b. 21/03/1889 Richmond, Surrey. d. 04/07/1963 Windsor, Berkshire.
Bernard Cyril Freyberg (1889-1963) was born at 8 Dynevor Road, Richmond Hill, Surrey on 21st March 1889. He was known as “Tiny” because of his large size. His father was James Thomas Freyberg who had a number of varied occupations including decorator, upholsterer, estate agent, auctioneer and surveyor. His first marriage was to Jane Wood in 1852 at St James, Westminster. Bernard’s mother was Julia Kate nee Hamilton and their marriage was in Kensington in 1880. The family emigrated to New Zealand, embarking at Plymouth on RMS Aorangi on 17th October 1891 and arriving at Wellington on 3rd December 1891. The move was prompted when James’ partner went bankrupt. He worked in the forestry department whilst in New Zealand. Bernard had eight siblings from his father’s two marriages.
Bernard was educated by his mother and at Wellington College 1897-1904, where he was also a Sergeant in A Company of the Cadet Corps. He was known as “Freyberg Tertius” and was not a scholar. He was a keen sportsman, winning many prizes in swimming and athletics. Despite not being academic, he had ambitions to become a doctor, but his father could not afford to support him while training. James then realised that for a small amount of £100, Bernard could take up an apprenticeship for dental surgery. Bernard was taken out of school in December 1904, in time to enrol for the dental apprenticeship. He was apprenticed to JS Fairchild and later to Arthur Hoby, both dental surgeons in Wellington, from December 1904. He attended dental school at Otago University from March – May 1910 and was admitted to the Dentists’ Register on 22nd May 1911, remaining on it until 30th July 1936, when he was removed at his own request.
He became an assistant and locum to Arthur Yule at Morrisville for just under a year and managed a branch for him in the final months. He then worked for two years in the surgery of Stuart Mackenzie at Levin. Bernard served in D Battery, New Zealand Field Artillery Volunteers in Wellington 1905-1907 and was commissioned in 6th (Territorial) Hauraki Regiment on 18th January 1912. He attended the first Territorial camp held in the Auckland district early in 1912 and then attended a machine-gun course at Paeroa.
Bernard handed in his notice during March and April 1914 on RMS Tahiti from Wellington, via Tahiti to San Francisco, California, arriving on 20th April. It is then believed he served as a Captain Volunteer with the Mexican Carrancistas, during the Mexican Civil War. He deserted in late July on hearing of the impending war in Europe, and with a price on his head, he hitchhiked to get a steamer to head for New York. He eventually arrived in Liverpool on 24th August. He caught a train for London in order to enlist in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was told that all officer places had been filled, and he was advised to try the newly formed Royal Naval Division. He approached Winston Churchill, and gained his encouragement to gain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant RNVR on 8th September 1914.
He was allocated to the Hood Battalion to command A Company. He was known as “Khaki Jack” as he arrived in khaki, whereas most officers were still wearing naval blue. His fellow officers in A Company were known as the “Argonauts”, and included Rupert Brooke.
Following training in Kent, they embarked to Dunkirk on 2nd October 1914, and then onto Antwerp. Whilst in the trenches at Antwerp, Bernard was severely burnt on the hand on the electrified barbed wire system. He was hospitalised at Ostend before returning to Britain. In March 1915, the Battalion was deployed to Turkish waters around Gallipoli. Following training at Port Said, Egypt, they prepared for the Gallipoli landings. A platoon from A Company was to land and light flares at intervals along the beach to fool the Turks into thinking a full scale landing was happening. Freyberg, believed, that it could be done with just one or two swimmers with less risk. Freyberg’s request was turned down, but he made the swim alone and succeeded in his mission. For his actions, he was awarded the DSO.
During the Second Battle of Krithnia on 8th May, he was wounded in the abdomen and evacuated. He returned in mid June and was appointed Temporary CO of the Hood Battalion. He was wounded again on 25th July and was evacuated to Egypt until August. He left the peninsula on 27th February 1916 to head for Marseilles and then to England for ten weeks to recover from his wounds. He went to France to rejoin the Battalion on 1st May and transferred to the Royal West Surrey Regiment as a Captain and Temporary Lieutenant Colonel on 19th May, but remained to command Hood Battalion.
On 13th November 1916 at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre, France, after Freyberg's battalion had carried the initial attack through the enemy's front system of trenches, he rallied and re-formed his own much disorganised men and some others, and led them on a successful assault of the second objective, during which he suffered two wounds, but remained in command and held his ground throughout the day and the following night. When re-inforced the next morning he attacked and captured a strongly fortified village, taking 500 prisoners. Though wounded twice more, the second time severely, Freyberg refused to leave the line until he had issued final instructions.
