General Freyberg
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Awarded VC
General Freyberg was commander of the Allied forces on Crete, and as such carries the responsibility (as do all commanders) for the way in which the force available to him was used, and for the command style of himself and his subordinate commanders. 

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Comments on Freyberg's dispositions in WO 231/3 in the PRO

General Freyberg had commanded the New Zealand forces who had been a part of the abortive Allied effort to support Greece.  He and his men had been evacuated from Greece to Crete, but he believed the whole division would make it to Egypt where it would reform.  The most recent commander of the forces on Crete was Marine Major General Weston, but on 30th April General Wavell visited Crete and made a command change.  General Freyberg was asked to take control, he was not totally enthusiastic, but found the offer difficult to refuse.  He and his staff had only arrived at Suda Bay from Greece on the 29th April, but he soon felt that the island was not adequately prepared to defend itself.  

Wavell had been signaled on the 29th from the C.I.G.S in London to say that "From our knowledge of General Weston we are doubtful if he has the right experience for the difficult task of command in Crete.  Will you go into this and report if you decide to make changes." (WO 106/3243).  It was suggested to Wavell that Freyberg would be the man for the job; War Office to Wavell, 30/4 "Would suggest Freyberg to succeed Weston in Crete.  It need only be temporary command and Freyberg could collect later his scattered flock." (CAB 121/537)

Wavell responded on the 1st May, "Visited Crete by air today.  Placed Freyberg in command all troops in island including Greek troops (this is at request of Greek government) as immediate measure."

Freyberg had believed that the New Zealand troops would all be withdrawn to Egypt to reform, he was unsure how the New Zealand Government would react to half the New Zealand Division being in Egypt and half with him on Crete.  

The New Zealand Government were concerned about the situation of their troops on Crete; "My government is of opinion that our troops should either be supplied with sufficient means to defend the island or that decision that Crete must be held at all costs should be reviewed."

The appointment of Freyberg was strongly backed by Churchill who considered Freyberg as a "mans soldier", brave and much decorated.  Freyberg fought in the First World War in Gallipoli and the Western front, where he won the Victoria Cross in 1916 leading the Royal Naval Division's Hood Battalion in the capture of Beaucourt in Flanders.  Churchill wired Wavell for him to pass to Freyberg; "Congratulations on your vitally important command.  Feel confident your troops will destroy parachutists man to man at close quarters.  Every good wish.  Winston."

There are a couple of biographies at Amazon, unfortunately no cover photo for either of them.
Bernard Freyberg, V.C.: Soldier of Two...
Freyberg: Churchill's Salamander
On the 2nd of May Freyberg expressed the view to Wavell that the  "...force here can and will fight, but without full support from Navy and Air Force cannot hope to repel invasion" . Wavell's response was; "The Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, is prepared to support you if Crete is attacked.  I have most definite instructions from the War Cabinet to hold Crete and, even if the question were reconsidered, I am doubtful if the troops could be removed before the enemy attack.  The difficulties and dangers of your situation are fully realised, but I am confident that you and the magnificent troops at your disposal will be equal to the task.  We have very anxious times ahead in the Middle East for the next few weeks."

Freyberg split up his forces into three areas, correctly assuming (and with intelligence from ULTRA), that the expected German invasion would aim for the three main airfields at Maleme, Rethymnon and Heraklion.  Unfortunately Freyberg did not maintain control of his central reserve, he left it available to his sector commanders.  Also while the airfields, especially Maleme, were recognized as vital points to be held in the coming invasion, Freyberg's commanders had not sufficiently concentrated their own forces to effectively counter the expected enemy attacks.  The forces available to Puttick west of Chania were spread along Prison Valley, Galatas, the coastal road and finally Maleme and Hill 107.  The area west of the Tavronitis river was left dangerously under-manned, with consequent results when the Germans attacked.

On the 16th May Freyberg signaled Wavell regarding his preparations;

"My plans for the defence of Crete have been completed, and I have just returned from a final tour of the defences.  The visits have encouraged me greatly.  Everywhere all ranks are fit and morale is now high.  All the defences have been strengthened and the positions wired as much as possible.  We have forty-five field guns in action with adequate ammunition dumped.  There are two infantry tanks at each aerodrome.  Carriers and transport are still being unloaded and delivered.  The 2nd Battalion, Leicesters, have arrived and will make Heraklion stronger.  Although I do not wish to seem over-confident, I feel that at least we will give an excellent account of ourselves, and with the help of the Royal Navy I trust that Crete will be held."

 

WO 231/3 in the PRO comments on the choices before Freyberg;

Para. 5.  "Broadly, there were two alternatives before General FREYBURG [sic]:-

(a) Partially to disperse his force with a view to protecting both the aerodrome against an airborne and the beaches in their vicinity against a seaborne attack.

(b) To concentrate his force in four self-contained groups for the immediate defence of the three aerodromes and the base area of SUDA.

General FREYBURG [sic] adopted the first course.  In order to meet the sea threat considerable dispersion was necessary west of CANEA where the enemy might land at any point on the 12 miles stretch of beach.  Dispositions of the New Zealand Division were influenced by that factor.  The Commander of the 5th New Zealand Brigade was very anxious about the area west of MALEME aerodrome and it was unfortunate that his intention to place a Greek battalion there had not been put into effect before the attack came.

