William George Gentry was born in Walthamstow, Essex, England, on 20 February 1899, the son of Frederick Charles Gentry, a leather salesman, and his wife, Eliza Amy Lawson. The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1910 and settled in Wellington. William attended Wellington College (1913–15), then entered the Royal Military College of Australia at Duntroon. He graduated in December 1919 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the New Zealand Staff Corps.
During 1920–21 Gentry was attached to the Indian Army, where he gained useful command experience and saw active service in Waziristan and Malabar. After his return from India, he served in Masterton for 20 months before taking up the first of a succession of posts in the Wellington area. On 28 December 1926 he married Alexandra Nina Caverhill, a music teacher, in Masterton. William and Alexandra (known as Lalla) had a son and a daughter.
Although Gentry had been identified early in his career as an officer with considerable potential, promotion was painfully slow, and he did not attain the rank of captain until April 1926. In mid 1934 he was sent to the United Kingdom to undertake various military engineering courses and was attached to units of the Corps of Royal Engineers. He returned to Wellington early in 1936 to take up the position of staff officer (Engineers) at General Headquarters. Two years later he was sent back to England to attend the Staff College at Camberley. He completed his course in September 1939 and was promoted to major just after the outbreak of the Second World War.
In January 1940 Gentry became general staff officer, second grade, in the New Zealand Division of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed assistant adjutant and quartermaster general in October. He went with the division to Greece and acted as the general staff officer, first grade, in the battle for Crete. His impressive work there was rewarded when he was made an OBE and later received the Greek Military Cross.
On the eve of the second Libyan campaign in October 1941 Gentry was made general staff officer (first grade), and the following month was promoted to colonel. Of average height and build, with sharp features and spectacles with thick steel rims that made him look more like a scientist than a soldier, Gentry ‘brought something of the scientist’s detachment to the problems of war, appraising each problem in a cool, analytic way … under his lighthearted manner was a fierce determination’. Over the early years of the war he developed an exceptionally good working relationship with General Bernard Freyberg. He could, when necessary, question Freyberg’s ideas ‘without arousing impatience or irritation’ and could skilfully turn his broad decisions into detailed plans. Gentry had a key role in the New Zealand Division and worked closely with Freyberg during the campaigns across North Africa in 1941–42. In September 1942 Gentry was made a DSO for displaying ‘the greatest coolness, skill and determination’ in the heavy fighting on the Alamein line.
When the commander of the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade was captured early in September 1942, Freyberg put Gentry in his place and promoted him to brigadier. Although he had virtually no previous command experience, Gentry successfully led his brigade in the second battle of El Alamein and in the pursuit of the Axis forces across North Africa. He was twice mentioned in dispatches.
Gentry returned to New Zealand in April 1943 to become deputy chief of the general staff. In August 1944 he returned to the Middle East and was placed in command of all New Zealand troops in Egypt. He went to Italy in February 1945 to take command of the newly formed 9th New Zealand Infantry Brigade. He did an excellent job of training his new command and led it with great success in the final offensive of the war in Italy. His gallantry and exemplary conduct, often under fire, was a decisive factor in the victories achieved by the New Zealand Division. Gentry received a bar to the DSO in recognition of his exceptional services during the offensive, and was later made a commander in the US Legion of Merit.
In November 1945 Gentry gave up command of his brigade and returned to New Zealand. He was discharged from 2NZEF in March 1946 and reverted to his substantive rank of major in the staff corps, but remained a temporary brigadier. Between March 1946 and July 1947 he was the New Zealand representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Organisation in Australia, which was the planning and control organisation for the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan. He then served as deputy chief of the general staff until late the following year, when he was sent to the United Kingdom to attend the Imperial Defence College.
In March 1948 Gentry became a substantive brigadier, and in April 1949 he was appointed adjutant general. In 1950 he was made a CBE, and on 1 April 1952 he was promoted to major general and appointed chief of the general staff and general officer commanding the New Zealand Division. Gentry did much to enhance the efficiency of the Territorial Force, played a significant part in New Zealand’s increasing military interest and commitments in South East Asia, and represented New Zealand at the first meeting of the ANZUS military representatives. In 1954 Gentry was made a CB, but contrary to tradition he was not knighted when he retired in August 1955; nearly three years later, after a change of government, he was made a KBE.
In retirement Gentry continued to live in Lower Hutt, which had been his home for many years. He served periods as the honorary colonel of the 1st Battalion of the Wellington Regiment and colonel of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. He also served as a member of the Licensing Control Commission and was president of the Boy Scouts Association of New Zealand between 1957 and 1967. William Gentry died at Lower Hutt on 13 October 1991; Lalla Gentry died in August 1994.
William Gentry was a fair-minded and unassuming man who was devoted to his wife and family. He was also an outstanding staff officer and commander who combined the ability to perform well under pressure with an incisive intellect and ‘quick thrusting manner’. These characteristics served him well in a professional military career of almost 40 years.