He was evacuated to London where he recovered for three months, and was gazetted for the Victoria Cross. He returned to France in February 1917, and was appointed Temporary Brigadier-General and Commander 173rd Brigade from April to September 1917. He was wounded in five places by a shell-burst during an attack on St Julien, Ypres on 19th September and reverted to Major on relinquishing command on 15th November.
He was appointed Brevet Lieutenant Colonel on 1st January 1918, and the following day received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace. He returned to France on 11th January, and was appointed Temporary Brigadier-General. He was wounded at the Forest de Nieppe on 3rd June, with shell fragments in the leg and head, but returned to duty; this was the ninth time he was wounded during the war. He was then awarded a Bar to his DSO for the success of his Brigade at Gheluvelt on 28th September. He was then awarded a Second Bar to his DSO at Lessines on 11th November for rushing the Dendre River Bridge with nine men of 7th Dragoon Guards, taking 106 prisoners.
He was then awarded the CMG for his services in the military operations in France and Flanders on 3rd June 1919. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. He served in the Army of Occupation on the Rhine and relinquished command of 88th Brigade on 15th March 1919. He attended Staff College from April 1919 and was accepted for Balliol College, Oxford, but the War Office would not release him. He was Company Commander in 1st Grenadier Guards at the Tower of London in January 1920 and commanded the VC Guard at the interment of the Unknown Warrior on 11th November 1920. He suffered ill health from unhealed wounds, and returned to New Zealand to recover. Although continuing with his military career, he wished to enter politics and unsuccessfully stood as a Liberal for Cardiff South in 1922. On 14th June 1922, he married Barbara McLaren nee Jekyll at St Martha’s, Chilworth, Surrey. She was the widow of Francis McLaren RFC, who was killed in a flying accident in 1917. Bernard and Barbara had one son, Paul Richard Freyberg, born in 1923. He would later write a biography on his father.
Bernard made two attempts to swim the English Channel in 1925 and 1926. He returned to Grenadier Guards and was promoted to Major in 1927. He went through several promotions until he reached Major General on 16th July 1934 and in January 1935 he was appointed GOC in the Presidency and Assam District of the Eastern Command of India, but a medical board detected a heart condition and it was cancelled. He was awarded the Companion of Bath on 1st January 1936, and was retired in October 1937 unfit for further service.
He tried politics again, but failed to gain a seat. On the outbreak of the Second World War, he was recalled for Home Service as GOC Salisbury Plain Area. He was soon upgraded to active service and offered his services to the New Zealand government. As a result, he was appointed GOC 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 22nd November 1939. He served in a variety of theatres including Italy, Lebanon, Crete and North Africa. He was knighted on 1st January 1942 and received it on 27th July 1942. He was then awarded the KCB in recognition of his gallantry and achievement in operations in the Middle East on 24th November 1942.
He was appointed Commander X Corps and accepted the surrender of Italian and German forces in North Africa on 13th May 1943. He was promoted to Major General and commanded New Zealand Corps on 3rd February 1944. He was awarded a Third Bar to his DSO for his conduct in the advance to Trieste in May 1945, and relinquished his command on 22nd November 1945 and was promoted Lieutenant General. He was then awarded the KJStJ on 1st January 1946 and GCMG on 1st February 1946. He was also awarded a number of foreign awards. He retired from military service on 10th September 1946 and was appointed Governor General of New Zealand which he held until 1952. He was created Baron Freyberg of Wellington and Munstead on 7th June 1951. He was also a Freemason, having been admitted into Household Brigade Lodge, New Zealand Lodge and Westminster Lodge from 1922.
He commanded the VC contingent at the VC Centenary Celebrations in Hyde Park on 26th June 1956. On the afternoon of 4th July 1963, he collapsed at Windsor Castle and was admitted to King Edward VII Hospital, Clewer, Berkshire. His Gallipoli stomach wound had opened up. He died without regaining consciousness that evening. He was buried in St Martha on the Hill Churchyard, Chilworth, Surrey.
In addition to the VC, he was awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, Knight of the Order of the British Empire, Knight of Justice of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, DSO and Three Bars, 1914 Star with “Mons” clasp, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star with “8th Army” clasp, Italy Star, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45 with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, New Zealand War Service Medal 1939-45, George V Jubilee Medal 1935, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953, US Legion of Merit, French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Palm, Greek Military Cross and Greek Grand Commander of the Royal Order of George I with Swords. His medals are held privately.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT PUBLICLY HELD.
BURIAL PLACE: ST MARTHA ON THE HILL CEMETERY, GUILDFORD, SURREY.
Statue in New Zealand
War Illustrated, 20th January 1917
War Illustrated, 26th May 1917
St Paul's Cathedral (Thomas Stewart)
Freyberg's stone laid in Richmond in November 2016 courtesy of Sergeant Rupert Frere RLC, MOD
Freemasons Memorial, London (Brian Drummond)