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Lieutenant General Sir Leonard Thornton KCB CBE


I seek your indulgence in the impossible task that lies ahead of me this day for here in this quiet place we celebrate the remarkable life of an uncommon man and oh what a life it was. Lieutenant General Sir Leonard Thornton KCB CBE (Bill to his many friends) was indeed an uncommon man. How do you celebrate a life like his in just a few words? How can I possibly do justice to this giant of a man and great soldier who strode through life like some great colossus and whose influence affected all of those who served under him? This great Kauri, whom we all believed to be indestructible, now lies before us. Tane Mahuta is dead and I have the daunting, nay the impossible task, of paying adequate tribute to his great worth and goodness. His fame is secure. Here in this great cathedral we have come to say farewell to an extraordinary man and I do not use the word "extraordinary" lightly. I make no apologies for the superlatives, which are about to follow because he was a man of superlative talents.

I had the great good fortune, like many regular officers, to serve for many years, in his long shadow. In later years I like to think that I became a close personal friend. During the long years I served under his command I had to action many orders and requests that he made of me but this, his last request, I find the most difficult of all to carry out. In delivering this eulogy I know that I speak for all those who served under his direction down through the many years in which he dominated service life in New Zealand.

In reflecting on his life and times we should perhaps be grateful that he was spared as long as he was, given that he spent almost five years of active service during World War II in Greece, the Western Desert and Italy. I first met him when in April 1944 as a raw very inexperienced twenty-year old subaltern fresh out of Duntroon I joined 5 Field Regiment in the mountains north of Cassino. The Regiment was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thornton who at that stage was only twenty-six years old and already widely known and highly respected throughout the Division.

What an impressive figure he was. Tall and dark with a naturally commanding presence he was the epitome of the professional soldier.

I remember to this day the lunch which I had with the staff of his Regimental Headquarters before going on down to the gun line to join my battery. I particularly remember being over-awed by these battle hardened old warriors. Even more impressive however was the very obvious respect and esteem in which they held their young commanding officer. They clearly revered him and I don't use the word revered lightly. Not fourteen months later I was serving on the staff of the HQ of the Divisional Artillery in Trieste when Brigadier Thornton arrived to take command of the Divisional Artillery. He was by that stage twenty-eight years of age.

Born in Christchurch in 1916 Bill was a product of Christchurch Boys High School, a school that produced so many distinguished servicemen but none more distinguished than he. He won a scholarship and entered the Royal Military College of Australia in 1934 along with his life long friend Bill, later Sir William, Gilbert. The regular army at that time comprised 287 all ranks. It was in some respects a dubious scholarship to win. Trans-Tasman travel was at the expense of his parents and although tuition and accommodation were free, pocket money had to be provided from home. Records of that time show that Thornton and Gilbert were at the top of their class academically for the remainder of the time that they were at the College. Bill later recalled with mild surprise that more time was allotted in those days to horse management than to man management.

In the final year, 1937, Battalion Quartermaster Sergeant L.W. Thornton was awarded the Kings Medal - the first prize for academic excellence. Hockey and squash were his two principal sporting activities; he was also an excellent horseman. This was a time when all cadets took part in boxing. I am told that he exhibited special skills in the ring where his height and reach gave him a big advantage as a number of gunners were to find out in the ring at Fort Dorset just before the war during recreational training. I can personally testify to his skill on the squash court because for a goodly number of years in the 50's and 60's we had a regular lunchtime battle on the squash courts of the old Wellington Club. The game was always a little one sided. With his great height and long arms he was a formidable opponent, besides which as I used to tell my contemporaries it did not enhance one's promotion prospects to beat the General.

In January of 1940 some 700 raw recruits marched into Hopu Hopu Camp to form the nucleus of the Fifth Field Regiment. Captain Thornton was the Adjutant. Of the 700 who marched in only 7 had passed the University Entrance Examination. It was here that he started to make his mark. The officers and NCO's were all Territorials with scant knowledge of the Army. I quote from one of the Territorial Officers of that time who recently wrote, "Captain Thornton, by the sheer force of his personality and his consummate professionalism dominated the Regiment".

