David Niven’s War—Part 1

Actor David Niven (1909 – 1983)(Photo by Roy Jones/Getty Images)

In this year of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, one of the first people I thought of was the late, great, British actor David Niven. I believe I have mentioned, on more than one occasion, that I remain a huge fan of his work.

Despite appearing in many classic movies, he did, on his own admittance, appear in a number of ‘turkeys’. His reasoning was simple. He rarely read a script. All he did was ensure that plenty of his ‘chums’ were in it, ensuring much fun to be had, and accepted what ever role it was.

One actor he played alongside was Stewart Granger. Granger once complained that “working with Niven is impossible. You can’t compete against his bloody mustache!”

At the outbreak of war, he conned his producer, the legendary Sam Goldwyn, into letting him return to Britain to join up via a cable he asked his brother Max to send to Goldwyn that read, ‘Report regimental depot immediately’. Goldwyn, for once, was fooled and allowed him to go.

The reality is, despite him having served in the army – The Highland Light Infantry – prior to arriving in Hollywood, it was very unlikely that he would have been called up to fight.

It was simply something he felt he had to do.

Niven being Niven, rather than sail directly for Britain, chose to meet an old chum, Felix Schaffcotsh, in New York. He had met Felix, a Hitler supporting German, via their shared love of skiing.

They agreed to meet later in Rome were they had a somewhat raucous time, before parting to join the opposite sides. He also played golf with Mussolini’s son-in-law, Count Ciano.

On their last night, Niven and Schaffcotsh went to the Vatican to kiss a Swiss guard – for luck apparently. Then they embraced and went there separate ways.

Felix Schaffcotsh was killed on the Russian front.

Niven then set about returning to Britain by train from Italy via France. This caused some understandably jittery French officials to wonder if he was some kind of spy. “Why does an Englishman come from Italy monsieur?”.

After a brief interlude with a French lady, Claude, who had made a brief acting foray to Hollywood – an interlude that included the two making love with handkerchiefs stuffed in their mouths to prevent Claude’s lover, in the flat above, from hearing them – Niven finally arrived back in Britain.

Having served in the army previously, he decided to try his luck with the R.A.F.

The story goes like this :

He arrived for interview with a Group Captain, but unfortunately he was followed into the Group Captains office by a giggling wave of secretaries.

The Group Captain eyed him with distaste.

“Ever heard of Wilfred Lawson?” asked the Group Captain

“Yes, he’s a wonderful actor” replied Niven

“Perhaps he is, but we’ve had nothing but trouble with him. Drink!”

“Look” said Niven, “Lots of people drink, and I have traveled thousands of miles, at my own expense, and I’d like to join the R.A.F.”

“Well, we don’t encourage actors into this service” replied the Group Captain snidely.

“Then fuck you!” shouted Niven and stormed out, repeating “And fuck you too!” to an Air Commodore who happened to be entering innocently at the time.

Shortly after finding a home in the Rifle Brigade, Niven was invited to dinner by friends. Also on the guest list was Winston Churchill.

Spying Niven further down the table, Churchill rose, marched down to him and growled, “Young man, you did a very fine thing to give up a most promising career to fight for your country”

Niven stammered some inane reply and Churchill continued, with a twinkle in his eye, “Mark you, had you not done so – it would have been despicable!”

Niven developed a friendship with Churchill and, as Churchill was a great movie fan, often arranged private showings for him. Sometimes, Churchill would commandeer Niven for walks. On these walks he would discuss Hitler but never refer to him as simply ‘Hitler’, but always either ‘Corporal Hitler’ or ‘Herr Schickelgruber’

Niven, forever easily bored and eternally restless for adventure, left The Rifle Brigade to join the newly formed Royal Marine Commandos. He was slightly alarmed, though impressed, by two training officers, Mr Sykes and Mr Fairbairn, former police officers from Shanghai, who taught the new recruits a dozen ways of killing people without making any noise whatsoever.

He also started a relationship with a Danish woman who, he stated, was ‘a nymphomaniac of heroic proportions’.

He once sent her a telegram, prior to travelling to see her, saying “Arriving Wednesday morning – stop – Will come straight to flat with secret weapon”

He was met outside her flat by Military Police who took him to the headquarters of MI5.

An MI5 officer said to him, “You are a member of the most secret outfit in the British army. You are training in a prohibited area. Why have you sent a message to an enemy alien in code?”

Niven looked the MI5 officer in the eye and replied, “That’s not code sir, that’s fucking”

After joining the highly secret commandos, he was requisitioned by Churchill for a walk around Ditchley Park. He told Churchill all about the commandos and their plans.

Suddenly, Churchill stopped and looked at Niven. “Your security is very lax. You shouldn’t be telling me this” he said.

Niven never discovered whether Churchill was serious or joking.

If you were not aware of the late, great actors adventures during WWII, perhaps I could continue, with your permission, to tell you more?

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Posted by on June 9, 2019. Filed under COMMENTARY/OPINION. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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4 Responses to David Niven’s War—Part 1

  1. Glenn Geist Reply

    June 9, 2019 at 8:38 am

    I once saw Mr. Niven at the Stage Delicatessen in New York. He looked just like himself. Amazing to think he survived the military.

  2. Rachael Reply

    June 9, 2019 at 9:54 am

    Big Niven fan here. Loved the man.

  3. jess Reply

    June 9, 2019 at 11:59 am

    I wonder if his stories were just that, stories he embellished a lot to keep people entertained. There was another famous actor, Christopher Lee maybe, that supposedly had done all these heroic things and they found out after the fact he had been bullshitting when he had no need to.

  4. Neil Bamforth Reply

    June 9, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    Jess : yes, he embellished many stories for entertainment, but his military adventures in WWII have long been established as true.

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