Kippenberger: An Inspired New Zealand Commander
Harper Collins $49.95
ISBN 1 86950 255 8
Jack Hinton VC: A Man Among Men
David Ling $24.95
ISBN 0 908990 43 X
Glyn Harper’s study of Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger develops its subject at several levels. It is a brief life history of an unusual man who inspired loyalty and affection among ordinary soldiers. It revisits the New Zealand Division’s early World War II battles to assess the competence of its senior commanders in their management of the disasters that characterised some of their efforts. And it is also a study of leadership, which is a rather neglected field in New Zealand military literature.
Harper writes clearly and concisely as he steers the reader through a chain of complex and onerous events. Anyone interested in our military history should find this account of our struggles in Greece, Crete and the Middle East fascinating. With its comprehensive supporting bibliography, it would also make an excellent introduction to wider exploration of the concepts of leadership and morale.
Harper finds that the lack of experience of New Zealand army officers was a major cause of our very high casualty figures in the early campaigns. Much of the blame for the officers’ lack of experience was attributable to the rundown state of the army during the 1930s. Numbers were low, equipment was antiquated or non-existent and there were not enough opportunities for large-scale field exercises. Harper does not venture into discussion of the political implications to be drawn from this sorry episode but a reader can hardly avoid the thought that today we again find ourselves in substantially the same situation, with neglected military services and an alarming lack of equipment.
In the 1930s a good deal depended on territorial force volunteers like Kippenberger who had had combat experience in World War I. Many of these men became battalion and brigade commanders in the Division’s early battles. Some were successful, others were failures who had to be removed or sent home even though it was 18 months before the Division saw action – a lead time which is not likely to be available in today’s shrinking world of rapid transport, cruise missiles, airborne offensives and instant, global communication.
To my mind, the obvious political lesson to be extracted from Harper’s timely appraisal of the opening phases of our adventures in World War II is that if a New Zealand force has to fight overseas again, it will need the best training it can get with state-of-the-art equipment and experienced senior officers if it is not to repeat the disasters of the past. Put very simply, neglect of military services in peacetime means the possible death or wounding of our children or their offspring. For who would be so omniscient as to prophesy that there will be no major war that compels our participation during the decades ahead?
But such sombre apprehensions apart, Kippenberger is an interesting man to study. Of all the Division’s senior commanders, he seems the most likeable and in some respects the most gifted. As an obscure foot soldier in World War II, I personally had very little to do with brigadiers but in the course of a few, brief, unavoidable encounters I formed the opinion that they were mostly an irascible, uncultivated, tyrannical and dangerous lot. With their passion for “getting the job done”, they resembled a repellent type of hard-nosed New Zealand businessman and were the sort of people that I intended to have as little to do with in future as possible. (In the event I have been highly successful in this ambition.) But Kip seems to be the exception. Everyone spoke well of him, I suppose because he tried to treat his people decently.
Leading from the front is another of the capabilities expected of a modern commander. He has to be well up with his troops so that he can see for himself what is happening and can adapt to the ebb and flow of battle as rapidly as possible. Kippenberger demonstrated this skill on numerous occasions, most notably in the celebrated counter-attack on Galatos during the Crete battle, using a hurriedly improvised remnant of his retreating troops. According to Harper, Kippenberger had managed to conquer fear of death or wounding. This was a considerable feat for a man who had been in the trenches in World War I and had seen some of the worst infantry fighting of the twentieth century. Such self-assurance is either a product of extreme stupidity and lack of imagination, or it is a mark of some inner strength or source of confidence. Kippenberger was highly intelligent and sufficiently imaginative to have self-doubts, so one wonders what was behind his “mask of command”. This is one of the questions that need further exploration in a full biography.
Perhaps he was a Christian soldier. Some men with deep religious convictions were able to sustain themselves in World War II with the belief that they were crusaders against evil. Harper notes that Kippenberger seemed to have rejected orthodox Christian belief at an early age but he thinks there was evidence to suggest that the man retained a strong, personal faith in God all his life.
