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Howard Kippenberger was born at Ladbrooks, south of Christchurch, on 28 January 1897, to parents Karl Kippenberger and Annie Elizabeth Howard. His father was a head schoolteacher and local Methodist preacher. His great-grandparents came to New Zealand from Germany in 1862.
His early school years were spent at Ladbrooks and Prebbleton, before his family moved to Oxford to take up a farm there, and he began boarding at Christchurch Boys’ High School. His secondary schooling was not very successful and he was asked to leave for lack of attendance and general poor performance.
In January 1916, Kippenberger joined the army, lying about his age by 18 months to ensure service overseas. He joined the New Zealand Division as it was heading to the Battle of the Somme and survived 23 days on the front lines. Following his battalion’s withdrawal from the Somme, he was made a battalion sniper.
On 10 November 1916, he suffered a serious arm wound that came from shrapnel from a New Zealand artillery shell dropped too soon. He spent two months in hospital in England before doctors recommended he be sent back to New Zealand as unfit for further war service. He was discharged in April 1917.
On his return to New Zealand, he enrolled at Canterbury College and pursued a law degree. By 1920, he had qualified as a solicitor and he moved to Rangiora to manage an office of the Christchurch law firm of Johnston, Mills and White, in High Street. After four years, he was made a partner and two years later he qualified as a barrister.
He married Ruth Isabel Flynn in Lyttelton, on 28 September 1922. They had two sons and a daughter. His home in Rangiora was ‘Oakleigh’, on the south-east corner of King and Queen Streets.
While in Rangiora, Kippenberger was very involved in the community. From 1927 to 1936 he was a Borough Councillor, and was captain of the Rangiora A Grade cricket team. He was also an avid golf fan, being a founding member and later president of the Rangiora Golf Club.
During the interwar years, Kippenberger spent much time in preparation for potential military command. He studied past campaigns in order to learn the theory of warfare and underwent military training to gain the necessary practical experience. He had joined the Territorial Force in 1924 and in July 1936 was made a Lieutenant Colonel and given command of the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment. When war was declared in 1939, he was given command of the 20th Canterbury-Otago Battalion and set sail in January 1940.
His battalion joined the war in the ill-fated Greek campaign of March-April 1941, during which they participated in several rearguard actions, and he oversaw the demolition of two strategic passes during the withdrawal phase. Following this, he was involved in the Battle for Crete and was one of only a few senior New Zealand officers to emerge with his reputation enhanced. His performance while leading the composite 10th Brigade earned him a DSO.
He was sent to North Africa in late 1941, where he participated in a number of offensives. In December that year, he was captured by Rommel’s Afrika Corps at Sidi Rezegh, but soon commandeered a truck and escaped back to his own lines with 19 companions. He was promoted to Brigadier 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.
His success meant he was seen as a likely successor to Bernard Freyberg as commander of the New Zealand Division, a job he had experienced in Freyberg’s absence. Once Freyberg was elevated to corps command, Kippenberger was appointed to command the division. Unfortunately, his first battle in charge was at Cassino, where the Germans had their strongest defensive line. His first attempt to take it was narrowly defeated, and while planning a second attack, 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 war prisoners to New Zealand, at the specific request of the New Zealand War Cabinet. It was an administrative task in which he was largely a figurehead, but he played an important role, personally seeing off each draft of former-POW’s and speaking to each man.
In 1946, Kippenberger returned to New Zealand and was appointed editor in chief of the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, leading a team of writers, researchers and editors to produce the 23 volume Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War.
In 1949, he published his own account of the war in Infantry Brigadier to wide acclaim, detailing his own experiences during the war. It is still often used as a textbook of infantry tactics.
In 1948, Kippenberger was elected President of the RSA, sitting in the position for the next seven years. His other community activities included being on the boards of the New Zealand Patriotic Fund, National Art Gallery and the Dominion Museum. He also received many honours in recognition of his war services, including a CBE in 1944, a knighthood in 1945 and an honorary LLD from the University of New Zealand in 1955.
Controversy surrounded Kippenberger over his views about the 1949 rugby tour of South Africa, due to the exclusion of Maori players. He saw it as hypocritical that Maori were good enough to fight for New Zealand on the battlefields but not enough to represent their country elsewhere. He was also somewhat vocal during the Korean War, criticising communists as traitors.
In the post-war years, Kippenberger suffered from poor health, being affected by frequent blackouts and headaches. On May 4 1957, he collapsed while his wife was preparing for release from hospital and went into a coma. He died the following day in Wellington Hospital of a cerebral haemorrhage. His wife died in 1967. Following his death, his military library was purchased by the New Zealand Army and is now housed in the Kippenberger Military Archive and Research Library, Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum at Waiouru.
On Anzac Day 1983, a brass plaque in honour of Kippenberger was unveiled in the Christchurch Cathedral, and dedicated by returned service men and women of Canterbury, commemorating a great man and inspiring military leader who became a symbol of New Zealand achievement, as well as the pain and cost of New Zealand’s war involvement.
Rangiora has remembered Kippenberger by renaming the road out of Rangiora towards Woodend as ‘Kippenberger Avenue’, and the Cenotaph site at the corner of High and Ivory Streets as ‘Kippenberger War Memorial Reserve’.