93-year-old veteran visits Governor-General

TIM DONOGHUE
Last updated 17:12 25/01/2013
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PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ

COURTESY CALL: Major General Thomas talks with Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae at Government House.

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Major General W B "Sandy" Thomas, 93, last visited Government House in Wellington about 66 years ago to visit his former 2NZEF commanding officer from World War II, General Bernard Freyberg.

Now living in Queensland, Major General Thomas paid a courtesy call on Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae at Government House in Wellington this afternoon.

Lord Freyberg of Wellington was Governor General of New Zealand from 1946-52 and was particularly close to Major General Thomas in the Middle East and Europe in World War II.

‘‘This place looks very much the same since I was here with Freyberg (in 1947). The only difference is there would not have been a reporter in sight in those days,’’ Major General Thomas quipped after the meeting. 

Sir Jerry described Major General Thomas as a ‘national treasure,’ after the meeting.

‘‘He talked Crete to me so he probably talked Crete to Lord Freyberg when he was first here as well,’’ Sir Jerry said. 

‘‘Sandy is one of New Zealand’s treasures. He shared his memories of (Maori Battalion commander) Charles Bennett and Sergeant Haane Te Rauawa Manahi about the Battle of Tokrouna,’’ Sir Jerry said.

The two men also spoke about a former journalist and 28th Maori Battalion member Second Lieutenant Wattie McKay who died in Greece.

‘‘McKay was in the bag with Sandy (in Greece),’’ Sir Jerry said.    

Major General Thomas won a Military Cross after his exploits during the Battle of Crete in May 1941. 

The then 22-year-old second lieutenant was wounded during a counter-attack against the invading Nazis, suffering severe grenade and bullet wounds, and was taken prisoner.

While recuperating in a Corinth hospital on the Greek mainland, he made four failed escape attempts. 

After being declared fit by German doctors, he was shipped to the notorious Thessaloniki POW camp in northern Greece, from which he made one of the most celebrated escapes of World War II.

His exploits in Greece earned him his first of two MCs, the military's third-highest bravery award. He went on to command the 23rd New Zealand Infantry Battalion and fought in North Africa and Italy, earning a Distinguished Service Order.

He ended his career as Britain's final commander of Far East Land Forces in Singapore, in the 1970s.

Major General Thomas is one of two surviving battalion commanders from the 2NZEF during World War II.

The other is Haddon Donald, who commanded the 22nd Battalion and who now lives in Taupo.

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- The Dominion Post

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