The Division was really a small army with a strong sense of its unique identity. People had nicknames and officers acquired reputations for either being “scone-doers”, “panic merchants”, “bullshit artists”, “bludgers”, “grim digs” or just “good soldiers”, the highest praise that could be bestowed. Kippenberger had a reputation as a good soldier and Harper cites Norman Dixon (On the Psychology of Military Incompetence) to put him in the rare and distinguished company of military leaders who can balance their professionalism in the attainment of military goals with the humanity that earns the affection and loyalty of their men.
According to the military literature on leadership, it is a talent that requires competence, systematic and rational calculation, rapid learning capacity, ruthlessness when necessary, and inspirational qualities as well as a relationship of personal trust between leaders and followers. Kippenberger had all these assets, but to this list I would add good fortune in its Renaissance sense as the ability to seize the right moment for action. Kippenberger demonstrated this capability in some of his battles, but was overtaken by misfortune at Cassino when he stepped on a schu mine and lost both feet.
The part played by luck in military operations is not always acknowledged. But it can be just as important as another essential component of leadership. This is skill in the arts of impression management by which the successful leader develops a command style that impresses his various publics, enhances his status and helps to inspire his followers. Even if he is confused, frightened or unsure, he must present himself to his followers as calm, confident and in control. Kippenberger seems to have been able to manage this very well and he emerges very creditably from Harper’s discussion of operations in Greece, Crete and the desert campaigns. Apart from the timely, contemporary significance that these battles have for anyone interested in military history or in defence planning, a general reader is likely to find the character of Kippenberger the most intriguing feature of the book. He emerges as not only the dedicated and inspired warrior, but also as an ideal type of New Zealand male, one who, on Harper’s showing, had great abilities and intelligence but was not arrogant or vainglorious, cared about his people, earned their loyalty, affection and respect and never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.
His experiences in World War I sensitised him to the lot of the ordinary soldier and he also acquired a healthy contempt for saluting and square-bashing, along with a suspicion of officers. Harper calls this a “larrikin streak” but it was more likely a typical rank-and-file view of life at the sharp end, based on hard experience.
After World War I, Kippenberger got a job in Christchurch, studied law, qualified, got married and practiced in Rangiora. Here he led a life of impeccable ordinariness, except for his intensive, even obsessive, interest in warfare and military operations which he saw as preparation for the inevitable renewal of the struggle with Germany. (It was also basic equipment for his post-World War II job as editor-in-chief of the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, responsible for the research and publication of a comprehensive and unique series of unit histories and general studies.) For practical experience in command he joined the territorial force and by 1936 he was commanding officer of the Canterbury Regiment. This was the period that Harper describes as soldiering in “a country that had turned its back on its armed forces” and was even questioning the need for their existence!
Leadership is important in military doctrine because it is held to be essential to success in combat. Not so clear is the function of heroism, except as a useful source of inspiration and heightened morale. The award of medals and honours for exceptional performance in battle dramatises the role of the successful warrior who becomes a collective representation of the nation’s strivings, aspirations and sacrifices. In most armies the award of medals and promotions helps sustain the patriarchal principle on which military authority is usually based. To get an award you have to be recommended up the chain of command by your superiors who thus confer or withhold their favour in accordance with their view of your merits, their notions of what sort of behaviour is to be exemplified and whatever political or morale-building considerations might be involved.
Some people think medals are archaic in a democracy and that it would be much better to reward outstanding merit with extra performance pay and danger money. In any case, some of the common soldiery in World War II thought it unwise to venture into the sort of personal heroics required to become a candidate for the top awards, though there were plenty of brave spirits who found such trade union attitudes unworthy and defeatist.
