In the long and illustrious history of Swimming and British Military heroes, New Zealand’s Champion Swimmer, Bernard Freyberg, is one of the most fabulous.
Observed as a day of Commemoration, not a holiday, April 25, 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the day members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps(ANZAC) first landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, in the war against the Ottoman Empire, during WWI. What had been planned as a bold strike to knock the Ottomans out of the war quickly became a disastrous stalemate, as the campaign dragged on for eight months, with total casualties on both sides exceeding 100,000. The 1981 film, “Gallipoli”, starring Mel Gibson, shows much of the conditions that these soldiers endured. In 1934, the “ANZAC Cove” became hallowed ground for the world to remember the horrors of war. Less well known is the story of Bernard Freyberg - whose swim in the early dawn hours of one-hundred years ago, must rank as one of the most courageous swims in history.
Born in London in 1880 and taken to New Zealand as a child, Bernard Freyberg was a strong swimmer, twice winning the national 100 meter championship of New Zealand in 1906 and 1010. Trained as a dental assistant, he dreamed of being a soldier. Denied a King’s commission, he left New Zealand in 1914 to join Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army and then lit out for London when WWI started. Stranded in Los Angeles, he earned fare to New York by winning a swimming meet. Stranded in New York, he earned fare to London by winning a prizefight. Unknown in London he accosted Winston Churchill and demanded a commission, claiming to have been a captain in Villa’s army.
Sent to Gallipoli, Freyberg literally earned immortality with a feat of personal bravery which Sir James “J. M.” Barrie (best remembered today for penning Peter Pan) chose as an example for a lecture on “Courage” in 1922.
Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes. What says our
glorious Johnson of courage: 'Unless a man has that virtue he has
no security for preserving any other.' We should thank our Creator
three times daily for courage instead of for our bread, which,
if we work, is surely the one thing we have a right to claim of Him.
This courage is a proof of our immortality, greater even than
gardens 'when the eve is cool.' Pray for it. 'Who rises from
prayer a better man, his prayer is answered.' Be not merely
courageous, but light-hearted and gay. There is an officer
who was the first of our Army to land at Gallipoli. He was
dropped overboard to light decoys on the shore, so as to deceive
the Turks as to where the landing was to be. He pushed a raft
containing these in front of him. It was a frosty night,
and he was naked and painted black. Firing from the ships was
going on all around. It was a two-hours' swim in pitch darkness.
He did it, crawled through the scrub to listen to the talk of the
enemy, who were so near that he could have shaken hands with them,
lit his decoys and swam back. He seems to look on this as a gay
affair. He is a V.C. now, and you would not think to look at him
that he could ever have presented such a disreputable appearance.
Would you? (indicating Colonel Freyberg).
The Turks rushed over to repulse what they thought was a big landing force while the British landed further down the peninsula. For this swimming feat, credited with saving thousands of British lives during the landing, Freyberg got the D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order). Later in the same ill-fated campaign, he won the Victoria Cross for leading a charge, although wounded four times. After recovering from his wounds and already a living legend, Freyberg was promoted to Brigadier General in 1917.
After the war, Freyberg lived in England trying unsuccessfully to get elected to Commons and several times to swim the English Channel, once missing by only 400 yards. When WWII broke out in 1939, he was again a hero as commander of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
In the long and illustrious history of Swimming and British Military heroes, Bernard Freyberg is one of the most fabulous.
Excerpted from a forthcoming book on the importance of swimming to world history and warfare from the International Swimming Hall of Fame.