Monday 7 November 2016

A Hero's Life: Bernard Freyberg

The first time the name of Bernard Freyberg registered with me was when I was admiring this rather beautiful building on Wellington's Oriental Bay - the Freyberg Pool. A placard nearby gave some information on the Freyberg in whose honour the pool was named, and the more I read the more amazed I was at his life and achievements - and at my own ignorance of them. Then I read in the paper yesterday that a blue plaque has been unveiled on his childhood home in Richmond, Surrey - unveiled on the exact centenary of his winning the Victoria Cross.
 Freyberg won the VC for his role in the battle of the Somme, leading his battalion - from the front, under heavy machine-gun fire, and repeatedly - in the capture of Beaucourt-sur-l'Ancre, then refusing to leave the battlefield until he had issued final instructions to his men, despite having been wounded four times. When he won the VC, Freyberg already had a DSO to his name, won for swimming to shore and lighting flares to distract the Turkish army during the Gallipoli landings. He returned safely, under heavy fire, from that sortie, but went on to take a total of nine wounds during his First War service, the worst from a shell exploding at his feet. He also gained two more DSOs. His love of action and ability to survive 'mid shot and shell later earned him the nickname 'Salamander'.
 Freyberg rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming the youngest general officer in the British Army, and his career continued to thrive between the wars, but in 1937 he was obliged to retire on health grounds. This, however, was not the end of the story, as he returned to active service in the Second War, commanding the Allied forces in the battle of Crete and going on to lead the 2nd New Zealand division through the North African and Italian campaigns, picking up more severe wounds along the way, and yet another DSO. He was well liked by the Kiwis who served under him, both for his personal courage and for his concern with their welfare - and he even managed to have a good relationship with Montgomery.
 After the war, Freyberg accepted an invitation to become Governor General of New Zealand, and was garlanded with more honours, including the title of Baron. After his term as Governor-General, he returned to England, taking up residence in the Norman gateway of Windsor Castle, where he was Deputy Constable and Lieutenant-Governor. He died in 1963 from one his many war wounds, and is buried along with his wife and son in the churchyard of St Martha on the Hill, a beautifully sited old church near Guildford (about which Martin Tupper, author of the Victorian bestseller Proverbial Philosophy, wrote a very bad poem, Old St Martha's).
 Why was that Wellington pool named after him? Freyberg had in his youth been a powerful swimmer, twice winning the New Zealand 100-yards championship. He was also a registered dentist, is thought to have fought in the Mexican civil war, and probably had a spell as a prizefighter in New York - all this before his military career even began. What a man...

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