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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Friday 12 June 2020

Freyberg: Churchill's Salamander

This is a study of key actions in the WW2 experience of Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg, who commanded the New Zealand Expeditionary Corps in the Mediterranean theatre.

Freyberg's legacy is mixed, with his performance, particularly as a Corps commander, being criticised by his own subordinates as well as senior commanders like Auchinleck and Mark Clark. However, Churchill, Montgomery and Wavell, were all fulsome in their admiration. This is a sympathetic study, although based on a detailed analysis of his decisions during these campaigns.

This book focuses on the Crete and then the Tunisian and Italian campaigns. Freyberg's substantive command was the 2nd New Zealand Division but he was often commanding ad-hoc corps in Crete, Tunisia and Italy.

My main interest is in the Crete campaign. I have read most of the main books on this campaign and have walked the battlefields. Freyberg was the commanding officer on Crete, which was defended by most of his New Zealand Division, plus British and Greek battalions. Many of these were survivors of the retreat from Greece and had to defend the island with limited supplies and crucially, limited air cover.

Freyberg benefited from excellent intelligence, courtesy of ULTRA, although he was constrained in its use to avoid the Germans guessing their codes had been compromised. He, therefore, knew that the Germans would target the airfields and deployed his troops accordingly. As he knew the RAF would be unable to provide sufficient air cover from these airfields, so, I think the criticism that he failed to disable them is fair.

However, after that, his deployments envisaged a fixed defence supported by prompt counterattacks. These did not happen as envisaged and the Germans were allowed to consolidate near Maleme, then capture the airfield and bring in mountain infantry formations. Once they had an airfield, the battle was all but over.

The book looks in some detail at this crucial part of the battle. It is clear that the defending 22nd Battalion commander sought support from the battalion that was supposed to counterattack and from the Brigadier. These decisions were rightly delegated to that level and Freyberg cannot be responsible for their failure to implement the Brigade plan for the defence of the airfield. That responsibility mainly fell on Brigadier Hargest.

Maleme Airfield today

Hargest's classification as unfit for active service had been overridden by the intervention of the New Zealand Prime Minister. He was a politician, who used those skills to pass the buck onto Freyberg.

Freyberg went on to create an innovative formation that specialised in infantry/armour combinations. They were used effectively in left hooks around Axis positions at El Agheila in Libya and the Tebaga Gap in Tunisia. The Italian campaign became a meat grinder unsuited to his unit's strengths, but he was not the only commander to struggle at Cassino. He ended the war with an impressive drive all the way to Trieste.

As the authors concede, Freyberg was no Napoleon or Lee. However, he was a brilliant divisional commander and a competent corps commander. A decent man who deserved better from his critics.



  1. An excellent review. Thanks for posting it.

    Kind regards, Chris

  2. No problem. Glad it was helpful.