Para. 6.  It is interesting to speculate as to whether the adoption of the second solution might have been more profitable.  MALEME aerodrome might have remained intact and the rapid reinforcement by airborne troops greatly delayed.  It is even possible that the enemy might have been discouraged from continuing his attempts.  But the aerodrome at Heraklion remained intact and yet the enemy were able to land troop carriers to the east and out of reach.  The garrisons would in any case have been pinned under the combined efforts of the encircling parachutists and the permanent air threat overhead.  Other landing grounds would soon have been prepared by the parachutists.  They had started to prepare one in the valley behind the prison.  Furthermore, the Navy was powerless to stop an eventual landing by sea.  Indeed, according to the German accounts, the Italians landed in the east of the island on the 28th; nor had General FREYBURG [sic] the resources with which to form a mobile reserve to meet such a threat.  The vast length of the coast line and the number of possible landing beaches should constantly be borne in mind.  Moreover, the means for reconnaissance seaward were lacking and the garrison was virtually blind.  It is noteworthy that as a result of the disposition adopted, nearly all the parachutists that landed could not fail to descend near some of the defending troops."

Freyberg's ability to hold Crete was sorely limited by the absence of aircraft fighter cover, and by having only a small number of Infantry (I) tanks.  His plan hinged on the necessity to hold the airfields, they were vital to the Germans in any re-supply and reinforcement of the initial landings.  Although Freyberg had the benefit of the information from ULTRA, it still required interpretation, and Freyberg interpreted a vital signal as indicating to him that the sea-borne invasion was the main threat.  This caused him to make decisions that allowed him to lose Maleme.  

Tactically, his sector commanders were to employ camouflage to minimize the effects of the expected aerial attacks by fighter bombers.  Then when the paratroops were down, but before they had time to collect their weapons and reform their units they would come under strong and immediate counter-attack.  Sadly this was not the way the battle went.  The lack of concentration of force at the expected landing points (particularly Maleme), the tendency of senior commanders to operate from HQs a considerable distance from the fighting and a lack of decisive and imaginative command by those senior commanders meant that the advantage swung to the Germans.  As commander of the forces on Crete Freyberg must take responsibility for the actions of his senior commanders.  The official New Zealand history said;

"The conclusion is inevitable that he began with a battle plan which gave his battalion commanders too much choice of role with too little guidance on which roles were prior [and] that in the battle itself he failed to give his commanders firm directions."

On the 26th May Freyberg realised the position was hopeless, and at 09:30 he sent a message to Wavell;

"..the limit of endurance has been reached by troops under my command at Suda Bay.  No matter what decision is taken by the Commander-in-Chief, from a military point of view the position is hopeless.."

Following the withdrawal, in June of 1942, Brigadier Inglis of 4th New Zealand who had served on Crete under Freyberg, was in England and was asked to brief Churchill on what he believed had happened.  He was very critical of Freyberg.  Churchill's comments later were;

"I am far from reassured about the tactical conduct of the defense by General Freyberg.... There appears to have been no counter-attack of any kind in the Western sector until more than 36 hours after the airborne descents had begun.  There was no attempt to form a mobile reserve of the best troops....  The whole seems to have been of static defence of positions, instead of the rapid extirpation at all costs of the airborne landing parties."

In Crete Eyewitnessed there is an interesting extract from a conversation with Ray Sandover, an Australian; "I went to New Zealand after the war and I had dinner with General Freyberg.  He had an English Admiral and an English Air Vice Marshall and we stayed talking until about one in the morning..... Both the English Admiral and the Air bloke said: "Thank heavens you lost Crete.  We could never have supplied it.  It would have been an embarrassment.  As it was, you tied up the German division for the rest of the war doing nothing, and if you recaptured it or if you'd won you might have inflicted a few more casualties on the Germans, but you would have tied down a British division there, and all the harbours were on the North.  The Navy suffered enough trying to supply Crete, we can't bring in supplies from the south because the harbours just are not there, and it would have been some support for the operations in North Africa, of course, but thank heavens you lost it." [my italics]
Later in the war 2 New Zealand Division and General Freyberg would be involved in Italy, in the Cassino campaign, and Freyberg came in for criticism here as well for his ability in command.  The following extracts come from John Ellis' book on Cassino.

In the view of General Mark Clark (himself a controversial character) Freyberg was; "..a prima donna and had to be handled with kid gloves..."  Major General Tuker, C.O. of 4th Indian Division said of Freyberg; "..brave as a lion but no planner of battles and a niggler in action."

At one point in the Cassino campaign Freyberg's New Zealand Corps was tasked to assault the massif and again Tuker's comment on his ability was not flattering. "I feel sorry for Freyberg, but he should never have been put in command of a corps.  He had not the tactical understanding and certainly not the experience in the mountains."
The bombing of the monastery on Cassino has been much criticized since the war (and even at the time), one reason is that there would seem not to have been any German forces in the monastery at the time, and the bombing then gave them the excuse to go in and use the ruins as excellent defensive positions.  When the request for the bombing was submitted General Alexander agreed that it could go ahead, if Freyberg definitely requested that this be done.  He did, and it was.  Clark tried to dissuade Freyberg, unsuccessfully and in his memoirs wrote that; "... [I] told Freyberg that I would authorize the bombing if Freyberg said it was a military necessity.  He replied that, in his considered opinion, it was.  I was never able to discover on what he based his opinion."

One of those with Freyberg at Cassino and Crete was Brigadier General Kippenberger.  At one point during the Cassino campaign he tried to arrange a meeting between himself and another Divisional Commander, with Freyberg.  Freyberg refused saying " ..he was not going to have any soviet of divisional commanders."  This was at variance with his earlier command of the NZ Division when "..plans would be fully, and even outspokenly, debated  Freyberg would listen carefully to everyone in turn, then sum up and make the final decision."  Although Churchill wanted Freyberg in command on Crete, where he was commanding a force larger than a division, maybe as Tuker and Clark would later assert, he was out of his depth above divisional command.