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David Niven

Discussion in 'Celebrities and Entertainment From WWII' started by Dave War44, Feb 12, 2007.

  1. Dave War44

    Dave War44 Member

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    "Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you, had you not done so − it would have been despicable". - Winston Churchill to David Niven, 1940.

    Born James David Graham Niven in London on St. David’s Day, 1910.
    His father was Lieutenant William Niven, who died at Gallipoli on 21st August 1915, aged 25, while serving with the Berkshire Yeomanry. He was reported missing until 1917.

    He attended Stowe School and Sandhurst Military Academy. After he left Sandhurst he was asked to write down his three preferred regiments, he wrote 'anything but the HLI' (Highland Light Infantry) he was inevitably commissioned into the HLI.

    Although he had done well at Sandhurst Niven did not enjoy his time in the regular Army, in part because he was not accepted for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on which he had set his heart. He served for two years in Malta and two years in Dover with the Highland Light Infantry. While on Malta, he became acquainted and friendly with Captain R.E. "Wallard" Urquahart, who would later lead the British 1st Airborne Division during the ill-fated Operation Market-Garden campaign.

    Niven had grown tired of the peacetime Army and saw no opportunity for promotion or advancement. As he related in his memoirs, his ultimate decision to resign from the Army came after a lengthy lecture on machine guns, which was interfering with his plans for dinner with a particularly attractive young lady. During the period at the end of the speech, the Major General giving the lecture asked if there were any questions. Showing the typical rebelliousness of his early years, Niven stated that he felt compelled to ask, ''"Could you tell me the time, sir? I have to catch a train."''

    After being placed under close arrest for this act of insubordination, Niven claims to have finished a bottle of whisky with the officer who was guarding him and, with the connivance of the latter, escaped from a first floor window. En route across the Atlantic, Niven sent a telegram resigning his commission. Niven relocated to New York, where he began an unsuccessful career in whisky sales and horse rodeo promotion in Atlantic City. After subsequent detours to Bermuda and Cuba, he finally arrived in Hollywood in the summer of 1934.

    After the outbreak of the World War II, Niven forsook Hollywood and rejoined the British Army. First serving with the British Rifle Brigade, Niven was assigned to a motor training battalion. Niven later interviewed for a position with the British Commandos, and was assigned to a training area near Lochilort Castle in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Niven would later claim credit for introducing British hero Robert Laycock to the Commandos. Rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel by General Frederick E. Morgan and being assigned as a liaison officer between the British Second Army and the First United States Army, Niven took part in the Normandy landings, arriving several days after D-Day. He acted in two films during the war, both of strong propaganda value: ''The First Of The Few'' (1942) and ''The Way Ahead'' (1944). During his war service, his batman was Private Peter Ustinov.

    Despite the public interest in what celebrities did during the war, Niven remained politely, but firmly, close-mouthed about the subject. After Great Britain declared war in 1939, he was one of the first actors to join the army. Although Niven had a reputation for telling good old stories over and over again, he was generally silent about his war experience. He said once: ''"I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war."

    Niven also had special scorn for the newspaper columnists covering the war who typed out self-glorifying and excessively florid prose about their meagre wartime experiences. Niven stated, ''"Anyone who says a bullet sings past, hums past, flies, pings, or whines past, has never heard one − they go crack."''

    He did, however, finally open up about his war experience in his 1971 autobiography, ''The Moon's A Balloon'', mentioning his private conversations with Winston Churchill, the bombings, and what it was like entering a nearly completely destroyed Germany with the occupation forces. Niven stated that he first met Churchill during a dinner party in February 1940 when Churchill singled him out from the crowd and stated, ''"Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you, had you not done so − it would have been despicable."''

    In spite of six years' virtual absence from the screen, he came second in the 1945 Popularity Poll of British film stars. On his return to Hollywood after the war, he was made a Legionnaire of the Legion of Merit, the highest American order that can be earned by a foreigner. This was presented to Lt. Col. David Niven by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    Reputedly, he refused to work with Rex Harrison or James Mason − the latter was an avowed pacifist and Niven saw the former as late to the colours in the war.

    He died in 1983 of Motor Neurone Disease.

