It’s seventy years since the Battle for Crete – seven decades since British and Commonwealth forces, mostly New Zealanders of 4 and 5 Brigades, put up a heroic and near-run defence of the island with no heavy equipment or support, all in the face of total German air domination.
And it’s six years since Penguin published my biography of the man in charge of the island’s whole defence, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard ‘Tiny’ Freyberg, VC, DSO (3 Bars) etc. I’ve republished the introduction on my website.
He was one of New Zealand’s greats, a fighting General, regarded by one awed observer as the ‘bravest man that ever lived’. He led the Second New Zealand Divison during the Second World War – taking the men from Greece to Crete, then across the Western Desert and Libya and into Tunisia, and finally through Italy to Trieste, where New Zealand’s land war ended in a confrontation with Communist forces, For him, leading was often literally that – he regularly toured the front lines and made sure he was right up front during battle, where he could see what was happening. During the pursuit of the German-Italian army across Tripolitania in late 1942, divisional enginers had to fit governors to Freyberg’s command tank to stop him getting too far ahead of the advance.
Along the way, Freyberg demonstrated extraordinary qualities of leadership and field command that were described by Bernard Montgomery as rarely seen to that level in the British army. And he did so with a manner that many at the time mistook for simplicity – though his officers knew the real story. ‘He’s as simple as a child and as cunning as a Maori dog,’ one quipped, with due period phrasing.
Freyberg carried the battlefield in his head, working from large-scale to small. He had an exceptional mastery of the set-piece assault, but was also at home in the mobile environment – where, in November-December 1941, he effectively out-manoeuvered Rommel during the relief of Tobruk, rightly seeing the heights near the town as key to the battlefield and doing all he could to hold them. Rommel, meanwhile, careered off east with the Deutsche Afrika Korps (DAK) and got lost near the Libyan border. Freyberg also won his battles with relatively few casualties – and he had to. After the CRUSADER battles of December 1941, New Zealand’s ability to pour reinforcements into the Middle East was limited, and manpower restrictions remained a sword of Damocles over Freyberg’s command for the rest of the war, influencing the tactics he was able to use. The fact that he still achieved extraordinary results underscores his calibre.
Freyberg has had his share of post-fact flak, mostly over the Battle for Crete, mostly from British pop-historians who have not read New Zealand archival sources. I managed to get on TV while I was writing Freyberg’s War, in riposte to Antony Beevor, who got Freyberg’s Crete story so wrong. Proper technical studies have made clear that he performed brilliantly, there and elsewhere. Just a few months ago I had an opportunity to read an academic study of Freyberg’s command performance, set against formally structured military competency criteria. Freyberg came out very well indeed.
But I knew he would. For me, his sheer dynamism as a commander – and his ability to inspire his men to great things – were summed up by the drama of mid-1942, when the 8th Army cracked in the face of a renewed assault from Rommel – and the Second New Zealand Division was called in to the rescue, rushing from Syria to Mersa Matruh in double-quick time. They were at their peak of fitness, and Freyberg intended to use them to take on the whole of the DAK, stopping the Axis advance on Egypt then and there. He knew what his forces could do, and with the support of the British 1 Armoured Division, he expected to win. British command confusion foiled the plan – but the Kiwis alone repulsed six attacks by 21 Panzer division during a day dug in at Minqar Qaim. By nightfall they were surrounded, and Freyberg seriously wounded – but he had already ordered a break-out, and the division did it, bursting through the German lines in a blaze of fire and escaping into the desert.
There can be no doubt. Freyberg, as the Americans remarked just before that battle, was a ‘very great leader of men’.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011