Waugh's War

Discussion in 'General' started by Charley Fortnum, Apr 13, 2017.

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  1. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    An interesting article I stumbled across here:
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    Evelyn Waugh: The Novelist’s World War II Service
    Even at the still-vigorous age of 36, he could not be mistaken for a warrior. His physique already tended toward the pudgy. His ears were too large for the bubblish head that wore them. His bug eyes gave the impression of a man perpetually befuddled. His wispy moustache had no rakish appeal. His taste in suits was deplorable. Even worse, his parents had tagged him with the androgynous Christian name ‘Evelyn’ (pronounced with a hard ‘E’).

    As acquaintance Mary Pakenham remarked, he ‘was one of the few people who was not made more distinguished-looking by wearing uniform.’ Yet, eccentric Evelyn Waugh would become an officer and play a part in some of the most hazardous, though little celebrated, British covert operations in the Mediterranean theater.

    By the time Adolf Hitler ignited the European conflagration, Waugh had already built a considerable literary reputation on his deliciously dark-humored novels: Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust(1934) and Scoop (1938). He had already fallen in love, married, divorced, converted to Catholicism, developed an affection for wine, remarried, become a father, and befriended some of the most ‘mucky’ of the English high muck-a-mucks — including Randolph Churchill, the rambunctious son of the future prime minister.

    His home and artistic life was nearly idyllic, yet he was not a happy man — bored with the superficial social whirl that he parodied with such sublime acidity in fiction, prone to bouts of depression due to the evil he clearly perceived across the English Channel, haunted by the spiritual impotence peculiar to approaching middle age. Waugh’s ennui was later vented by his Brideshead Revisited (1944) protagonist, Charles Ryder: ‘Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old.’ Thus far he had been an observer of life. Now he wanted to do his bit.

    Waugh pestered his well-heeled pals to wangle him a commission. ‘He had no use for cloud cuckoo war aims,’ his friend and biographer Christopher Sykes explained. ‘The only war aim was to win by killing great numbers of the enemy’s population and preventing them killing great numbers of one’s own; as for the utopians and air castles, they seemed to him not only silly but malign.’ Waugh was not bloodthirsty, he just had an accurate picture of victory’s cost.

    Alas, there were plenty of young chaps in ’39 who would do very nicely. The longish-in-the tooth novelist finally received a post in the Royal Marines, thanks mostly to the pull of cigar-chomping First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, who appreciated Waugh’s moxie. When Waugh appeared for his physical, the examining doctor ignored his unfavorable health report and brushed aside his poor eyesight, saying, ‘Anyway, most of your work will be in the dark.’

    Colonel Godfrey Lushington, Waugh’s commander during training, rated him as having ‘any amount of moral courage’ — which he had already displayed in his writing — ‘and [he] has self confidence when on subjects he knows. A little impatient, [but] with more military experience…he will make a first class Company Commander.’

    The colonel obviously did not spend much time with his pupils. Although Waugh was quickly promoted to captain, Christopher Sykes knew that Evelyn was ‘utterly unfit’ to be a line officer. A jolly companion with his peers, Waugh was often curt and contemptuous with the other ranks. He had no idea how to lead men, and nothing in his training had prepared him for effective command. When he ranted at the men in language beyond their meager schooling, the lads usually responded, ‘What is Captain Wuff on about now?’ The happy-go-lucky ‘writer chappie’ was learning that regular duty was not his cup of tea, and his attitude began, ever so slightly, to sour. It was a subtle transformation that he later described with such pathos in the first volume of his war trilogy, Men At Arms.

    Moreover, the action to which his battalion was assigned did not inspire dreams of glory. The men spent a week in South Wales cleaning up a deserted camp. Then, after much confusion, it was off to Cornwall. ‘Our task was to defend Liskeard,’ Waugh noted. ‘None of us can quite make out why anyone should want to attack it.’ Although he was finally in service, he began to despair of ever seeing real action.

