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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume I

Appointment of Commander, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force

page 23

Appointment of Commander, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force

The High Commissioner for New Zealand (London)1 to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

16 September 1939

2 Major-General Freyberg3 offers his services to New Zealand and would be glad to serve with compatriots again.

1 Rt. Hon. W. J. Jordan, PC; from 1936 to date.

2 Text omitted concerned employment of Colonel Sir Stephen Allen, KBE, CMG, DSO, Military Secretary 2nd NZEF, 1940–41.

3 Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Cyril Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO, LL D. In Sep 1939 was General Officer Commanding, Salisbury Plain Area, with the rank of Major-General; appointed to command 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Nov 1939, and continued to do so until Nov 1945; Governor-General of New Zealand from 17 Jun 1946 to date.

The acting Prime Minister to the High Commissioner for New Zealand

2 October 1939

Your telegram of 16 September (No. 27) ….4 Advise Major-General Freyberg that his offer is warmly appreciated and that the Government are at present considering how best they could utilise his services.

4 Text omitted concerned employment of Sir Stephen Allen.

The Hon. P. Fraser (London)5 to Major-General Freyberg, General Officer Commanding, Salisbury Plain Area

4 November 1939

Will you come to London and consult with me about the NZEF?

Peter Fraser,

Deputy Prime Minister,

New Zealand

5 Then attending a conference of Dominion ministers in London.

page 24

Letter from General Freyberg to Mr. C. A. Berendsen,1 Permanent Head of the Prime Minister's Department

General Officer Commanding,

Salisbury Plain Area,
Bulford Barracks,
6 November 1939

My Dear Berendsen,

I realise how difficult it must be for you and your Minister at the present time, and my only wish is to do anything I can to be of any assistance to the New Zealand Government.

Perhaps my best contribution would be to put upon paper my views upon the two problems we discussed at our meeting last night:


The choosing of the GOC for the New Zealand Forces.


The problem of mobilising, training, and maintaining the New Zealand Division in the field.

The latter question is a very big one, involving many problems that must affect the speed and efficiency by which the Division can be prepared for war. All these problems and the decisions that must be taken carry with them serious financial repercussions. I have discussed this in attached Appendix II.2

After my talk with the Deputy Prime Minister, I was diffident about discussing the question of your choice of GOC. But since these are such unusual times, I feel that you will appreciate that any advice I give you is from an entirely detached point of view.

The choosing of a GOC is so much a matter of opportunity. As you will realise, the number of first-class, experienced, and fully trained Commanders in a small Regular Army, such as we possess here in England, is relatively not great. The New Zealand Division certainly deserves to get a Commander who will appreciate and understand the wonderful material with which he is being entrusted. Further, and this is most important, he should be a man who will weld the Division into one large happy family. I am sure that it is only upon these lines that best results can be achieved.

page 25

With such a Commander and building upon the traditions that already exist, the New Zealand Division will be second to none. Mr. Fraser was kind enough to inquire whether I would like to be considered as a possible Commander. I need hardly say that I feel highly honoured. If, after due consideration, the New Zealand Government wanted my services, the New Zealand Government would have to apply to the War Office for me. I for my part would come to you even if it meant giving up the command of an Army Corps to do so.

I have put as Appendix I my views upon some of the essential qualities necessary for a GOC.

In any case, whatever your decision may be, I hope that you get the GOC that you want and that he will do full justice to the New Zealand Division.

Yours sincerely,
Bernard Freyberg


In view of the fact that the New Zealand Division will have far fewer officers from the Imperial Forces than had its predecessor of 1914, and also of the fact that a large proportion of the officers that they will bring with the Division will have had little opportunity of commanding troops in the field, even upon manœuvres, great responsibility will fall upon the GOC and his staff during the collective training period before going to France. This, in my opinion, is a very important consideration. This is, I know, offset by a leavening of officers who served in the war [1914–18].

The GOC, whoever he may be, should have been trained upon manœuvres in the command of a force of all arms, and in addition should have a wide war experience of command during the war. In my opinion, he should have commanded an Infantry Brigade, or similar Artillery Command, for the last years of the war. I suggest this because it is important that he should have practical experience of making and carrying out artillery fire plans in the various phases of battle. He should have actual experience in command during:


A retreat under heavy enemy pressure;


A counter-stroke;


The forcing of a river line against opposition;


Operations in open warfare involving the co-operation of all arms.

So much for the minimum requirements from a tactical and training point of view.

