s scarce manpower. Nowhere was his attitude more clearly apparent than at the battle of Cassino during the Italian campaign, when he commanded the ad hoc New Zealand Corps during February–March 1944. He set limits to the number of casualties that would be tolerated in attempts to take this hotly contested strongpoint. Moreover, he was instrumental in having the dominating monastery bombed, believing (it seems incorrectly, in retrospect) that it was being used by the Germans for military purposes; he would be criticised after the war for his part in this decision.

Freyberg was injured in an aircraft accident in September 1944. After six weeks in hospital he returned to command the New Zealand Division in its final operations, which involved a series of river crossings and an advance of 250 miles in three weeks. By the time of Germany’s capitulation, the New Zealanders had reached Trieste, where there was, briefly, a tense standoff with Yugoslav partisans. This success earned him a third bar to his DSO, and he was also made a commander of the US Legion of Merit. By the time he relinquished command of the division, on 22 November 1945, he had accepted an invitation to become New Zealand’s governor general – the first with a New Zealand upbringing. He left London for his new post on 3 May 1946, after being made a GCMG. His links with the army were cut when his retirement took effect on 10 September 1946.

Freyberg was an active vice-regal representative, visiting all parts of New Zealand and, in 1948, its Pacific dependencies. In 1951 he was surprised by, but had no option but to accede to, a request by Prime Minister Sidney Holland for a dissolution of Parliament. Despite his military eminence, Freyberg was cautious about tendering any advice on service matters to the government, although he took a strong interest in the production of the official history of New Zealand’s part in the recent conflict. With some reluctance Freyberg agreed to an extension of his term by one year; he left New Zealand on 15 August 1952. Barbara Freyberg was made a GBE in 1953.

Freyberg was raised to the peerage in 1951, taking the title Baron Freyberg ‘of Wellington, New Zealand and of Munstead in the County of Surrey’. He frequently sat in the House of Lords. After becoming deputy constable and lieutenant governor of Windsor Castle on 1 March 1953, he took up residence in the Norman Gateway the following year. He died at Windsor on 4 July 1963 following the rupture of one of his Gallipoli wounds, and was buried in the churchyard of St Martha on the Hill. He was survived by his wife and son. New Zealand’s greatest soldier is commemorated in Wellington by the Freyberg Building (outside which stands his bust) and the Freyberg Pool, and in Palmerston North by Freyberg High School.

How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon. 'Freyberg, Bernard Cyril', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000, updated January, 2012. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5f14/freyberg-bernard-cyril (accessed 23 June 2024)