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Posts Tagged ‘Crete’

Our General on Crete

10 Jul

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.

The cover of my book "Freybergs War". The picture was taken by the late Sir John White, used with his permission, and shows Freyberg during the first morning of the attack on Crete, watching Hitlers crack Fallschirmjager descend.

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.

Official war artist Peter McIntyre's painting of the break-out at Minqar Qaim. From the New Zealand national collection of war art, Ref: AAAC 898 NCWA 20.

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’.

Used with permission Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

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World War II History for July 14

14 Jul

Audio: General Charles de Gaulle urges America to Join the Allies (14 July 1941)


Charles de Gaulle 1942

A 1942 WWII photo portrait of General Charles de Gaulle of the Free French Forces and first president of the Fifth Republic serving from 1958 to 1969.

Today in WWII History

World War II History for July 14

14 July 1933 - All German political parties except the Nazi Party were outlawed.

14 July 1940 - British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivers War of the Unknown Warriors BBC Broadcast in London. [1]

14 July 1941 - A force of German Ju-88 bombers attacked Suez, Egypt, from bases in Crete.

14 July 1941 - Vichy French Foreign Legionaries signed an armistice in Damascus, which allowed them to join the Free French Foreign Legion.

14 July 1941 - Free French General Charles de Gaulle urges America to Join the Allies.

14 July 1941 - British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivers You Do Your Worst — And We Will Do Our Best speech to the House of Commons. [1]

14 July 1945 - American battleships and cruisers bombarded the Japanese home islands for the first time.

[1] Selected Speeches of Winston Churchill – http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/speeches/speeches-of-winston-churchill

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World War II History for May 20

20 May

Today in WWII History

World War II History for May 20

20 May 1940 - Germans break through to English Channel at Abbeville, France

In reaching Abbeville, German armored columns, led by General Heinz Guderian (a tank expert), severed all communication between the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the north and the main French army in the south. He also cut off the Force from its supplies in the west. The Germans now faced the sea, England in sight. Winston Churchill was prepared for such a pass, having already made plans for the withdrawal of the BEF (the BEF was a home-based army force that went to northern France at the start of both World Wars in order to support the French armies) and having called on the British Admiralty to prepare “a large number of vessels” to cross over to France if necessary. With German tanks at the Channel, Churchill prepared for a possible invasion of England itself, approving a plan to put into place gun posts and barbed wire roadblocks to protect government offices in Whitehall as well as the prime minister’s dwelling, 10 Downing Street. [1]

20 May 1941 - Germany invaded Crete by air. The last of the Allies evacuated on May 31.


German paratroopers waiting to embark for invasion of Crete [2]

20 May 1942 - Japan completed the conquest of Burma.

[1] “Germans break through to English Channel at Abbeville, France,” The History Channel website, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=tdihArticleCategory&id=6459 (accessed May 20, 2009).
[2] “German paratroopers during Battle for Crete”, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/german-paratroopers, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 26-Jun-2007

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World War II History for May 28

28 May

Today in WWII History

World War II History for May 28

1937 - Neville Chamberlain Becomes Prime Minister of England

Chamberlain served as prime minister of the UK from 1937 to 1940. His political legacy is defined by his controversial policy of “appeasement” toward Hitler, which culminated in the Munich Pact in 1938. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, he pledged military support to Poland and led Britain to war. He was forced to resign in 1940, after the British debacle in Norway.

1940 - Belgium surrendered unconditionally to Germany.

On this day in 1940, after 18 days of ceaseless German bombardment, the king of Belgium, having asked for an armistice, is given only unconditional surrender as an option. He takes it.

German forces had moved into Belgium on May 10, part of Hitler’s initial western offensive. Despite some support by British forces, the Belgians were simply outnumbered and outgunned from the beginning. The first surrender of Belgium territory took place only one day after the invasion, when the defenders of Fort Eben-Emael surrendered.

Disregarding the odds, King Leopold III of Belgium had tried to rally his forces, evoking the Belgian victory during World War I. The Belgian forces fought on, courageously, but were continually overcome by the invaders.

By May 27, the king of Belgium, realizing that his army was depleted and that even retreat was no longer an option, sent an emissary through the German lines to request an armistice, a cease-fire. It was rejected. The Germans demanded unconditional surrender. Belgium’s government in exile, stationed in Paris, repudiated the surrender, but to no avail. Belgium had no army left to fight. In the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill defended King Leopold’s decision, despite the fact that it made the British troops’ position, attempting to evacuate Dunkirk, in northern France, more precarious.

King Leopold refused to flee the country and was taken prisoner by the Nazis during their occupation, and confined to his palace. A Belgian underground army grew up during the occupation; its work including protecting the port of Antwerp, the most important provisioning point for Allied troops on the Continent, from destruction by the Germans.

1941 - The Allies began their evacuation of Crete.

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World War II History for May 20

20 May
Today in WWII History

World War II History for May 20

1941 - Germany invaded Crete by air. The last of the Allies evacuated on May 31.

1942 - Japan completed the conquest of Burma.

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