Kip in the round, Gavin McLean

Howard Kippenberger: Dauntless Spirit
Denis McLean
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 978869790264

When Denis McLean (no relation) interviewed former comrades of Howard Kippenberger and asked for criticisms of the general, he was astounded that they “were not only nonplussed but shocked at the very idea”. “There is a problem here for the biographer – it has been difficult to find fault; all who knew Kip speak well of him,” McLean confesses. The title of the first chapter, “Our Ablest Soldier … and Nicest Man”, confirms that scandal, the hook to entice reviewers and interviewers, will be in short supply. The closest to dirt being dished out is the odd passing reference to his wife Ruth’s drinking.

I suppose that I faced a similar “problem” in reviewing this book. None of my minor quibbles and qualifications will fire up the letters to the editor column. McLean doffed his cap to Glynn Harper’s 1997 book Kippenberger: An Inspired Military Commander, but his new book takes Kip scholarship to a new level. Elegant, generous and balanced, it portrays Kip in the round as civvy, scholar and soldier.

After Freyberg (the Londoner we like to claim as a native-born Kiwi), Kippenberger is our most distinguished army commander. The two men were very different, but they did share distant German ancestry. Neither had amounted to much before they found their niches on the battlefield. Kip, the younger man, served only briefly on the Western Front in WWI before being invalided home seriously wounded. Unlike Freyberg, he did not marry into British society, nor did he remain in the regular army after the war to rise steadily up the ranks. Instead he became a country solicitor in Rangiora, happily married, able (just) to scrape by financially during the Great Depression, a borough councillor and a lynchpin of local sports and social clubs.

Military history provided his intellectual escape route. Rather like Gallipoli hero William Malone (also a small town man), Kip believed war inevitable and prepared himself for it. He read voraciously, as the portion of his library housed at the Kippenberger Military Archive at the Waiouru Army Museum testifies. McLean, who has scanned those marginal notes and underlinings, tells how Kip sneaked books on naval and military history into the house whenever Ruth muttered about the need to economise. Like many soldiers then, he could also list every major British warship and rattle off its technical details.

But he was no mere rivet-counter. His ability to apply the lessons of history got him on the national stage. He joined the Territorials, put theory into practice (or at least as far as Depression-era defence budgets allowed). By war’s eve he had risen to command the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment. Although he was a few years older than Freyberg considered ideal, he was made commander of the Canterbury-Otago Battalion. In fact, during Freyberg’s brief elevation to corps commander later in the war, Kip commanded 2 Div, in effect New Zealand’s army.

Kip fought in the desert, at Crete and in Italy. He was brave, but he could also be emotional. He could be firm (he once responded to Defence Minister Fred Jones’s airheaded assertions that the people back home were suffering as badly as the men in the desert by driving him through the still-smouldering battlefield at Takrouna), but he was liked by his men and was seen as a highly effective brigadier.

As McLean acknowledges, Kip made his share of tactical errors. Like Freyberg, he sometimes took avoidable risks. He got himself captured, though redeemed himself by escaping. More seriously, in March 1944 he stepped in a landmine while descending Mt Trocchio near Casino and lost both feet. Although he put himself through a punishing rehabilitation programme, that mine marked the end of any real military service. At the peak of his achievements, he had to look for another job. Fortunately, the government had committed itself to recording the history of New Zealand’s war.

McLean is well placed to write this book. He shares his subject’s fascination with military history, and his stint as Secretary of Defence will have familiarised him with the wider political and economic world in which military commanders have to operate. This is no armchair general’s dissection of attack and counter-attack (although there is plenty of that).

McLean is particularly masterful at setting Kip’s intellectual development against the wider context of New Zealand nationalism last century, aware that people then comfortably wore two identities – as New Zealanders and also as members of the British Empire. Kip was “a New Zealander to his bootstraps. Yet he greatly esteemed the British side to his makeup,” he explains on page one. Several times he explains the ties of sentiment, security, blood and cash that linked so many New Zealanders to Britain and to the British Empire. Not everyone agreed, of course: some Maori, some Irish and that scattering of literary nationalists whose presence in our historiography so distorts their true significance, a point a more stridently post-colonial nationalist writer might not have appreciated.

But the war did alter their thinking. Recently I came across one of Kip’s 1938 letters. E H McCormick had asked him to write a volume on war for the government’s prestigious Centennial Survey. At that time Kip had doubted New Zealanders’ war experiences had had “any important effect at all”, adding “I doubt whether the peoples of these islands yet constitute a nation.” So he turned it down. As McLean notes, he drafted some notes for a Making New Zealand booklet, but went away to war, leaving it to come out under another author’s name.

By 1946 he retained an atom of doubt but he believed that New Zealand had changed and that its experience of war had imprinted itself on the dominion’s history. “During the years 1939-45 the people of New Zealand passed, for the second time, through an experience of the deepest importance to every one of them,” he said in a radio broadcast. “Possibly we attained nationhood. Certainly the significance of what we did and suffered, escaped and endured, and accomplished cannot be clear unless it is fully and properly related.” (Note the “possibly”.) Kip had been in the thick of all these changes. Like Freyberg, he had fought to keep “the Div” intact as a national army and save it from being frittered away piecemeal in the fragmented attacks that so dominated British thinking in North Africa until Montgomery took over.

That is why the historian in me quibbles gently with McLean’s speculation that Kip may not have seen the war history editorship as “any more than a marginal enterprise in the great field of affairs”. As he notes earlier in the book, in a wartime conversation, Kippenberger had already ruled out politics and a cabinet post. This was a perfect job for the man with a library of over 2000 books on military history and a respect for the pen (his own Infantry Brigadier, published by Oxford in 1949, was long a textbook and is still considered a minor classic).

Like Freyberg, Kip had enjoyed the wartime conversations with the bright young intelligence officers depicted so memorably by James McNeish’s recent books. Kip’s editorship put him in touch with some of the finest minds in the country and with its senior politicians and public servants. He revelled in commissioning, editing and commenting, and was no figurehead. The war histories remain New Zealand’s biggest single history publishing programme.

In that 1946 radio broadcast mentioned earlier, Kip set out his manifesto for the official war history programme. He promised “to prepare and set before the people of the world, a true and faithful record of what was done and suffered, endeavoured and endured and accomplished by New Zealand … without fear or favour, without malice or concealment.” That is also what McLean has done with Howard Kippenberger: Dauntless Spirit.


The Penguin Book of New Zealanders at War, co-edited by Gavin McLean and Ian McGibbon, will be published later this year.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review, War
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