Charles Whiting – A Life Well Fought by Steve Newman Charles Whiting, the British military historian, and arguably the father of World War II adventure fiction was a tough, no nonsense Yorkshireman born in York on December 18th 1926. His mother,Winifred Kerrigan, came from County Sligo, and his English father, Donald Whiting, was a regular soldier serving with the King's Own 8th Irish Hussars. Like many writers Charles seems to have spent most of his childhood reading adventure novels, and, in his case, any book he could get his hands on about Britain's military and naval past. When the eleven-year-old Charles passed his scholarship exams to York's prestigious Nunthorpe Grammar School in 1938 it was one of those defining moments that would turn the schoolboy into the soldier, historian, and writer. In the late summer of 1943 the sixteen-year-old decided he was going to join the army and see some action. But how? Then fate took a hand. Late one afternoon he and another pupil got into a very heated argument about pacifism. The other pupil, 'a nice enough bloke', informed Charles that he had no intention of fighting and that Charles was a fool to even contemplate it. The proud son of a military father was having none of that and locked the pupil outside on the first-floor classroom balcony where he left him overnight. In the morning the unrepentant Charles was hauled before the 'Beak' for a rigorous dressing down, which resulted in an even more determined young man marching out of school to the nearest recruitment office, where, after lying about his age, he signed on. His own adventure story had begun. After basic training Charles was attached to a reconnaissance corps within the 52nd Reconnaissance Regiment – who were themselves part of the Scottish 52 nd Lowland - who were, in October 1944, transferred from their base camp in Dorset (Bovington, where T.E. Lawrence, a hero of Charles', had served) to the Low Countries. Charles liked being in the army. He liked the discipline and the precision of military life. He remembered it as being the only time in his life he knew such order. It was also extremely dangerous, and although a reconnaissance corps might sound less frightening than an airborne regiment, or a commando unit, nothing could be further from the truth: “There was nothing high tech about being in a reconnaissance corps, you simply went ahead of the main force in an armoured car, or more usually a Jeep, and waited to see if the Jerries took a pot shot at you. If they missed you got a message back to the main force and then got out of the bloody way, fast!” He recounted this story to me not long before he died: “I remember one time we were pushing ahead through Germany, checking out likely places of resistance, and every half mile or so our outfit would send back a runner to a bunch of Signal Corps chaps who were a little distance behind laying a telephone line so we could more easily keep in touch with the main force. Everything went well enough for a while until the runner came back saying the line had been cut. Our sergeant then ordered a group of us to get back down the line, get the cut repaired, and find out what was going on. We found the cut quickly enough, and the signals chap who came with us soon repaired it. We then hid in ditch alongside the road a bit further up toward our own positions to see what, if anything, might happen. We didn't have to wait long either. Opposite us, on the other side of the road was a corn field, and I don't suppose we'd been in the ditch for more than a few minutes when we saw a group of figures come out of the corn. We cocked our weapons and waited. We then realised the figures were only children, albeit in Nazi uniforms, and were being led by an old soldier with a wooden leg. Before they knew what was going on we were out of that ditch and shouting loudly for them to put there hands in the air or we'd fire. They were frightened out of their wits, and
the old soldier kept telling them not to worry and keep their hands in the air. It was then that things started to get a bit nasty, with some of our chaps wanting to shoot them out of hand, kids or no kids. You have to remember we'd had a bloody awful couple of weeks of continuous fighting and we'd seen a lot of good men get killed, and all we could see were these kids in Nazi uniforms. I remember the corporal came under pressure to give the order to shoot. Thankfully our own sergeant, who was a real veteran of twenty-two, came running down the road bawling that he'd shoot the lot of us if we laid a finger on those kids. He then kicked the wooden leg from under the old soldier and threw it into the cornfield telling him to go and find it and stop being such a silly bugger. He then gave those kids a good kick up the backside and told them to run home to their mothers or he'd order us to blow their heads off. They got the message. We were then given a verbal lashing to end all verbal lashings and told to get back up the line and start doing some bloody reconnaissance.” And it's that kind of moral dilemma you will find at the heart of Charles' fiction, which puts a lie to the criticism he's had to endure at times that his war fiction is too sensational and too violent. I believe his war fiction to be a truthful account of how things really were, in all