Herbert Ellery Gilbert was born in Wanganui on 20 July 1916. His New Zealand-born father, Ellery George Gilbert, imported musical instruments; his mother, Nellie Gilbert (née Hall), was English-born. After attending Aramoho School he went to Wanganui Collegiate School in 1928. In his final year in 1933 he passed three subjects extramurally towards a BA and was selected for an officer cadetship at the Royal Military College of Australia at Duntroon. Australians at the college dubbed him ‘Bill’ and the name stuck. Graduating third in his class in December 1937, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal New Zealand Artillery and did a coastal gunnery course. Back home, he commanded a battery on Motutapu Island, near Auckland, then became a regional training officer.
During the Second World War Gilbert served first with the 6th Field Regiment before attending the Middle East Staff School at Haifa. In 1941, during the Tobruk (Tubruq) battles, he was brigade major on the divisional artillery staff. For the fighting leading up to El Alamein he was second in command of the 6th Field Regiment, and then assumed a staff position at divisional headquarters. Back in the front line he showed conspicuous gallantry when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s last attack at Medenine, Tunisia, was repelled. Gilbert was promoted lieutenant colonel in late 1943, commanding the 6th Field Regiment, and his bravery and command skills at Cassino earned him appointment as a DSO in 1944; he was also mentioned in dispatches. For the later battles of the Italian campaign he was principal staff officer to General Bernard Freyberg. In May 1946 he was awarded the Bronze Star (US).
On 19 August 1944, while in New Zealand on leave, Gilbert married Patricia Caroline Anson Farrer in Hamilton. Reverting to the regular force in 1946, Gilbert held a number of staff posts, one of which was army liaison officer in Australia. As director of plans and operations he attended numerous international military conferences, including the first ANZUS military representatives’ planning meeting in 1952. Promoted temporary brigadier, he went to London as senior army liaison officer in 1954.
In October 1956 Gilbert was offered the post of director of the new New Zealand Security Service by wartime colleague John Marshall, then minister of justice. Plain evidence of Soviet spying and pro-communist subversion in other Commonwealth countries, notably the Petrov affair in Australia, had finally persuaded the National government to accept persistent Allied advice to establish a security service. The prime minister, Sidney Holland, insisted that a New Zealander be in charge; Marshall knew just the man. Although the secret agent side had little appeal, Gilbert had a strong sense of duty and liked challenges, and as director he could serve to age 60 – five years more than in the army.
Back in London he familiarised himself with British Security Service (MI5) procedures, receiving personal tutelage and continuing support from the celebrated and professional Roger Hollis, director general of the service. Returning home in February 1957 he touched base with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, then took up his duties in Wellington with the Department of Justice and retired from the army with the rank of brigadier. Walter Nash, who became prime minister in December 1957, found the whole subject of a security service ‘difficult’ and failed to sign Gilbert’s warrant during his three years in office.
For 19 years Gilbert worked to seven prime ministers – four National and three Labour. The citation when he was made an OBE in 1945 for his work on Freyberg’s staff describes his strengths: ‘He was an Officer who excelled not only in thoughtful planning and clear and concise orders, but who was never satisfied until he had seen for himself the result of his orders, and no hazard of enemy action was ever permitted to interfere with his duties’. A security service needs no less.
The new service soon exposed Soviet espionage: two diplomats were required to leave in 1962, and the case against a Soviet spy expelled from Australia in 1963 developed out of earlier New Zealand reporting. From September 1969 the service was called the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.
The activities of the SIS did not escape scrutiny, most notably in the case involving W. B. Sutch, who was charged under the Official Secrets Act 1951 after SIS surveillance revealed he had had several meetings with a Russian diplomat. Prime Ministers Norman Kirk and Wallace Rowling had, however, been fully consulted on this matter; moreover, the SIS had recommended against prosecution, wanting instead to get Sutch’s co-operation. Sutch was tried and acquitted in February 1975. In 1976 a report by the chief ombudsman found little fault with the SIS. Monitoring of domestic subversive activity was ‘of the highest national importance’. There had been ‘no plot and no sinister intention’ and ‘no collusion’ with anyone else.
Often demonised, Bill Gilbert was to his friends kindly and humane; imperturbable, but far from insensitive. He always got on well with people. He was knighted in June 1976 and retired in July, immediately changing his name by deed poll to William Herbert Ellery Gilbert. In his retirement he became executive director of the World Wildlife Fund – New Zealand. He was also able to pursue his interests in golf and fishing, and in growing rhododendrons. He died at Silverstream on 26 September 1987, survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.