Today in History, 22 November 1939, Lieutenant-General Freyberg was given command of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF). This is a decisive moment in history, as it signalled what New Zealand’s contribution to World War II would be. 2NZEF would be New Zealand’s pledge to assist the Commonwealth war effort in Europe, and, under the command of Lieutenant-General Freyberg, the first of its three echelons departed for Egypt in January 1940.
Lieutenant-General Freyberg (British-born, but New Zealand-raised) was arguably one of New Zealand’s most important military figures in the 20th century. He earned numerous honours (including the Victoria Cross) for his service in World War I, and at the outbreak of World War II offered his services to the New Zealand Government. He led the 2nd New Zealand Division (the infantry fighting arm of 2NZEF) through successful campaigns in Greece, Crete, North Africa, and Italy. He is pictured here standing atop his tank during the pursuit of Axis Forces after their defeat at El Alamein in Egypt 1942.
The tank is a Stuart Tank retrofitted as Lieutenant-General Freyberg’s command vehicle. This fantastic piece of history is in fact a part of our collection at the National Army Museum, although not currently on public display. When the tank was originally donated to the museum in 1979, detailed conditioning notes were taken. There were two key identifying features that helped us confidently authenticate its provenance: the gun had been replaced with a plate and pipe, and it bore the name ‘Polly III’ on the turret. If you look closely at the photograph of the front of the tank (with Lieutenant-General Freyberg on top) you can see the plate and pipe ‘gun’ and ‘Polly III’ painted on the turret.
The original gun was removed to allow space for Lieutenant-General Freyberg to fit inside the tank, however a ‘fake’ gun by way of plate and pipe was fitted on the exterior so the enemy would not easily identify it as a command vehicle. As for the name ‘Polly III’, the commander of the tank, Captain Herbert Lane, named it (lovingly, we hope) after his wife, Pauline. The tank has since been restored and repainted, and now sits, with its original engine – a modified aircraft engine – beside it, behind-the-wire of Waiouru Military Camp in one of the Museum’s vehicle storage bays.
Fun Fact: The Stuart Tank is also known as the Honey Tank, after a British ‘tankie’ was asked what he thought of it, to which he replied, “it’s a honey!” The nickname stuck, and to this day Stuart Tanks are often referred to as Honey Tanks.