Cool and steadfast under fire. Sound tactical ability. In operations in Greece & Crete showed ability to meet unexpected situations. In command of the 10th Brigade in Crete he showed confidence, aggressiveness, power of command and an undefeatable spirit. His deep distaste of showmanship has given him a somewhat retiring manner, which tends to obscure his great ability. Has a deep knowledge of military history.
This is the report on New Zealander Howard Kippenberger after the battle of Crete, the action in which ‘Kip’ earned the first of his two DSOs. Written by Edward Puttick on 25 July 1941, it recommended Kippenberger for promotion to brigadier, the rank in which his reputation was made and from which he took the title of one of the classic memoirs of the Second World War, Infantry brigadier. Two qualities in particular attributed to ‘Kip’ in the report are important for what follows – the ability to meet the unexpected and a deep knowledge of military history.
The standard wisdom is that the latter is the enemy of the former. The British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart used to say – in his characteristically snide manner – that generals spend too much time thinking about what happened in the last war and not enough thinking about the one they are actually fighting. In reality Liddell Hart, who became a bête noire for Kippenberger when he was the editor in chief of New Zealand’s official history of the Second World War, used military history just as extensively as Kippenberger did. In criticising the abuse of military history, we can too easily dismiss its use – indeed its essential and vital utility. Without the context which it provides, students of war are like ships at sea without charts and for which the stars are obscured by cloud (at least in a pre-GPS era). We have no reference points by which to judge what is new or to frame the questions to be asked of what seems to be new; as a result we are disproportionately disconcerted and even frightened by its unfamiliarity. Nor, without it, can we understand how and why Kippenberger, a provincial lawyer, gained his reputation not in the courts of Christchurch but on battlefields more than half a world away from the direct defence of New Zealand.
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