their political in-correctness and horror. He was there. Charles and his corps fought all the way to Berlin, either attached to the British 52 nd Lowland, or the American 101st Airborne. And it was during these latter stages of the war that Charles Whiting the historian began to observe (and he was well placed to do so) the conflicts that were becoming all too apparent between the British and the American top brass, a conflict that has been at the centre of many of his historical works, but seen from a particular point of view. “I wanted my books to be different from the typical military histories of the day. I didn't want them to be about strategy or the daily comings and goings of the top brass, but about the ordinary squaddie and what it was like to sleep, eat, live – perhaps die – in a muddy hole in the ground.” After demobilisation in 1948 he studied modern history at the universities of Leeds, London, Kiel, Cologne, Mainz and Saarbrücken. And it was during this period that he wrote his first novel The Frat Wagon, which is an amazing story about the pitfalls of fraternisation in post-war Germany. It was something of a best-seller too, earning Charles his university tuition fees back within a few months. “I wrote the thing in 1953 when I was in my last year at university and pretty bored. When I'd finished it I stabbed a pin into a name in an authors guide and sent the manuscript off – although I didn't know it at the time – to one of the leading publishers in the world, Jonathan Cape. I had a letter a couple of days later asking me to 'come by next time you're in town.' I was there the following morning hammering on the door.” After university and the publication of his first novel Charles worked in a German chemical factory, then for several American fashion companies as a public relations man, before becoming a lecturer in military history with the American Army in Germany. This was the start of Charles' extensive academic life, which eventually brought him the position of an associate professor of modern history at the universities of Bradford (where he started a European studies department), Bielefeld, Saarbrücken, Hull, and Maryland. During this time he was also the German correspondent for The Times and a contributor to The Times Educational Supplement, as well as writing scores of features for magazines ranging from the International Review of Linguistics and Soldier to Playboy. Charles didn't stop writing novels either, and in 1956 won the George Dowty Prize for Literature at that years Cheltenham Festival of Literature for his second novel, Lest I Fall, which was optioned by Rank, but, sadly, never turned into a film. In the 1970s he became a full-time writer, and when Anthony Cheetham asked him if he would write a series of novels from the
German point-of-view he was on his way. “It was Leo Cooper [one of the first people to publish Charles' work, and the husband of Jilly Cooper] who introduced me to Cheetham at the Frankfurt Book Fair, who then asked me out to lunch. I had visions of a decent steak and a good bottle of wine in one of the city's fine hotels, but no, we ended up outside, in the middle of a raging snow storm, eating hot dogs and drinking beer. Anyway, I agreed to a six book deal, invented the name Leo Kessler: Leo after Leo Cooper, and Kessler because it sounded, well, German I suppose. It was a good deal, even though I ended-up paying for the hot dogs and the beer.” The books started pouring out, and, by the 1980s, under pen names such as Duncan Harding, Klaus Konrad, Ian Harding, Richard Douglas, and John Kerrigan, had sold in their millions. I first came into contact with Charles a few years back when I decided to write a play about Ernest Hemingway. Naturally enough, after reading Charles' Hemingway Goes To War I asked for his opinion of my ideas, to be met with a torrent of plots and counter ideas, and “did I realise that...”, or “did I know that on July 10 th Hemingway...” and so on. But in the end he said it was a brilliant idea for a play and that I should go ahead, which I did. What I do know is that without his initial interest – and letter after letter came as a result of our telephone conversation – my heap of ideas (and that's all they were) would never have turned into a coherent play with a central idea that Hemingway was a man shaped and conditioned by war. Some years ago Charles, and his wife Gill, were climbing in the Bavarian Alps researching for a new book called Hitler's Court, when Charles fell and damaged a leg, resulting in an amputation some months later. For some much younger writers that would have meant giving up work for a bit of a rest. Not Charles. I think throughout the period after the fall, and up to his death, Charles completed some fifteen new titles, re-sold dozens of out of print titles to the Eastern European market (who have been starved of WWII fiction), wrote numerous articles for WWII magazines, at the same time remained a charming and generous host to all who called on him. He was a dear and lovely man, and a writer and historian of huge influence, passion, and above all, love. His was a life well fought. He died in 2007.
Published on Aug 12, 2013
A tribute to the life of Charles Whiting, the English author and war historian, by his friend Steve Newman. www.charleswhiting.co.uk