Story: Kippenberger, Howard Karl

Page 1 - Biography

Kippenberger, Howard Karl

1897–1957

Lawyer, military leader, historian

This biography was written by Glyn Harper and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Howard Karl Kippenberger was born at Ladbrooks, south of Christchurch, on 28 January 1897. He was the eldest child of Karl Kippenberger, a head teacher and Methodist local preacher, and his wife, Annie Elizabeth Howard. His great-grandparents had emigrated from Germany in 1862.

Howard attended school at Ladbrooks and later at Prebbleton. When the family moved to Oxford to take up farming, he went to board in Christchurch in order to attend Christchurch Boys’ High School. His secondary schooling was not a great success, and he was invited to leave for lack of attendance and general poor performance.

Kippenberger enlisted in the New Zealand army in January 1916, advancing his age by 18 months to ensure he would serve overseas. Joining the New Zealand Division just as it was committed to the third phase of the battle of the Somme on 15 September 1916, he survived this nightmare of trench warfare, experiencing constant artillery barrages and taking part in two frontal attacks. During his 23 days in the front line all of Kippenberger’s close friends in the Canterbury Battalion were killed or wounded.

After the division was withdrawn from the Somme, Kippenberger was made a battalion sniper. On 10 November 1916 he was wounded in the arm by shrapnel from a New Zealand artillery shell that had dropped short of its mark. The wound was serious, and his arm was temporarily paralysed with some doubt as to whether he would ever regain full use of it. He was hospitalised in England for two months. On 18 December 1916 the medical authorities recommended that he be returned to New Zealand as unfit for war service for 12 months. He was discharged from the army in April 1917.

Kippenberger then turned to the law for a career. He enrolled at Canterbury College, and by 1920 had qualified to practise as a solicitor. He moved to Rangiora to manage an office of the Christchurch law firm of Johnston, Mills and White. Four years later he was made a partner. He qualified as a barrister in 1926. On 28 September 1922 Kippenberger married Ruth Isabel Flynn at Lyttelton; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

Kippenberger kept busy in Rangiora. From 1927 to 1936 he served on the borough council, chairing the finance committee in 1931. He pursued his passion for cricket as a slow bowler, and captained the Rangiora A grade side. A keen golfer who played off a handicap of eight, he was a founding member and later president of the Rangiora Golf Club.

What marked Kippenberger out from the ordinary during these years was his preparation for potential military command. This involved an intensive study of past campaigns in order to master the theory of warfare, and then military training to convert this theory into practice. He joined the Territorial Force in 1924, and on 14 July 1936 was made a lieutenant colonel and given command of the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment. In September 1939, when war was declared on Germany, Kippenberger was given command of the 20th Canterbury–Otago Battalion, and in January 1940 he again sailed for war.

Like all the units of the division, 20th Battalion had to be built up from scratch and first saw action in the ill-fated Greek campaign of March–April 1941. Most units spent many days preparing fortified positions only to evacuate them without firing a shot. The division was involved in several rearguard actions, yet for most the campaign resembled one long withdrawal – the hardest and most tiring of all the phases of war. Kippenberger commanded his battalion well and did not lose control of it during the difficult stages of the withdrawal. He also oversaw the demolition of two strategic passes, which he carried out with great coolness and determination.

The withdrawal from Greece was followed by the battle for Crete. In a campaign that highlighted the command failings of the New Zealand Division, Kippenberger was one of the few senior New Zealand officers to emerge with his reputation enhanced. His performance while leading the composite 10th Brigade earned him a DSO and marked him out as a cool and decisive battlefield commander. Throughout the campaign Kippenberger was well forward with the action. His quick thinking and command abilities prevented a rout of panicking New Zealand troops, while the counterattack on Galatos, which he organised, was a stunning success; unfortunately, it brought only a temporary respite. During the difficult withdrawal to Sphakia, and while suffering from a sprained ankle, Kippenberger kept an iron grip on 20th Battalion when many other units disintegrated.

Kippenberger’s next action, his first in North Africa, was in November 1941. Operation Crusader was a mixed success. During the fighting he commanded seven successful actions in four days and was promoted to temporary brigadier after the battle. He enhanced his own reputation during the campaign and was mentioned in dispatches. But he also made several serious mistakes, which led to his wounding and capture (he and 19 others subsequently made a daring escape). Most painful of all, his mistakes contributed to his beloved 20th Battalion being virtually annihilated on Belhamed.

Kippenberger’s appointment as brigadier was made permanent in May 1942. He developed his full potential as a military leader while commanding 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade in the desert campaigns of 1942 and 1943, and earned a bar to his DSO in February 1942. He began rather shakily with successive disasters at Minqâr Qaim, Ruweisat Ridge and El Mreir. But from August 1942 success followed success: Alam Halfa, El Alamein (where Kippenberger’s brigade was one of only two in the Eighth Army to take all its objectives), Medenine (the most successful defensive battle in North Africa), and the left hooks of El Agheila, Tripoli and Tebaga Gap. However, at the end of the campaigns in North Africa, a worn-out Kippenberger committed his greatest tactical blunder of the war. At Takrouna he marched his brigade into a lethal killing ground and the resultant heavy casualties reduced him to tears.