Apart from this the Commander should also have practical and very detailed knowledge in the care and comfort of his troops. He page 26 must understand the complicated structure of Army life, and be able to teach his officers and men how best to make use of the excellent arrangements and material generally, such as the ration and cooking equipment, stores, &c., with which he will be issued upon mobilisation.

1 Sir Carl A. Berendsen, KCMG, New Zealand Minister at Washington since 1944. At the time of this reference, Mr. C. A. Berendsen, CMG, Permanent Head of the Prime Minister's Department, Wellington; later New Zealand High Commissioner in Australia, 1943–44. Mr. Berendsen had accompanied Mr. Fraser to the United Kingdom in Oct 1939.

2 Not published. This appendix dealt with the mobilisation and collective training of the New Zealand Division. It envisaged the United Kingdom as the probable training area and France as the setting for subsequent operations.

The Hon. P. Fraser (London) to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

7 November 1939

I have discussed the command of the New Zealand forces with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff1 and Mackesy.2 The Chief of the Imperial General Staff speaks most highly of Freyberg both from the point of view of command in the field and administration. He thinks we could not do better and indeed states that Freyberg will be given an English division in France at a very early date, though he would be happy to release him if we wanted him. I gather that Freyberg would be glad to accept the New Zealand Division though I have not discussed this with him. I have satisfied myself about Freyberg's fitness and personal qualities by long personal interview….3

1 Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff during the war were:

7 Sep 1939 – 26 May 1940Field-Marshal Lord Ironside, GCB, CMG, DSO (then General Sir William Edmund Ironside).
May-Dec 1941Field-Marshal Sir John Greer Dill, GCB, CMG, DSO (then General Sir John Dill). Head of British Joint Staff Mission, Washington, 1942–death, 4 Nov 1944.
Dec 1941 – Jan 1946Field-Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke, KG, GCB, OM, DSO (in 1940, General Sir Alan Francis Brooke).

2 Major-General Pierse Joseph Mackesy, CB, DSO, MC; Commander 49th (West Riding) Division and Area, Territorial Army, 1938; commanded land forces in Narvik area 1940; visited New Zealand in 1939 at request of New Zealand Government and made a report on the New Zealand Military Forces.

3 Text omitted concerned the proposed retention in New Zealand of Major-General J. E. (later Sir John) Duigan as Chief of the General Staff.

The Hon. P. Fraser to the Prime Minister

10 November 1939

I left for France last night and expect to return on Wednesday or Thursday. Before leaving I saw Allen and my conversation with page 27 him strengthens my conclusion that Freyberg is the best man for the command of the New Zealand Division….1

1 In the text omitted Mr. Fraser requested an early reply to his telegram of 7 Nov (see Formation and Despatch of First Echelon, No. 46), and gave his views on a speech on war aims by the Rt. Hon. C. R. Attlee, then Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons.

The Hon. W. Nash2 (Wellington) to the Hon. P. Fraser

15 November 1939

The Government have decided, after full consideration of his record and brilliant service, to offer the appointment of General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Major-General Freyberg. This decision should remain confidential until further advice and no public reference or announcement should be made in the meantime.

2 Rt. Hon. Walter Nash, PC, Minister of Finance and Customs from 1935 to date; Deputy Prime Minister since Mar 1940; New Zealand Minister at Washington, 1942–44.

The Hon P. Fraser to the Prime Minister

17 November 1939

….3 With reference to your telegram of 16 November,4 your offer of the command of the 2nd NZEF has been conveyed confidentially to Major-General Freyberg and has been accepted by him. I have still to obtain the official approval of War Office. When this is obtained, but not before, I suggest an official announcement be made by you. Freyberg has submitted certain proposals for his movements but I will consult War Office before forwarding my recommendations to you….5

4 Mr. Nash's telegram to Mr. Fraser of 15 Nov 1939 (No. 33) offering the command of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Major-General Freyberg is undoubtedly the telegram referred to.

5 Administrative detail omitted.

page 28

The Prime Minister to the Hon. P. Fraser

18 November 1939

…. It is hoped that a public announcement can be made either over the air on Tuesday evening at seven o'clock or in the evening press of the same day. This statement will also announce the appointment of General Freyberg and the desire of the Government to retain General Duigan1 in New Zealand, and that this has been made possible by the availability of Freyberg who has been offered, and has accepted, the command of the New Zealand forces overseas….2

1 Major-General Sir John Evelyn Duigan, KBE, CB, DSO, Chief of the General Staff in New Zealand, 1937–41. Created KBE in 1940.

