There were five Freyberg brothers, three in particular stand out as swimmers, yachtsmen, and fighters. The eldest, Oscar and Paul, while still teenagers worked their passage to South Africa where they fought with Australian mounted forces; there Oscar was wounded during the siege at O’okiep. Along with the youngest Bernard, they rode with the strike breakers during the troubles of 1913. They were each, like their parents, highly intelligent, physically strong, and courageous; what separated them was that Oscar didn’t care who knew it, Paul did his best to hide it, and Bernard made damned sure the right people knew it.
This article focuses on the keenest sailors of the family, Oscar (below left) and Paul (below right, in one of his rare moments with rank of Lance Corporal).
Oscar Freyberg was the eldest of five brothers; Paul, Cuthbert, Claud and Bernard followed in that order.
Oscar was born in 1881 in London, and migrated to NZ as a boy when his Civil Servant father was appointed as a Forestry specialist in Wellington. The boys gravitated to the sea, becoming swimming champions and making regular sailing expeditions in pretty much anything that might float. Oscar was the eldest, and owned many boats from the 1890s. He was fearless and forthright, and attracted a kind of mythology about him in feats of Boys’ Own derring-do. Some of which (for example the time he thought it would be a good idea to jump overboard onto a shark’s back in the berley-filled waters adjacent to the seafood processing factories at Petone) might have had a grain of truth in them.
Oscar’s first real boat was a little ten-footer Taipu. At twelve years old he and a friend attempted a Cook Strait crossing in her, but were turned back by a strong southerly. One of his fondest yachting memories sailing this boat took place during the 1893 PNYC opening day when he called starboard rights on the 50-footer Maritana, and got it. Through the 1890s he traded up through the 14 footer Kura (also known as Bluie, in which he voyaged to Palliser and back) through Haeata, Ariel, Neva, Mapu, each of which, along with his brothers and friends, he cruised regularly to the Marlborough Sounds. Around 1904 he purchased the well-known Viking, which he sold in 1907. He went boatless for the next five or six years, perhaps trying to settle down into his studies and work, and saving his pennies.
Oscar had acted as an official for the Arawa Sailing Club, and from 1910 was active in the administration of the Port Nicholson Yacht Club as a committee man. He was appointed vice commodore at the AGM 27 September 1912. He wasn’t re-elected the following year though he stayed on in the committee.
In the parlance of the time, Oscar comes across as a “pusher”. He was vociferous in meetings, active in club affairs. His forthrightness is well illustrated via the letters columns of the NZ Yachtsman in 1914 over the affair of the collision between Atalanta and a pilot boat. Correspondence became heated, long-winded and vitriolic. Oscars’ attitude, though factually sound, would not have endeared him to Club members and the yachting fraternity in general. The editors finally had to call an end to it by announcing their refusal to publish anything further on the matter.
Oscar was a sports journalist, reporting on yachting for the Evening Post. From 1910 to 1912 he wrote a regular column and edited the yachting content of the engineering magazine Progress. In it he regaled his readers with firm opinion and stories where he featured front and centre. He was a good writer, though his style was in strong contrast to the writing of his brother Paul, a regular contributor to the New Zealand Yachtsman under the pseudonym Boat ‘arbour Bill, whose writing is charming, witty, and genuinely humble.
Oscar (according to Oscar, and probably true) was the conceiver and driver behind the Port Nicholson Yacht Club ocean races (now known as offshore races). The first one took place in 1911 to Port Underwood and back. Oscar acted as master on board the Viking, which he had just sold to Charles Headland. The strait turned her usual difficult conditions, and of six entrants, only three completed the course. Third across the line, Viking was victorious thanks to her handicap. The race was reported on in the NZ Yachtsman 11 March 1911 and local newspapers.
In 1913 Oscar purchased the Siren which was locally built by Norman Anderson in 1894/95 as a heavy cruiser. She was of the right size for the A class, but needed a lot of work to make her a racer. Oscar set to work on her with a will, completely overhauling her by repositioning the mast, designing a new sail plan, redistributing the external and internal ballast, and stripping her out. With this done he muscled his way into the top level of yachting, in an attempt to single-handedly reinvigorate big yacht racing, which had been in steady decline in Wellington since the late 1890s.
Who knows? He may well have achieved it had not war intervened.
Oscar and Bernard both joined the British Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1915 with commissions as sub-lieutenants. Yachtsmen from Britain and her colonies were in demand for the Reserve, which was put to work primarily on patrol duty. The nature of the work suited yachtsmen, who routinely navigated unknown waters in all conditions, were by and large familiar with engines, and the entire workings of a vessel. They were also used to working in small crews, with a less strict chain of command, with an ability to judge when to take initiative. These were not attributes generally encouraged by the regular Navy.
Typically, Oscar found himself in the centre of activity in the North Sea. Patrolling in trawlers, he had the pleasure of three vessels torpedoed out from under him by U-boats, earning himself a DSO in the process.
Not one to sit and take this sort of business, Oscar decided to do some thinking and take the fight to the submarines. He thought back on the whaling techniques of the Cook Strait, where long powerful boats of light displacement, carrying harpoon guns on the bow sped out to sounding whales for harpooning (one gushing contemporary reporter has him hunting the whales himself). Oscar teamed up with a draftsman and designed a sleek, powerful and fast vessel which carried a large gun on its foredeck and little else, and presented it to the admiralty.
The design (or one very like it) was taken up, but much to Oscar’s displeasure (and many others’), the contract was given to an American firm. He was not the only one to come up with the concept, and others claimed the honour. It’s probable all the ideas presented to the Admiralty were considered and a suitable design commissioned to form a fleet. In any case, the vessels which became known simply as MLs were a great success. (Harold Kidd notes in the December 2019 issue of Boating NZ that he should also be credited with influencing the hydroplanes which were top secret until 1919).
In early 1915 Oscar was attached to the Collingwood Battalion after it had been destroyed after several days of shelling at Antwerp in October 1914. From this action only 22 men returned to England fit for service. The Collingwood was one of several naval battalions created from the reserve for action on land. Though in practice infantry battalions, they maintained naval traditions among the officer class, including the use of blue uniforms.
Once the Collingwod battalion was rebuilt, it was shipped to Gallipoli as reinforcements in late May 1915. Younger brother Bernard had already arrived with the Hood Battalion, actually being the first of the allies to land, swimming ashore to light diversionary flares (earning his first DSO for his trouble). Bernard earned one of his nicknames (Khaki Jack) due to his sensible idea of wearing khaki, rather than the blue the other officers affected.
The Collingwoods were sent over the top on 4th June and Oscar was killed almost instantly, along with over 90% of the battalion in a machine gun enfilade. The Collingwood Battalion had seen only about seven days of frontline service and had twice been wiped out. It wasn’t raised again.
Paul was the second-born of the Freyberg boys, and a law clerk. He was the tallest and burliest of the brothers, which belied what comes through in his writings a gentle and easy-humoured nature. During his youth he was a champion swimmer, particularly over long distances. He was a keen yachtsman, and accompanied Oscar on his adventures around the coasts of the lower North Island and across the strait, as well as being a sought-after crewman for first class yachts and cruising trips.
Oscar was without a vessel for the first time since their childhood in Christmas 1911. Instead of his usual boating holiday, Paul took a walking tour in the Tararuas, wrote up the humorous adventure, and submitted it to the NZ Yachtsman under the nom de plume Boat ‘arbour Bill.
The story was taken up and from then until his death, Paul was a regular contributor to the magazine, writing up stories of Wellington yachting past and present, filled with humour and adventure. He took great interest in social history and customs, and corresponded with Elsdon Best on the topic from the trenches.
As a teenager, Paul worked his passage to South Africa where he and his brother Oscar saw action with Australian forces in the Boer War. This was rather a canny move on a few points: Paul was only 17 at the time, and may have had trouble first in joining, and secondly, getting a fighting role if joining up in New Zealand. Being on the spot meant they could seek out the action, and join in. This is exactly what happened when they joined the 3rd New South Wales Imperial Bushmen, which was a regiment raised from remnants of other units already in South Africa.
Like many young men of his generation Paul was in the territorials before WWI, and in 1913 Oscar, Paul, and Bernard all joined the infamous mounted strikebreakers who acted so brutally on the Wellington waterfront. It seems fair to say the boys genuinely loved a good stoush.
Paul joined up as a rifleman shortly after Oscar’s death at Gallipoli. Uncomfortable in authority, through the war he kept finding himself promoted, but reverted to private at the first opportunity.
At Ypres in 1917 Paul received serious shrapnel wounds which took away his right eye and jaw. He died from these wounds in a field hospital several days later, aged 32. His brother Bernard named his son after him.
Upon hearing of Paul’s death, Elsdon Best wrote this eulogy, which was often recited by Bernard:
Today the winds are loose
And crying goes the rain.
While here we walk the field they knew
The dead who died in pain.
The field that wait the slow hours long
For sounds that shall not come.
In other fields, in other earth
The laughing hearts are dumb.