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Phantom was a communications regiment. The purpose was to infiltrate behind enemy lines and radio back what was going on regarding enemy numbers and equipment and so forth.
According to Niven, the communications back from behind enemy lines were not always entirely as helpful as planned as in,
“The situation is unclear as the whole place is full of Germans!”
On one of his walks with Churchill, he asked whether Churchill thought ‘the Americans will ever come into the war?’
Churchill replied, “Mark my words, something cataclysmic will occur!”
Four weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Niven reminded Churchill of what he had said and asked, “What made you say that sir?”
Churchill’s reply sent shivers down Nivens spine. “Because, young man, I study history!”
Towards the end of the war, American newsman, John McClain, a good friend of Niven for many years, offered him a lift in his jeep, pinning a German Iron Cross medal on him.
The jeeps driver, an American sergeant, was asked by McClain to avoid a certain bridge as the Germans were targeting it.
The driver said “The way I see it Lieutenant, it’s either got your name on it, or it hasn’t”. McClain reportedly replied, “Well, it may have your fucking name on it sergeant, but it doesn’t have mine!”, and the sergeant promptly found an alternative route.
One evening Niven dined at the Panier d’Or restaurant in Bruges in Belgium, only hours after the Canadians had taken the town from the Germans. After the meal, he set off back for his unit and was stopped by a Canadian patrol just outside of Bruges.
They advised him that, while he was enjoying his meal, the Germans had begun a vicious counter attack and, within literally minutes of him leaving the restaurant, the center of Bruges was again literally crawling with Germans!
Just after May 8th, when the war was officially over, he was driving near a small village in Germany called Brunswick. He saw a horse and cart go by, but realized that one occupant had heavy army field boots on under farmers clothing.
He stopped the cart and pointed his pistol at the man, asking him, in faltering German, where he was going.
“I speak English” replied the booted one, “We are not armed”.
He then confessed that he was a German General trying to get home to his family.
Niven saluted him, told him to get home safely and added “please cover up your bloody boots!”
My father, briefly, served under David Niven in ‘Phantom’. He is even vaguely mentioned in Nivens autobiography, ‘The Moons A Balloon’ as ‘a Lancastrian’. Niven often wrote to men who served under him during WWII, my father included. Sadly, the letters have long ago been lost.
I met him precisely once – at a reunion of some of the men from ‘A Squadron’ of Phantom that my father took me to as a young boy.
I can confirm, even from that brief meeting, that David Niven was, by any standards, a true English gentleman with a twinkle in his eye and a marvelous sense of humor.
Days before he died from Motor Neuron disease, he wrote to a friend a sage piece of advice about life.
“Don’t stretch the elastic too far old chum, because it snaps”