Bill's record of service during World War Two was outstanding. Battery and regimental command, critical appointments on the staff including brigade major, and a senior operational appointment at Divisional Headquarters from El Alamein to Tunisia. At Cassino he served as the senior operational staff officer of the New Zealand Division and of course his service with the Division was crowned with his promotion to Brigadier at the very end of the war.

He would not wish me to bore you with details of his curriculum vitae but in an era when memories of that period are dimming, I felt his war record was so unique that it needs to be retold. In a sense he was the last of the great gunners, that band of gunner officers who exerted such an enormous influence on the New Zealand Division. Miles, Parkinson, Weir, Queree. It is only right and fitting that 16 Field Regiment, Royal Regiment of New Zealand Artillery should provide the guard, firing and bearer parties here today. He was also the last survivor of that brilliant band of men Stewart - Gentry - Queree - Gilbert who were General Freyberg's principal operational staff officers. They were men who perfectly complemented Freyberg, men who in large measure made the New Zealand Division the formidable force that it was.

Sir Leonard's post war achievements were remarkable. His appointments on the Army Board enabled him to exercise a considerable influence on the shape of this country's post-war Army. He was the principal architect and implementor of the highly successful Compulsory Military Training scheme. His appointment as Head of the SEATO Military Planning Office in Bangkok confirmed his name and reputation, which was already widely known internationally. His long reign as Chief of the General Staff and then Chief of Defence Staff, covering a period of almost eleven years was unique. His balanced approach to all three services was a leavening factor during that long stewardship. In the latter part of that period he was intimately involved with Sir John Robertson, at that time Secretary of Defence, in a major overhaul of the Higher Command structure of the New Zealand Defence Forces. In many respects the shape of today's armed forces is a reflection of his vision.

Shortly after his retirement he was appointed New Zealand Ambassador to South Viet Nam and the Khmer Republic. He then spent two intense years in those war torn countries. A second retirement in 1974 was followed by the Chairmanship of the Alcohol Liquor Advisory Council. He was the first lay member on the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Committee. His Presidency of the Army Association and membership of the Army Memorial Museum Trust kept him in touch with the service he loved. I can speak with personal knowledge of his great contribution to the Museum during the years it was being built and of his ongoing interest, influence and help during the development of the Kippenberger Pavilion.

But I am also speaking of a man who had a twinkle in his eye, a refreshing sense of humour, and a remarkable tolerance for the foibles of the young Officers under his command. This very young Brigadier, during his days in Trieste set out to fill the cultural void created by the wasted years of the war. His spare moments were spent in absorbing as much as he could of the wealth of music and art so readily available. He became friendly with an Italian family whose members were all amateur musicians. The family string quartet specialised in chamber music. His enthusiasms were matters of serious concern for the young officers on his staff. Our brigadier encouraged us to share in his newly found interests but we had vastly different priorities.

We young captains had also become friendly with Triestinian families, not because of the quality of their string quartets but because of the beauty of their daughters. The war was over, spring was in full bloom, and the bands were playing in the cafes and restaurants along the beautiful Trieste waterfront. But there we were with our Brigadier seated in a drawing room high up in the hills above the city listening to this pulsating chamber music while down below our contemporaries were dancing the night away with the beautiful young ladies of Venezia Giulia.

One evening after receiving the Brigadier's pressing invitation to even another night of cultural delight, in desperation I asked that we all be excused on the grounds that we had been invited to another family's home for a musical evening. The following morning to my dismay he asked if we had enjoyed the evening and what sort of music we had been listening to. I by default had to act as spokesman. Somewhat rashly, emboldened by the success of our subterfuge, I said that we had spent the evening listening to Spike Jones and his City Slickers playing "Is you is or is you ain't my baby." To my great relief he roared with laughter and relieved us of any further stints of Chamber Music. It was an incident, that he recalled from time to time down through the years.

