Freyberg's friend Winston Churchill: Ken Ross reviews the wartime relationship between New Zealand's foremost soldier and the renowned British prime minister.

AuthorRoss, Ken

In September 1940 I had toyed with the idea of giving him [Freyberg] a far greater scope. (Winston Churchill, 1950) (1) Winston Churchill fought World War II twice over--first as Prime Minister during the war, and then later as the war's premier historian. From 1948-54, he published six volumes of memoirs that secured his reputation and shaped our understanding of the conflict to this day. (David Reynolds, 2005) (2) Churchill crafted his monumental Second World War memoirs between his two prime ministerships (1940-45 and 1951-55). (3) That considerable work has weathered well the scrutiny of the newest generation of British Second World War historians--James Holland, Andrew Roberts, Antony Beevor, Tim Bouverie, Allan Allport and Nicholas Shakespeare. (4) David Reynolds's In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War is the invaluable working tool for journeying around these memoirs. Reynolds dissects the pre-publication drafts kept at the Churchill Library, Cambridge, informing who Churchill's devillers were, including who wrote particular parts and who was consulted, as the work progressed. Bernard Freyberg, for one, was consulted: on Crete he responded with his own 4000-word critique of Churchill's drafting, teasing his old friend: 'I return your homework. I feel that a student of your great qualities should have got at least 99%. I cannot give you more than 95%'. (5)

Churchill's bias as prime minister had a huge impact on Freyberg's war. When Churchill entered 10 Downing Street on 10 May 1940, Freyberg was the only serving British Army general he knew personally: they had had considerable social contact in the inter-war years. In his Second World War memoirs Churchill described Freyberg's heroics. (6)

When Freyberg, at Government House in Wellington after the war, received his advance copy of The Grand Alliance he knew already the 'far greater scope' reference pointed to himself. It appears likely he was aware the first draft had said

I poised upon his [General Wavell's] supersession.... My inclination was for General Freyberg. This meant the appointment of a very junior officer to one of the greatest positions in the war. (7) Reynolds continued that the name of Wavell's possible successor is revealing: 'General Bernard Freyberg was Churchill's kind of general: confident, aggressive, and brave'. Reynolds was fascinated that 'this hitherto obscure story from 1940 illuminates the role Freyberg suddenly assumes in volume 3 [The Grand Alliance] as commander in the vital battle for Crete in May 1941'.

In September 1940, General Sir Archibald Wavell was, as the commander-in-chief, Middle East, Freyberg's military boss and a long-time British Army colleague (also a friend). Churchill had by then just emerged from his first hundred days as Britain's wartime leader and was still relying heavily on his predecessor's ministerial line-up. Of Neville Chamberlain's 34 ministers, 21 were retained: Chamberlain remained the Conservative Party leader until a month before his death in November 1940 and had been Churchill's Lord President of the Council. Nearly all the key officials were still Chamberlain-era appointees--only the top soldier, General Ironside, had stepped aside, declaring that Churchill needed his own general. But for the next eighteen months the prime minister put up with General Sir John Dill, who had been Ironside's deputy. Only by sending Dill to Washington did Churchill secure his own general, Alan Brooke, in December 1941.

Closest confidants

To best appreciate Freyberg's war, a fine understanding is essential of Churchill's leadership, including who were the closest confidants among his officials, particularly in the context of Freyberg's relations with Churchill's inner circle, who

served under his immediate command through the loneliness of high office, the agonies of defeat and glory of victory, who saw him day by day shouldering the burdens of a seemingly crushing responsibility, who shared with him in selfless devotion, the long hours of grinding labour, the moments of black depression and the brilliant flashes of exaltation. (8) From late January 1940...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT