Lady Freyberg in her Cairo office, New Zealand Forces Club, Egypt, 1942
Barbara, Lady Freyberg, was the mainstay of New Zealand Forces welfare and morale in the Middle East and Italy.
More than a General’s wife, Lady Freyberg actively and energetically led the welfare effort for New Zealand troops in Egypt and later in Italy (1940-1944). From her base at the New Zealand Forces Club in Cairo (established in 1940 by her husband Major-General Bernard Freyberg), she inspired and personally led a force of New Zealand welfare workers known as ‘Tuis’, part of the New Zealand Women’s War Service Auxiliary. The Tuis ran the club, served tea and refreshments, and provided a popular Kiwi-style home away from home for all New Zealand troops, including the 2nd Divisional Cavalry.
In addition to the club, she was focused on New Zealanders wounded in action and receiving treatment in Cairo, notably at 15th Scottish Hospital, where many serious head wounds were sent. She knew each man individually through her own personal visits and through her network of nurses and V.A.D.s (from the Volunteer Aid Detachment) she kept herself informed about their progress and recovery. She personally wrote – in her own hand – letters of condolence to the New Zealand wives, mothers and families of those who were lost. These letters were beautifully written, filled with details and information that she knew the families would not know, otherwise would not learn, and always would appreciate. The letters were greatly valued by those who in tragic circumstances received them.
One of her great responsibilities was the well-being of her husband, General Freyberg. He was famous for personally leading New Zealand troops in action – or ahead of the action – unmindful of his own safety and more greatly concerned about the safety of his troops. On several occasions he was wounded by shell splinters or by accidents in the field. Following these events, Barbara Freyberg patiently nursed him back to health. She worried about him constantly, as she did about her three sons (Paul Freyberg of the Long Range Desert Group, and two sons from a previous marriage, all on active service).
Lady Freyberg was invested as a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire Order in her own right in 1963. She died, still active and involved in New Zealand events in Britain, on 24 September 1973. She is buried next to her husband in the churchyard of St. Martha-on-the-Hill, the remote hilltop church near Guildford, Surrey, where they were married in June 1922.
Photograph from the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Lady Freyberg, member of the New Zealand Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, New Zealand Forces Club, Cairo, Egypt, circa 19 February, 1942. Photographer unidentified. National Library of New Zealand (Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa).