Bernard Freyberg was born in England but was brought up in New Zealand. During his youth, he was a champion swimmer. Freyberg was in North America when the war broke out in August 1914, and he immediately travelled to Britain. He secured a commission in the newly formed Royal Naval Division as a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. At Gallipoli, he was promoted to command the Hood Battalion. Freyberg relished the opportunity to be involved in the war.
I am in this with all my heart!
On the eve of the Allied attack at Cape Helles on 25 April 1915, volunteers were asked for to swim ashore and to light flares at the beach at Bulair to distract the enemy. Freyberg volunteered. Just after midnight, he entered the water and swam, naked and covered in oil grease, for 3 kilometres to shore.
I started swimming to cover the remaining distance, towing a waterproof canvas bag containing three oil flares and five calcium lights, a knife, signalling light and a revolver.
The water was cold, the distance considerable and the journey dangerous, but Freyberg was an expert swimmer. He successfully reached his destination.
After an hour and a quarter’s hard swimming in the bitterly cold water, I reached the shore and lighted my first flare, and again took to the water and swam towards the east, and landed about 300 yards away from my first flare, where I lighted my second and hid among some bushes to await developments.
Freyberg’s swim was a huge feat of stamina and bravery. With the flares lit, he hoped that his actions would divert the Turks away from Cape Helles where the Allies would land. But the Turks had created some diversions of their own.
Nothing happened, so I crawled up a slope to where some trenches were located the morning before. I discovered they were only dummies, consisting of only a pile of earth about two feet high and 100 yards long, and looked to be quite newly made. I crawled in about 350 yards and listened for some time, but could discover nothing.
Freyberg could see the lights on the surrounding hills but could not continue any further due to muscle cramps. He returned to the beach, set off his last flare and swam off into the night.
After swimming for a considerable distance I was picked up by Lieutenant Nelson in our cutter sometime after 3 a.m. Our cutter searched the shore with 12-pounders and Maxim fire, but could get no answer from the shore.
Despite Freyberg’s enormous effort, it seems that the Turks were not distracted by the flares, though they may have played a part in the hesitance of General von Sanders, the German commander of the Ottoman 5th Army, to commit his reserves further south at Anzac and Cape Helles.
For his heroism and endurance, Freyberg was awarded a Distinguished Service Order. Later, he was wounded at Helles and evacuated. However, he returned to Gallipoli in June, and was wounded again. In 1916, Freyberg was awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery on the Western Front. Freyberg’s brother Oscar died at Gallipoli and another brother died on the Western Front.
During the Second World War, Bernard Freyberg commanded the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. From 1946 to 1952, Freyberg served as Governor-General of New Zealand. He died in 1963 following the rupture of one his Gallipoli wounds.