Story: Miles, Reginald
Military leader, prisoner of war
This biography was written by Garry James Clayton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Reginald Miles was born on 10 December 1892 at Springston, near Christchurch, the son of local farmers William Miles and his wife, Mary Margaret Restell. He was educated at Rangiora High School and in 1910 was commissioned a subaltern in the school cadets. The following year he was selected to attend the newly established Royal Military College of Australia at Duntroon.
On the outbreak of the First World War Miles graduated as the top New Zealand cadet. Embarking with the 2nd Reinforcements in December 1914, he served as an artillery captain at Gallipoli and was badly wounded in July 1915. While in Egypt, on 26 February 1916, he married Aimée Zita Donnelly; they were to have four daughters and a son.
In France, Miles demonstrated his professionalism and courage. For his service as a battery officer during the battle of the Somme he was awarded the Military Cross in December 1916. In May 1917 he was promoted to major and given command of his own howitzer battery. The following year he was made a DSO (and recommended for the Victoria Cross) for undertaking a daring reconnaissance mission, at Ploegsteert Wood in April 1918, during which he was wounded by sniper fire. He returned to active service in July as brigade major of the Divisional Field Artillery, and was mentioned in dispatches in November 1918.
After the war Miles returned to New Zealand to take command of Wellington’s harbour defences. In 1924 he attended the Staff College at Camberley, England, and subsequently took a number of specialist artillery courses, marking him out as one of New Zealand’s leading experts in the field. Back in New Zealand, in 1926 Miles served at army headquarters before being posted the following year to command the artillery in Auckland. He remained there for 11 years, taking command of the Northern Military District in 1937 with the rank of colonel. During this period his wife, Aimée, died.
Regarded as an able commander and a capable staff officer, in 1938 Reggie Miles was selected to attend the Imperial Defence College in London. Afterwards he was attached to the War Office for three months as New Zealand military liaison officer. Returning to New Zealand in May 1939, he was appointed third military member of the Army Board and in September became quartermaster general, taking a leading role in preparations for war. The following January Miles was seconded to the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force as commander of the Divisional Artillery, with the rank of brigadier.
In May 1940 he was diverted from Egypt to take command of the United Kingdom Section of 2NZEF, deployed to counter the threatened German invasion. On 31 May, in Westminster, Miles married Rosalind Georgette Bisset-Smith. Soon after, however, he lost his son Reginald, a Fleet Air Arm officer, when the aircraft carrier Glorious was sunk on 9 June.
In March 1941 the Divisional Artillery was posted to Greece, where Miles was fully occupied determining how best to deploy his stretched resources in defence of the Olympus Pass. Later he skilfully organised their withdrawal and evacuation in the face of the German advance. That control and morale were maintained was a testimony to his ability and the rigid discipline he enforced. For his service in Greece he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Greek Military Cross (first class).
Hospitalised for exhaustion, Miles missed the Crete campaign before rejoining his division in North Africa. During the hard-fought campaign to relieve Tobruk (Tubruq) in late 1941 he again demonstrated his sound tactical sense and courage. On 1 December his 6th Field Regiment was overrun by German Panzers near Belhamed. At the height of the fighting the burly figure of Reggie Miles appeared alongside his shattered guns, quietly encouraging his men. According to one of them, he strolled forward with a rifle under his arm ‘for all the world as though he were going duck-shooting’.
The regiment lost some 275 men, including 57 dead and about 100 captured – by far the heaviest casualties suffered by a New Zealand artillery unit in a single action during the Second World War. Miles, who considered that his guns had been needlessly sacrificed due to misunderstandings between the division and corps headquarters, was wounded in the back by shrapnel and taken prisoner.
He was interned in a high-security prison for senior Allied officers in a mountain fortress near Florence, Italy. In March 1943, after five months’ tunnelling under the castle walls with a kitchen knife and iron bars, Miles and another New Zealand brigadier, James Hargest, made a dramatic escape. They reached Switzerland and with the help of the French Resistance eventually made their way to Spain.
Miles was made a CBE and received a bar to his DSO for his ‘splendid achievement in escaping’. However, on 20 October 1943, in a state of depression and exhaustion, he committed suicide in Figueras, north of Barcelona. He was survived by his wife and daughters.