Heroism is the capacity to do something beyond the line of duty that requires exceptional skill, courage, luck, daring or tenacity. The categories of heroism are unlimited. Some people have performed amazing exploits in the heat of battle, others have endured terrible privations, sufferings and fears for the sake of some ideal or to enable a military operation to succeed (for instance, in resistance movements, or behind the lines as a secret agent). New Zealand has its share of military heroes and Gabrielle McDonald’s book is about one of the most interesting of them.
This is Jack Hinton, a First Echelon man in the 20th Battalion, who distinguished himself in Greece by winning the Victoria Cross. With a handful of retreating soldiery he shouted, “To hell with this! Who is coming with me?”, as he attacked a German armourer column that was closing in on a large number of New Zealand and British troops who were waiting for evacuation on the Kalamata waterfront in the Peloponnese. The command structure had broken down so Hinton began his own private war. McDonald gives a lively account of his efforts before he was severely wounded in the stomach and taken prisoner. She follows his adventures in various German prison camps, his escape attempts and his eventual repatriation.
Some readers may find the early parts of the book the most interesting because they convey much information about Hinton’s background and about the nature of the times. When you look at Hinton’s life before he enlisted, you realise how different the men of the 1920s and 1930s were from those of today. They were used to labouring (a most useful accomplishment for an infantry soldier) and they could tackle all sorts of rural tasks because the economy was much more pastoral than it is today and a lot more people lived in the country. Nor were these men so technology-dependent. An experienced labourer could work with pick and shovel all day and not think it unusual, and he could probably turn his hand to a variety of construction and maintenance jobs. The First Echelon were a hard, self-reliant lot because many of them had knocked about in the Depression years on the swag, in the bush, on farms or in unemployment relief schemes. Hinton himself had a long apprenticeship in the university of life.
At the age of 12 he leaves school, and goes to sea in a Norwegian whaler! He works on a high country sheep run, goes on the swag around the South Island, tries black sanding for gold, bags and delivers coal, helps a racehorse trainer, becomes a builder’s labourer and ends up in charge of a Public Works gang on the West Coast. When war breaks out he volunteers and joins the 20th Battalion in Burnham Camp. It is a crack outfit under Kippenberger’s command. Hinton is in C Company with Charles Upham who is to become a double Victoria Cross winner. The battalion sails from Lyttelton on the Dunera.
There is a big crowd at the wharf. McDonald records that the ship pulls out to the strains of “Now Is The Hour” and “He Careth For Me”, a popular Salvation Army hymn which happens to be highly appropriate, considering what lies ahead. It is a very simple lyric:
He careth for me, He careth for me,
Through sunshine and shadow,
He careth for me.
But McDonald has no explanation for this curious choice of anthem. In fact it is not necessarily due to some mysterious outbreak of religious fervour among the departing warriors. There is a secular explanation deriving from an obscure fragment of the First Echelon’s social history.
The 20th Battalion was not notably religious. But Sunday Church parades were compulsory and you either went to one of the chapels in the camp or you did fatigues. The Salvation Army was a popular place of attendance because the services were short and the hymns were cheery. In addition, the food in the men’s mess at Burnham was not remarkable for its elegance or palatability. Indeed, a great deal of it ended up as swill at McKenzie’s pig farm across the road. The tea and cakes that followed the Sallies’ service were therefore the more welcome. And there was an even more compelling attraction. Helping in the observances and the accompanying bunfights was a particularly radiant and sweet-voiced young Salvation Army woman. Half the camp were in love with her. So when the Dunera began its voyage into the unknown, many of the troops on deck were lustily and nostalgically singing “She Careth For Me”, a secular paean in praise of somebody who had touched their flimsy lives and whose memory might help to comfort them in the shadows that were soon to engulf them.
Les Cleveland is a former infantry soldier in 2NZEF. Before retirement he taught in the Department of Politics at Victoria University of Wellington. He has written books and articles about military folklore and the relationship between popular culture and the wartime armed services.