Major-General Walter “Sandy” Babington Thomas died in Australia at the age of 98 last month. He will have a full military funeral in Nelson next week. Photo: Supplied

Rare military funeral for war hero

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The region will play host to the only full military funeral in recent memory when one of New Zealand’s most decorated soldiers is laid to rest next week.

Major-General Walter “Sandy” Babington Thomas died in Australia at the age of 98 last month but will be brought back to his home in Riwaka for a funeral worthy of his service to both New Zealand and the British armed forces.

Over the years he was shot at, bombed, stabbed and imprisoned during a “highly thrilling and successful military career,” according to his family obituary.

As a 17-year-old, Sandy signed up for the territorials in 1935, lying about his age in the process.

“He was a bit of a rebel,” says local RSA president Barry Pont. “He was a revered and a quite humble man.”

Representatives of New Zealand’s military will attend the funeral, as well as an honour guard and firing party.

Barry says he can’t remember when such an honour was afforded to such a distinguished soldier.

Sandy served in the Middle East, Italy and Japan during his 32-year military career and became the youngest commander of a New Zealand infantry battalion at war at the age of 24. After WW2 he joined the British armed forces.

He was decorated for bravery four times, received the Military Cross twice and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the New Zealand Operational Service Medal. He also received the Silver Star from the United States army.

Sandy was wounded and became a prisoner of war on Crete in World War II, but not before earning the Military Cross for bravery.

“He was an inspiration to his men, setting an example for cheerfulness, initiative and courage seldom surpassed,” his official citation for the Military Cross reads.

After he was captured, his German captors flew him to a prison hospital in where Sandy launched a series of daring escape plans. One had him playing dead and being carted out in a coffin.

This would have worked had he not fallen asleep and his snoring alerted the guards.

After three attempts Sandy finally succeeded in getting free on set off on an epic journey to the Holy Mountain on Mount Athos where monks hid him away.

General Sir Howard Kippenberger called him “one of the best officers I ever served with”.
After the war he joined the British army where he distinguished himself during the Malayan Emergency and then found himself in Kenya during the Mau Mau. When he was 51, Sandy became a Major General and was posted to Singapore as the commander of the Far Eastern Command.

He retired to a farm in South East Queensland due to the poor health of his wife Iredale.

“He set to work with his usual enthusiasm to singlehandedly plant and nurture thousands of trees and created a beautiful property where he lived surrounded by family and friends until his death,” his family obituary reads.

Sandy’s daughter Gabrielle Kervalla, who lives in Takaka, remembers he father as “larger than life”.

“He was very big hearted and loved a good laugh. As a daughter there was never a dull moment. He leaves a big hole.”

After WW2 Sandy travelled with his family to post war Germany and then to “hot spots” all around the world.

“It’s very difficult to realise that was who he was to us. It still didn’t make any difference. He was just our father,” Gabrielle says.

Bev Boucher of Shone and Shirley funeral directors says it’s a privilege and honour to help put on Sandy’s funeral.

“He deserves it all. He was such an amazing man.”

He is survived by his three daughters, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Friends and military colleagues are respectively invited to attend a memorial service at Motueka RSA on Monday 27 at 1pm followed by an internment at Riwaka Cemetery at 3.30pm.

Servicemen please wear service medals.