He was a very private man in many ways, a man of deep personal convictions with an extraordinarily high sense of duty. He never shirked from doing what he perceived to be right no matter how distasteful the consequences might be. There is no better illustration of this than his reluctant entry into the anti-nuclear issue and the anguish that he felt at being drawn into a very public debate. He later wrote and I quote "the premeditated and carefully planned tilt against authority, the reasons for it, and the consequences have loomed large in my memory simply because it was all so foreign to my own - and to my colleagues' - inclination and prior experience." I suspect that he is looking down on these proceedings right now with a wry smile, as today he has again been the catalyst for a reunion of "Geriatric Generals". There are a goodly number of admirals and air marshals also here this morning but they for some reason never seem to be labelled "geriatric".

It always seemed unfair to me that so much talent was invested in one man. He was one of those rare people who excelled in whatever endeavour he undertook. He wielded a fluent pen and was an eloquent public speaker. He was a very good painter, specialising in landscapes and nature in both oils and watercolours. He was a very good fly fisherman. His forays into television firstly as a presenter in the Gallipoli series and then as a writer and presenter in the series on Freyberg led to wide public acclaim. He was a military historian of some repute and wrote authoritatively on New Zealand's role in the Second World War. Above all, along with his close friend Sir John White, he was a fierce protector of General Sir Bernard Freyberg's reputation. His passing reduces even further that remaining small group of men who were intimately and personally involved with Lord Freyberg during the momentous events of the war.

Bill's home was at the centre of his existence. He was not a religious man in the conventional sense of the word, but he had deep-rooted values which were fundamentally Christian; a great love of his family and an abiding care and consideration for those around him. Our hearts go out to Ruth, Nick, Adam and the extended family at this very sad time.

There is a debt owed by this country to a man such as Sir Leonard Thornton, recognised by those who served under him, those who fought alongside him and those who were to be inspired by him. But although "debt" is a word to which he would strenuously object, I would like to read to you a message sent to Bill by a number of his old comrades. The message contained in a fax arrived at the Mary Potter Hospice the day before he died. I quote "Dear General Bill, We are just a few Auckland Gunners who served under your command. Our thoughts are very much with you at this time. We want you to know - again - of the respect, regard, admiration and indeed affection, which we hold for you. You gave confidence to us in battle by displaying the finest qualities of leadership, professional competence, personal presence, understanding, concern and compassion for your troops and the ability to make hard decisions with clarity and efficiency. You are the epitome of all the best characteristics of the most able and courageous type of New Zealand Regular Officer and Gentleman. We were lucky to have you with us in those difficult wartime days and to maintain the contact and friendship for so many years. Whatever the future holds for all of us we send our best wishes and thanks to you as a true friend, a great and good man. "Quo fas et gloria ducunt" translated "Where deeds and glory lead" which is the motto of the Royal Regiment. The names of many those whom Bill commanded are appended. No greater accolade than that could be given to a soldier

His military family is far reaching and I know that he will be sadly missed by his many friends in the United Kingdom and around the rim of the Pacific. There will be one elderly Australian general who was his great friend and classmate at Duntroon who will mourn him deeply. Brigadier Bob Gurr now living in Australia, who also had the honour of serving under Sir Leonard's command and was one of his great admirers, has been moved to write a small panegyric in verse. I have his permission to read it to you.

We who celebrate your life
Give thanks for your great gifts
In service to our land in war
In peace, and from your very core
You led and mentored those who served
With a discerning eye and hand
In unison we salute - a giant of our land

There is a verse in Ecclesiastes, which says "there is a time for everything under the sun. A time to laugh and a time to mourn, a time to live and a time to die". Sadly it has been his time to die and we that are left to mourn. I don't think he would mind if I finished with my own brief personal prayer.

In this great cathedral leave him
God accept him
Christ receive him.

Farewell - General Bill
May you rest in peace

MajGen RDP Hassett CB CBE
Wellington Cathedral 15 June 1999


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