The Hon. P. Fraser to the Prime Minister

18 November 1939

Your telegram of 18 November (No. 35) has been received and noted. The High Commissioner will publish the announcement here simultaneously. Today I saw Ironside who expressed his entire concurrence and approves of Freyberg's appointment. He has telegraphed the Secretary of State for War3 for formal approval. I expect to receive this on Monday and shall telegraph you immediately. In the meantime you will of course not publish the appointment until you have received my telegram. Ironside and Gort4 both consider that Freyberg should immediately spend a page 29 period in France with the British Expeditionary Force, and Ironside has promised a suggested programme of his movements, which I shall telegraph to you on receipt….1

3 Secretaries of State for War in the United Kingdom Government during the war were:

29 May 1937 – 6 Jan 1940Rt. Hon. Leslie Hore-Belisha, PC.
6 Jan 1940 – 13 May 1940Rt. Hon. Oliver Frederick George Stanley, PC, GCSI, MC.
13 May 1940 – 23 Dec 1940Rt. Hon. R. A. Eden, PC, MC.
23 Dec 1940 – 23 Feb 1942Rt. Hon. Viscount Margesson, PC, MC (in 1940, Captain the Hon. Henry David Reginald Margesson).
23 Feb 1942 – 4 Aug 1945Rt. Hon. Sir (Percy) James Grigg, PC, KCB, KCSI.
4 Aug 1945 – 5 Oct 1946Rt. Hon. John James Lawson, PC.

4 Field-Marshal Viscount Gort, VC, GCB, CBE, DSO, MVO, MC; Chief of the Imperial General Staff 1937–39; Commander-in-Chief, British Field Force, 1939–40; Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Gibraltar, 1941–42; Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Malta, 1942–44; High Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief, Palestine, 1944–45. Died 31 Mar 1946.

1 Notification of the despatch in a later telegram of biographical details of General Freyberg's career has been omitted.

The Hon. P. Fraser to the Prime Minister

30 November 1939

….2 Freyberg has already spent a short but, in the opinion of the Chief of the General Staff, adequate period in France, and both he and the Chief of the General Staff consider it essential that he should go to New Zealand at the earliest possible moment to make contact with the Government and Duigan, see for himself the officers and men, and generally familiarise himself with all problems. He will leave London by air for Alexandria direct on 6 December, and will leave Alexandria and arrive in New Zealand with us by the Niagara,3 leaving Sydney on 21 December. He then proposes after a few weeks in New Zealand to proceed immediately to Egypt, though this must depend on the date of the First Echelon's departure.

3 RMS Niagara, Canadian-Australasian Line, 13,415 tons, sunk by a mine in the Hauraki Gulf, 19 Jun 1940.

Report by the Hon. P. Fraser on his Visit to England in 1939


….4 This again was one of the matters which I felt it essential to take up at the earliest possible moment and by the courtesy of the British authorities I was enabled to have a very early interview with General Ironside.

Before this interview, however, I had an opportunity of a discussion with Major-General Freyberg, who was kind enough to come to London especially for the purpose, and I was at once struck

4 See Formation and Despatch of First Echelon (No. 66) for rest of text. As the original of this report could not be traced, this draft was supplied by courtesy of Mr. Fraser, who has partially reconstructed the report from notes made at the time.

page 30 not only by his personality and by his obvious experience and confidence, but particularly by the supreme importance which he clearly attached to the proper treatment of the troops and to the necessity of proper and timely administrative measures to ensure their welfare and their safety. I have, since that interview, seen a great deal of General Freyberg and I am convinced that my first impressions are right and that he is clearly the best choice for the post that is open to us. General Mackesy was good enough to come to London from Yorkshire and he also spoke highly of General Freyberg. I also made an opportunity, in accordance with your suggestions, for an interview with Sir Stephen Allen, who spoke in the highest terms of General Freyberg and assured me that in his view it would be impossible to get a better man.

Armed with these views and opinions, when I saw General Ironside I told him that we were considering him (Freyberg) for the post of General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He at once made it plain that in his opinion we could not make a better choice. He also spoke in the highest terms of Freyberg, whom he had known for a very lengthy period, and he expressed the opinion that Freyberg invariably took care of his men even at the risk of his own safety. He referred also to the wide experience which Freyberg had, not only in fighting but in the organisation of large bodies of men on a war basis. He regarded him as an admirable man to command a division, and indeed he had Freyberg on his own list, with five others, to be given command of an English division at a very early date. He made it plain that if we wanted Freyberg he would certainly allow us to have him, and that if we did not he would shortly be appointed to command an English division.