    Sources: Wikipedia and IMdb.
     
  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Some Boy, i recall the film ''The Way Ahead'' mainly due to Peter Ustinov's part as his Batman for some reason. :eek:i: Wonder how his relationship with Urquahart was after the War as this man was well respected by many. :thumb:
     
  3. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Read the other day that Niven was very fluent in the German Language and while working with the Phantom Reconnaissance Regiment he distracted German Guards when talking to them while his men went to work on a Sabotage mission, this is all it stated, no other info was with it. :eek:i:
     
  4. Dave War44

    Dave War44 Member

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    LOL why is it that I'd believe ANYTHING about this guy?:happy:
    Right that's it I'll get the library to order the biography in and I'll have a flick through it.
    Could David Niven have been a REAL James Bond ?
    Watch this space, but let's face it, he was.
    lol
    If only Smiffy was here... :lol:
     
  5. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Haha, where are they when you need them.. :wink: Go get the book Dave.. :lol:
     
  6. Dave War44

    Dave War44 Member

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    'Finally got the book, and thumbed straight to the bit where war breaks out. I will type up the gist of the hundred or so pages that reference the War as I get through it. Here's the first part, the meaty bits of pages 206-227:

    In the hours and days after war was declared, he drank solemnly with an Austrian friend – Felix Schaffcotsh - who was an “avowed Nazi”. Felix was also preparing to leave America – only in his case to join Hitler’s forces, and he was later killed in Russia.

    The route back to England for Niven was first by sea to Rome, and then by a three-days-long train journey out of Italy and through France. On the ship, Niven writes, were some “Hostile young Germans, who made it clear that the war had already started”. At Gibraltar, Niven was more than pleased when a British Destroyer stopped and boarded the ship. All the passengers and crew were interrogated and, ignoring the Italian captain's strong protests, the sailors removed some of the Germans. In Rome, he played golf with, among others, Count Ciano - Mussolini’s son-in-law. In France, he shagged a Dior model and Hollywood actress called Claude. While still in France, he tried to join the RAF, but was told he had to get back to Blighty to join up. Still, the recruitment guy pulled some strings and got him on the next mail flight to London.

    In London at this time, his recent films Dawn Patrol and Bachelor Mother were huge hits, and the newspapers forced him to lie low for a week or so. He then tried again to join the RAF. This time, it ended badly, with Niven shouting first at a Group Captain, and then at an Air Commodore: “ Fuck You !”, before storming out. It was difficult, during this “phoney war” stage, for theatrical types to join up, but eventually he managed to join The Rifle Brigade. In his own words: “The Rifle Brigade! Probably the most famous of all the elite light infantry regiments in the British Army….Army again….oh well !...I had achieved what I set out to do several weeks before in California….[but] I had a strange feeling of anti-climax.”

    Before joining his unit he had time to visit a Gentleman’s club, where he had his first, hilarious encounter with a crotchety old eccentric who turned out to be in Naval Intelligence – and whose name was Ian Fleming...
     
  7. Dave War44

    Dave War44 Member

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    A few days later it was into uniform and off to Salisbury Plain in a brand new Hillman Minx, bought for £190. Deep down he couldn’t be sure of what he was doing, and feared that he had not done the right thing by himself, maybe it was all just “to show off” he thought. Niven found that not much had changed in the Army: Lewis guns had been replaced by Brens; conscripts were new to him and not as enthusiastic as professional soldiers; they did not march into battle anymore but were taken in trucks…etc.

    The daily routine of training might have been dull, but out of hours Niven’s life was typically glamorous. For example:
    “A tall, flaxen haired Danish model, a nymphomaniac of heroic proportions, came down from London most weekends and I installed her in a cottage in a nearby village.” He was also determined to track down a beautiful WAAF he had met briefly before leaving London. His leave was spent in the company of the the great and the good, sometimes back in London, and here came his first meeting with Churchill as described in the opening post in this thread. Later, there were many “garden tours” with Churchill, but Niven was in awe of the great man, and regretted that he could not remember much of what Winston said during these meetings. He did remember that whenever Churchill spoke of Hitler, he referred to him as ‘Corporal Hitler’, or as ‘Herr Schickelgruber’.

