Story: Weir, Stephen Cyril Ettrick

Page 1 - Weir, Stephen Cyril Ettrick

Weir, Stephen Cyril Ettrick

1904–1969

Military leader, ambassador

This biography was written by J. A. B. Crawford and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Cyril Ettrick Weir, the youngest of the 10 sons of Cochrane Weir, a farmer, and his wife, Allison McKay, was born at Sandymount on the Otago Peninsula on 5 October 1904. He was always known as Steve, and added Stephen to his name by deed poll in 1960. Weir attended the local primary school and then Otago Boys’ High School, where he gained his matriculation in 1921. He was keen to pursue a military career, but budget cuts meant that the New Zealand military forces were not taking on new officer cadets. Instead Weir moved to Wellington, where he began work in the Stamp Duties Department in 1922. The following year he enlisted in the Territorial Force’s 6th New Zealand Mounted Rifles.

In 1925 Weir successfully applied for the cadetship at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, which had been secured by the New Zealand government. Although he was in theory too old to be a Woolwich cadet, his very good record as a school cadet and territorial, and his ‘strong personality, good physique’ and ‘soldierly appearance’ convinced the military authorities that he was a man ‘well fitted to uphold New Zealand’s reputation and to become a valuable Officer’.

At first Weir was handicapped at Woolwich by his inadequate grounding in mathematics and physics, but he overcame these difficulties and successfully completed the course. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal New Zealand Artillery in September 1927. He was attached to Royal Regiment of Artillery units in the United Kingdom and undertook various specialist courses before returning to New Zealand at the end of 1928.

Weir was posted to Fort Dorset in Wellington and promoted to lieutenant in December 1928. Over the next four years he held a range of posts in Christchurch and Wellington, which mainly involved working with Territorial Force units. In 1931 Weir was sent with other military personnel to carry out relief work in Napier after the city was devastated by an earthquake. He was appointed adjutant 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Auckland, in March 1933, and in May 1935 was promoted to captain. On 7 October 1936, at Auckland, he married Betty Catherine Winthrop. They were to have three sons.

Weir was seconded to the New Zealand Special Force, which was soon renamed the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF), shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939. He had a significant role in the formation and initial training of the 4th Field Regiment, New Zealand Artillery and the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment before being promoted to temporary major and acting lieutenant colonel, and given command of the 6th Field Regiment, New Zealand Artillery. Weir stood nearly six feet tall, but gave the impression of being much smaller, ‘for he carried the physique of a nuggety fighter, quick in movement, with the shoulders and voice of a bull’. He believed in ‘working hard and playing hard’, and showed great drive and determination in soundly preparing his command for action.

Weir successfully led his regiment in the Greek campaign and later in North Africa. His skilful handling of his guns and bravery in the savage fighting at Sidi Rezegh in late 1941 was recognised when he was made a DSO. In December 1941 Weir was promoted to colonel and appointed Commander Royal New Zealand Artillery (CRA); he replaced the highly capable Brigadier Reginald Miles, who had been captured. The following month he was promoted to brigadier. As CRA, Weir helped pioneer the reintroduction of the creeping barrage and the centralised control of divisional artillery in North Africa, and developed the highly effective ‘stonk’ (concentrated bombardment) and ‘murder’ artillery tactics. His careful planning and skilful employment of the divisional and other artillery units under his command during the second battle of El Alamein were crucial to the success of the New Zealand Division’s operations, and led to Weir’s being awarded a bar to the DSO.

After the New Zealand Division transferred to Italy in October 1943 Weir continued to perform well. He expertly marshalled the artillery support for the division’s assault across the Sangro River, and was a highly effective artillery commander for the New Zealand Corps at Cassino. He was made a CBE for his services in these battles. In mid June 1944 Weir was appointed artillery commander for 10 Corps. Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg was injured in an aircraft accident early in September 1944 and chose Weir to take over temporary command of the New Zealand Division with the temporary rank of major general. This decision greatly upset some older senior officers, but Weir capably led the division in the fighting for Rimini and in the Romagna, before handing command back to Freyberg in mid October.

At the request of the War Office, Weir was again promoted, to temporary major general, and given command of the British 46th Infantry Division early in November 1944. He quickly impressed his character and style of command on the division, which was not in the best state when he took over. He led his new command effectively in the offensive across the Lamone River. In January 1945 Weir’s division was transferred to Patrai (Patras) in Greece as part of the British force which intervened in the internal conflict there. The 46th Division was responsible for disarming guerrilla forces in the Peloponnese, and then returned to Italy in April 1945. For his service in Greece Weir was awarded the Cross of Valour by the Greek government.

Immediately after the end of the war in Europe the 46th Division undertook occupation duties in Austria. There Weir’s troops played an important part in the controversial forced repatriation to the Soviet Union of Russians who had emigrated after the 1917 revolution, and of Cossack units that had been fighting for Germany.

Weir greatly impressed his British superiors, who regarded him as an outstanding officer. He was made a CB in 1945 and a commander in the United States Legion of Merit the following year. Weir was also mentioned in dispatches for exceptionally meritorious service on four occasions during the Second World War. Difficulties about his pension entitlements and other issues frustrated his plans to transfer permanently to the British Army. Early in September 1946 Weir relinquished command of the 46th Division and reverted to the rank of brigadier.

Late in 1946 Weir became seriously ill, and spent most of 1947 either in hospital or convalescing in the United Kingdom. He was then attached to the War Office and attended various courses before returning to New Zealand in January 1948. In April he was appointed commandant, Southern Military District. During 1950 he attended the Imperial Defence College in the United Kingdom. Weir was then again attached to the War Office, before returning to New Zealand, where in November 1951 he was made quartermaster general. In 1954 he was a member of the New Zealand delegation to the conference in Manila which led to the establishment of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO).

Weir was appointed chief of the general staff and promoted to major general in August 1955. During the next five years he oversaw New Zealand’s increasing military involvement in South East Asia and the strengthening of contacts with the United States army. He was adamantly opposed to the Labour government’s abolition of compulsory military training, but, none the less, undertook the changes to the army’s structure which this policy entailed.

In January 1960 he was appointed a KBE and in August retired as chief of the general staff. He was then appointed military adviser to the New Zealand government. This new position involved advising the government on military matters which had external affairs implications, and attending meetings of the SEATO military advisers and other conferences. The creation of this post was in part due to the high regard Prime Minister Walter Nash had for Weir’s abilities. In October 1961 Weir relinquished the post, retired from the army and was then appointed New Zealand’s ambassador to Thailand. He was also accredited to Laos and Vietnam. He strongly supported the sending of New Zealand combat troops to South Vietnam in 1965. In addition, Weir was made the New Zealand representative on the SEATO Council. He spent six successful years in Bangkok before finally retiring to Tauranga, where he died suddenly on 24 September 1969. He was survived by his wife and children.

Steve Weir greatly enjoyed a wide range of sports and social occasions, and had a rambunctious sense of humour. His political judgement was on occasions suspect, but he was perhaps the most outstanding senior officer to emerge from 2NZEF. He possessed ‘all the qualities of a leader, determination, courage, endurance and the power to inspire men’.