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Bardia to Enfidaville

Mr Churchill's Visit

Mr Churchill's Visit

During the time spent in and around Tripoli the troops derived some pleasure from living among greenness and cultivation, with an occasional (or perhaps only one) visit to a large town; but the real culmination to the advance on Tripoli came on 4 February, when the Division paraded for Mr Churchill—one of the most memorable occasions in its history.

Instructions issued on 30 January concerned a review by the Army Commander. Then it became known that the parade was to be in honour of a ‘Mr Bullfinch’, who was soon identified by rumour as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Two or three days were devoted to preparations, and leave to Tripoli was cancelled. The Division was organised into five groups:

Divisional Troops (comprising Greys, Divisional Cavalry, Divisional Engineers, Divisional Signals, 27 (MG) Battalion, and Headquarters)

Divisional Artillery

5 Infantry Brigade

6 Infantry Brigade


The review took place on a stretch of open green country surrounded by bluegums, not without its resemblance to that homeland so far away. Before lunch there was a full rehearsal, at which the GOC found himself at the point where he had to call for ‘Three page break page 119 cheers for…’, and at that very moment realised that he had not prepared an alternative name for the Unknown Guest, and so after a fractional pause plunged deeply and went on ‘… the Prime Minister’, thus confirming or confounding all rumours.

The whole force paraded before 2 p.m. to await the official party. Mr Churchill, dressed in the uniform of an Air Commodore, arrived standing up in an open car with General Montgomery seated beside him. In the cars that followed were General Sir Alan Brooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), General Sir Harold Alexander and other senior officers. An escort of armoured cars swept into line beside the saluting base, and as the Prime Minister's car halted, General Freyberg ordered a general salute. The GOC was greeted warmly and invited into the car and, with Mr Churchill still standing, they drove along the lines of the massed troops.

After returning to the saluting base the Prime Minister addressed the Division, speaking at first in the well-known grumbling tone, with rather a monotonous delivery:

General Freyberg, officers and men of the New Zealand Division and the Royal Scots Greys and other units attached thereto—when I last saw your General, Bernard Freyberg, my old friend of so many years of war and peace, the Salamander, as he may be called, of the British Empire, it was on those bluff and rocky slopes to the south of Alamein where you were then preparing to receive what was then expected to be a most dangerous and deadly thrust by the hitherto victorious Rommel. At that time also we had had great doubts and anxieties as to the position in Russia and what would happen in the Caucasus and in all approaches to the great oilfields without which the plight of Germany is hard.

(And then his tone changed and he electrified his audience, bursting out triumphantly.)

But what a change has taken place since then. By an immortal victory, the Battle of Egypt, the Army of the Axis Powers which had fondly hoped and loudly boasted it would take Egypt and the Nile Valley, was broken, shattered, shivered, and ever since then, by a march unexampled in all history for the speed and force of the advance, you have driven the remnants of that army before you until now the would-be conqueror of Egypt is endeavouring to pass himself off as the deliverer of Tunisia. These great feats of arms entitle the Army of the Desert to feel the sure deep-founded sense of comfort and pride based on the footing of valiant duty faithfully done. Now I come and find you here, 1500 miles from where I saw you last, and you may well feel that in that period a great change has taken place in the whole position of the war, and that we now have a right to say that a term will be fixed to the intense exertions to which so many well disposed and good-hearted people have been compelled by the brutal attacks which have been made upon them. Now a turn and a change has come upon the scene, just in the same way as after all these hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert you suddenly came again into green and fertile lands. So there has been a movement of the whole world cause with its 29 United page 120 Nations, a movement towards a far surer hope and a far nearer conclusion than anything that was possible before. You will march into fairer lands, you will march into the lands where the grim and severe conditions of the desert lie behind; but having endured those conditions, the military qualities, the grand fighting qualities you have displayed will only shine the brighter and be turned to greater advantage. Far away in your homes at the other side of the world all hearts are swelling with pride in the deeds of the New Zealand Division. Throughout the Motherland—our little islands, which stood alone for a year surrounded only by children from overseas, against dire odds; far away in New Zealand, throughout the Motherland, all men are filled with admiration for the Desert Army, and we of the British Isles, our hearts go out in gratitude to the people of New Zealand who have sent this splendid Division to win glory across the oceans and who, unanimously, by their Parliament in secret session, accorded to you what is, I am sure, your wish to see this particular job through to the end. The enemy has been driven out of Egypt, out of Cyrenaica, out of Tripolitania. He is now coming towards the end of his means of retreat and in the corner of Tunisia a decisive battle has soon to be fought. Other great forces coming in from the west—the First British Army, the powerful armies of the United States, a French army coming back to its duty after having been first defeated and them shamefully misled. All these forces are closing in and all these operations are combined, but in them, I am sure, the Desert Army and the New Zealand Division will bear a most recognisable and honourable part. What I would say to you is that the sun has begun to shine. The good cause will not be trampled down. There will be more justice and mercy among men—there will be more freedom—there will be more chances for all as a result of this great world movement in which all the most powerful communities not locked in the Nazi or Fascist heresy will take their part, and in this struggle those whom I speak to now and see before me in their massive array have already taken a glorious part but have still before them the opportunity of increasing the debt which all free nations of the world owe, and I give to you on behalf of His Majesty's Government, on behalf of all the people of the Homeland—I give you our expression of earnest and warmhearted thanks. We cherish the memory and the tale of all you have done. We wish you God Speed and God's assistance in your further efforts and we feel that as duty will not fail so success will be achieved.

When the speech concluded General Freyberg called for three cheers for the Prime Minister, which were hearty indeed. Then in order of groups the Division marched past the saluting base to the music of the massed pipe bands of 51 (Highland) Division, with the troops nine abreast, an unorthodox formation but most suitable and impressive. The armoured and artillery units marched to their nearby vehicle parks, where they mounted their tanks, carriers and guns, and in column of six vehicles abreast were again reviewed.

So for half an hour an almost unbroken line of men, tanks, guns and vehicles passed in salute to the great leader of the Commonwealth cause. General Freyberg described it as ‘the most impressive and moving parade of my career’.

page 121

Mr Churchill's reference to General Freyberg as the ‘Salamander of the British Empire’ puzzled many people, though they all knew it to be high praise of some kind. The salamander is a lizard-like animal to which the superstition once attached that it could live in fire, from which characteristic the parallel of General Freyberg's career, involving battle after battle and wound after wound and surviving still, was an easy one. Today the arms of Baron Freyberg include as supporters ‘on either side a Salamander Proper’.