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.
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
|Freyberg had believed that the New Zealand troops would all be withdrawn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
|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
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
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
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
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.