    The phoney war dragged on, and eventually the boredom got to him. Then, in May, all hell broke loose, as Norway fell, Holland & Belguim were invaded and Churchill became PM. Niven got word of a new top-secret, elite force that was being assembled, so he volunteered. He was afraid it might be the paras, which he didn’t fancy, but it turned out to be the beginning of the Commandos. He was accepted and sent for training in a remote part of Scotland. At this point in the book he points out that some volunteers, like himself, were simply restless and in it just to escape the boredom of what they are doing at the time. Others, on the other hand, are “genuinely courageous….[and] itching to get at the throat of the enemy….”
    These people who “were made of sterner stuff” are detailed here, quoted word for word : [Sorry Penguin! ; )]

    Sadly, but not necessarily those listed above, many of the great characters Niven talks about met their deaths tragically young and during different campaigns later in the War...
     
  8. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Some great extracts here Dave, sounds like a good read you have there mate .. :thumb:
     
  9. Kelly War44

    Kelly War44 New Member

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    Well, well, well....You're maybe right about the James Bond thing....Ian Flemings early influences??:ponder: :thumb: :yeah:
     
  10. Dave War44

    Dave War44 Member

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    Thanks chaps. Just one more post to go after this one and I've covered his war service.

    The Commandos first raid was on occupied Guernsey. They had to use “RAF crash boats” as proper amphibious landing craft had not yet been built. The raid went well and a few prisoners were taken out of their beds. Another raiding party made a mistake and landed on unoccupied Sark. The locals took them to the pub. Shortly after these raids, and with the Battle Of Britain in full swing, the commandos role was switched from the offence to the defence. The idea being that in the event of an invasion these men would galvanise the underground movement.

    As the blitz raged on Niven found time and eventually tracked down “the WAAF” he had been interested in. They were married within the space of a couple of weeks. Niven’s uncle, by marriage, was a captain in the Royal Horse Guards called Robert Laycock. Niven suggested to him that he might want to join the Commandos, which he did. Laycock’s career became legendary after his efforts to blow up Rommel 200 miles behind enemy lines in the Libyan desert. Later, he reached the rank of major-general and was Chief of Combined Operations.

    Meanwhile, there was still a very real fear of invasion, and to deal with this a new and highly secret outfit within the Special Sevices was being formed, and Niven was ordered to join it. This was codenamed “Phantom” and was to do with the flow of up-to-date information from the front to the generals at the rear using radios, expert dispatch riders, and pigeons. Niven was promoted to Major and given the command of A-Squadron. These “Phantom” units were positioned all along the south and east coasts while the threat of seaborne invasion was real. They had to be prepared to go underground at any time, and so needed disguises at the ready. In Niven’s case he was equipped to emerge dressed as a parson. ‘A’ Squadron was attached to 5 Corps in a danger area behind Poole harbour, and the Corps Commander “..was a dynamic little man who demanded a fearsome standard of mental alertness and physical fitness…” This was Bernard Montgomery.

    In the autumn of 1941 Niven was again to talk with Churchill. At this time of course things were looking very grim in Britain. There was the constant threat of invasion, Rommel had been enjoying spectacular successes, the Russian campaign for the Germans was also going well, food was getting scarce, and the whole of Europe was under German domination. Niven asked Winston:
     
  11. eireann

    eireann New Member

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    That is some impressive record. He is such a classy English gentleman that it's actually not surprising at all to hear about his war story. :cheers:
     
  12. brandon05

    brandon05 New Member

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    Thanks for sharing the experts and the history of him. I had no clue that he had been through so much. This was a very interesting read. I might just pick up that book.
     
  13. Cabel1960

    Cabel1960 recruit

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    Was it this, or was it that he knew something else, like the Japs were about to attack Pearl Harbour? :wtf:
     
  14. Dave War44

    Dave War44 Member

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    Good question Joe I've been wondering the same thing, and the same reason Niven got goose pimples I guess...
    :wtf:
     
  15. FREEDOM War44

    FREEDOM War44 New Member

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    I guess David Niven had to be a great person to give up hollywood to be a military service man.
     

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