Kippenberger’s abilities confirmed him as the most obvious successor to Bernard Freyberg as commander of the New Zealand Division, which he had led in North Africa for short periods during Freyberg’s absence. In Italy, Freyberg was elevated to a temporary corps command and Kippenberger was appointed to command the division. Unfortunately for him, his first battle was at Cassino, the strongest part of the Germans’ defensive line. Kippenberger’s first attempt to take Cassino was very narrowly defeated, and while planning a second attack he was seriously wounded on 2 March 1944 when he stepped on an anti-personnel mine while descending Mt Trocchio and lost both his feet.

Kippenberger was hospitalised in England and fitted with artificial feet. He received the rank of major general, and in September 1944 was appointed to command the unit responsible for the smooth relocation of prisoners of war to New Zealand. The appointment was made at the specific request of the New Zealand War Cabinet. He held this post until 1946. It was an administrative task in which he was largely a figurehead and signing authority, the demanding paperwork being carried out by a dedicated staff who came to revere their new commanding officer. Kippenberger insisted on personally seeing off each departing draft of ex-POWs and speaking to every man in it.

On his return to New Zealand in 1946 Kippenberger was appointed editor in chief of the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. It proved an inspired choice. John Pascoe, the illustrations editor of the project, believed that Kippenberger was ‘the only man in this country who combined all the qualities of soldier, scholar and administrator necessary for editing an ambitious series of war histories’. He led a team of writers, editors and researchers, and the high quality of the 23 volumes produced under his editorship owes much to the vision and leadership ability of the project’s founding editor. Kippenberger held it together for its first difficult decade, during which there was a threat of its being disestablished and attempts to block the publication of three of the volumes. He firmly but tactfully turned such threats aside.

In 1949 Kippenberger’s own account of the war, Infantry Brigadier , was published to wide acclaim. The book is a detailed and well-written account of his part in the Second World War, and shows much of its author’s modesty, reflectiveness, soundness of judgement, humane concern for his men, and dry sense of humour. It has been translated into seven languages, and is still used as a textbook of infantry tactics.

In 1948 Kippenberger was elected president of the New Zealand Returned Services’ Association, a position he held for the next seven years. He was also on the boards of the New Zealand Patriotic Fund, and the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum, and was a member of the Canteen Fund Board, as well as being regimental colonel of the Canterbury Regiment. He remained a prominent public figure until the end of his life, although he was so quietly spoken as to be somewhat ineffective as a platform orator. Many honours and awards were given to Kippenberger in recognition of his war service. In 1944 he was made a CBE, and in 1945 he was appointed a CB and made an officer of the US Legion of Merit. He was knighted in 1948, and received an honorary LLD from the University of New Zealand in 1955.

Kippenberger was involved in controversy over his stand against the 1949 rugby tour of South Africa because of the exclusion of Maori players. After he publicly expressed his views in the Christchurch Press , there was a storm of protest from a rugby-mad New Zealand. While Kippenberger received many letters of support for his statements (including some from South Africa), the tone of the letters of condemnation was extremely hostile and aggressive. For Kippenberger, the issues involved in this dispute were very clear. If Maori were good enough to represent New Zealand on the battlefields of the world, this representation should not be compromised on South Africa’s rugby fields. It was a battle he lost. As he wrote to a friend, ‘I say it with some bitterness, Rugby is King and the dead are only bones’.

Kippenberger’s natural tolerance was strained as the Cold War gave more prominence to the issue of domestic communism. He gave representatives of the Communist Party of New Zealand leave to speak before the RSA’s national convention in 1950, but during the Korean War he publicly lambasted communists as ‘rogues or dupes or traitors either potential or intended’.

In the post-war years, Kippenberger’s health was not good and he suffered from frequent headaches and blackouts. On 4 May 1957, while preparing for his wife’s release from hospital, where she had been seriously ill, Kippenberger collapsed and went into a coma. He died the following day in Wellington Hospital of a cerebral haemorrhage. Ruth Kippenberger died in 1967.

Howard Kippenberger was New Zealand’s most popular military commander, and perhaps its most talented. He was of average height and rather slight in build and gave the impression of being wiry. Charles Upham said he had ‘a keen, alert look about him’, while another soldier said that he had ‘steely eyes’ that ‘bloody near looked into your soul’. No other New Zealand commander inspired such loyalty and devotion from those who served with him. In September 1943 Driver A. O. Eyles composed a military march he named ‘Kippenberger’. On Anzac Day 1983, in Christchurch cathedral, a brass plaque in honour of Kippenberger was unveiled and dedicated by returned servicemen and women of the Canterbury province: ‘ “Kip” was the most respected man in the New Zealand Army … He had a phenomenal memory for names and faces, he was no man to insist on rank, and his very manner of speech seemed to the Kiwis to be absolutely right’.

During the war years, and even more so after them, Kippenberger became a symbol of New Zealand achievement. He symbolised for many, too, the pain and the cost of New Zealand’s participation in the war. His military library was purchased from his estate by the New Zealand Army in 1957. It is now housed in the Kippenberger Military Archive and Research Library, Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum, in Waiouru.