Subsequently, when in France, I had an opportunity of mentioning the matter to Lord Gort who also spoke in terms of high praise of Freyberg, though he thought he should have at least two months in France before assuming command of a division. At a later discussion I raised this aspect of the matter with General Ironside. He deprecated this on three grounds, firstly, that Freyberg would learn enough of the present method of operations in France in a week; secondly, that the present methods were as yet untried and might not be held to; and, thirdly, it was not impossible that the New Zealand Division would have to be employed in a totally different form of warfare in a totally different theatre of war.

When I saw Mr. Winston Churchill1 just prior to my departure he told me that upon my arrival in the United Kingdom he had sought an opportunity to see me with a view to pressing me to urge upon the New Zealand Government the desirability of appointing

1 Then First Lord of the Admiralty.

page 31 Freyberg, whom he regarded as pre-eminently suitable to command such magnificent troops as the New Zealand Division had always proved themselves to be in the past and would, he felt, continue so to do. Further confirmation came from Sir Charles Fergusson1 who went out of his way to express his satisfaction at the appointment and his admiration for Freyberg's qualities. Indeed, I think it proper to say that I have heard no criticism of the appointment and nothing but praise, and that I am entirely satisfied that the right thing has been done. My colleagues will, of course, have an opportunity of judging for themselves during the short period that the General will be in New Zealand. I should add that on the way out he proved to have a most business-like manner of formulating and preparing lists of the matters which he wished to discuss and the steps he thinks should be taken to ensure the welfare, comfort, and safety of the troops under his command.

1 General Sir Charles Fergusson, GCB, GCMG, DSO, MVO, Governor-General of New Zealand, 1924–30.

Memorandum from the Prime Minister to General Freyberg2

5 January 1940

The General Officer for the time being
Commanding the 2nd New Zealand
Expeditionary Force Overseas

The General Officer Commanding will act in accordance with the instructions he receives from the Commander-in-Chief under whose command he is serving, subject only to the requirements of His Majesty's Government in New Zealand. He will, in addition to powers appearing in any relevant Statute or Regulations, be vested with the following powers:


In the case of sufficiently grave emergency or in special circumstances, of which he must be the sole judge, to make decisions as to the employment of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and to communicate such decisions directly to the New Zealand Government, notwithstanding that in the absence of that extraordinary cause such communication would not be in accordance with the normal channels of communication indicated in the following paragraphs and which for greater clearness are also indicated in an attached diagram.3

page 32

To communicate directly with the New Zealand Government and with the Army Department concerning any matter connected with the training and administration of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.


To communicate directly either with the New Zealand Government or with the Commander-in-Chief under whose command he is serving, in respect of all details leading up to and arising from policy decisions.


In all matters pertaining to equipment, to communicate with the War Office through normal channels, and through the liaison officer of the High Commissioner's office in London, the former to be the official channel.


In matters of command, to adhere to the normal military channels between the War Office and the General Officer Commanding the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force overseas.


To establish such administrative headquarters and base and line of communication units as are necessary for the functions of command, organisation [including training], and administration with which he has been invested.


To organise, [train],1 change, vary, or group units and formations in such manner as he considers expedient from time to time.


To fix and alter the establishment and composition of units and formations as the exigencies of service may in his opinion require from time to time.

After the Third Echelon has left New Zealand no officer above the substantive rank of captain will be sent overseas without the concurrence of the General Officer Commanding.

M. J. Savage,

Prime Minister

2 This is General Freyberg's charter from the New Zealand Government.

3 Not published.

1 The references to training in square brackets in paragraphs (f) and (g) have been added at General Freyberg's request. They are not included in the text of this memorandum in the files of the Prime Minister's Department, but were later added to the memorandum at the GOC's request.

page 33

Memorandum from the Minister of Defence1 to General Freyberg

5 January 1940

Major-General B. C. Freyberg,

General Officer Commanding,

2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force Overseas,

The General Officer Commanding is hereby vested with the following powers:


Authority to increase the scale of ration, if necessary.


Authority to procure equipment (shown on equipment tables) that cannot be supplied through official channels. Such equipment to be bought through Ordnance channels where possible.


Authority to incur expenditures which cannot be foreseen at present, and which the General Officer Commanding considers necessary, for protection of the health of the Force.


Authority to incur expenditure, not exceeding £500 for any one transaction, for the recreation or other amenities of the Force.


Authority to disburse, at the discretion of the General Officer Commanding, from an entertainment fund which will be provided, to an amount not exceeding £1000 per annum.

F. Jones,

Minister of Defence

1 Hon. Frederick Jones, Minister of Defence from 1935 to date.