    Then, via Brendan Bracken, a longtime acquaintance of Waugh’s who was now serving as Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s parliamentary private secretary, came a ray of hope. Sir Roger Keyes, director of combined operations, was raising a volunteer Commando force under Lt. Col. Robert Laycock, another of Waugh’s prewar London chums. ‘You ought to be with Bob Laycock’s tough boys,’ Bracken advised. Waugh immediately agreed, since Laycock had a sterling reputation as a combat officer. The Marines had conducted an exercise with the Commandos at Liskeard, and Evelyn was smitten by the tough-looking Commando warriors.

    Before Waugh’s application could be approved, however, the Marines were hustled off to help Free French General Charles de Gaulle in Operation Menace, his expedition to seize Dakar, Senegal, from Vichy control. As Prime Minister Churchill later explained: ‘Our information was that a large portion of the French officers, officials, and traders in all these [African] territories had not despaired….To them General de Gaulle shone as a star in the pitch black night.’

    On September 14, 1940, Waugh’s intelligence group landed at Freetown, Sierra Leone, 400 miles south of Dakar, and prepared for the main force’s arrival. Waugh and his mates busied themselves depleting the local gin supply and surveying the girls on the beach. There was not much pertinent intelligence to gather.

    When Menace kicked off on the 23rd, the Franco-British force was bedeviled by heavy fog and soon found out that the Vichy authorities had been strongly reinforced by very accurate shore batteries as well as naval and air assets. Two more attempts were made on the 24th and 25th, but, contrary to rosy expectations, the garrison put up a spirited defense, repelling de Gaulle’s attempt to get ashore in strength.

    The dejected invaders called it quits and retreated to Freetown to lick their wounds and drown their frustrations. As the prime minister later wrote, ‘To the world at large it seemed a glaring example of miscalculation, confusion, timidity, and muddle.’ To the lads in the saloons, it was a thorough ‘balls up,’ and Waugh griped to his wife Laura that ‘bloodshed had been avoided at the cost of honor.’

    Menace’s failure was not the only thing eating at him. Waugh was considerably older than most of his comrades, and the Marines’ youthful featherheadedness was growing tiresome. ‘I do wish I could meet an adult,’ he lamented to Laura. ‘They are all little boys…not one of them a mature man.’ This funk glared forth from the cynical Put Out More Flags, written during a dull stint as mail censor at Gibraltar.

    In November, however, Waugh’s spirits soared when the transfer to 8 Commando finally came through and he joined the Special Air Service (SAS) unit at Largs, Scotland, finding there a most congenial collection of’smart set’ chaps. ‘All the officers have very long hair & lap dogs & cigars,’ he wrote to Laura. ‘I have done nothing so far except take a cuckoo clock to pieces & play a lot of ludo.’ The ‘tough boys’ were not doing much that seemed so tough, still, ‘the whole thing was a delightful holiday from the Royal Marines.’

    His joy was tragically marred on the 30th, when his infant daughter Mary died shortly after birth. ‘Poor little girl,’ he grieved, the brevity of expression concealing the depth of his bereavement.

    The war, however, did not allow much time for mourning and, after yet more mucking about, 8 Commando was finally shipped off to Egypt. Alas, no one at the Alexandria headquarters quite knew what to do with this new force, so Laycock’s chaps were put on guard duty. But in April 1941, it looked like they were finally going to get ‘a biff’ out in the desert. Headquarters could not figure out what Rommel was up to, so on April 19, 8 Commando unit was sent on a night raid against Bardia, behind the Afrika Korps lines in Libya. Waugh thought it might prove amusing.

    As it turned out, the operation was little more than a Chinese fire drill. The first troops ashore accidentally killed their officer; another group wandered down the wrong wadi and were left behind and captured; one of the too-few boats was hopelessly grounded; and their only opposition was a pair of startled patrolling motorcyclists who skedaddled before anyone could draw a bead. The debacle, however, was not as demoralizing to Waugh as the ensuing cover-up. For his part, Waugh had to toe the headquarters line, but in his diary he vented considerable spleen about Colvin’s incompetence, the juvenile conduct of the fiasco and his having to lie about it.


    Continued Here:
    Evelyn Waugh: The Novelist's World War II Service | HistoryNet
     
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