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Evelyn Waugh: The Novelist’s World War II




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.

Waugh’s disgust was leavened a bit in May 1941, when ‘Layforce,’ as Waugh called it, got another mission — this time to assist in the rescue of the Crete garrison. The British knew that German General Kurt Student’s hardened paratroops of the 11th Air Corps were prepping to seize the strategic isle in a massive airborne assault (Operation Mercury). Back in Berlin, however General Franz Halder, chief of the German general staff, worried that ‘The delay for Barbarossa [the German invasion of the Soviet Union] resulting from this operation is very awkward.’


As Waugh’s unit steamed into Suda Bay aboard HMS Abdiel at midnight on May 26, ‘what they found…was nothing less than a vision of hell,’ wrote Waugh biographer Selina Hastings. ‘The harbour was clogged with the masts and funnels of sunken vessels, some of them still smoldering; the quay, heavily cratered by bomb attack, was littered with burned-out vehicles and abandoned stores, among which were slumped small groups of wounded men. While Laycock and his men were waiting to go ashore, a man wearing only shorts and a greatcoat burst into the captain’s cabin, clearly half out of his mind with terror….Evelyn, openly contemptuous, observed with distaste, ‘We took this to be an exceptionally cowardly fellow, but in a few hours realized that he was typical of British forces in the island.”

Waugh displayed commendable fortitude and plain, old-fashioned guts in gathering useful intelligence, collecting groups of dazed Tommies and directing them safely to the embarkation area, and helping to organize and execute what Churchill called ‘a strong rear-guard action’ that made a successful evacuation possible. Laycock was impressed by the ‘cool courage’ Waugh displayed even during the nerve-shattering Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombing attacks, which Waugh merely thought monotonous and described as being ‘overdone, like everything German.’

When Waugh returned to Alexandria, Chris Sykes noticed that he was very angry: ‘He said that he had never seen anything so degrading as the cowardice that infected the spirit of the army. He declared that Crete had been surrendered without need; that both the officers and men were hypnotized into defeatism by the continuous dive-bombing which with a little courage one could stand up to; that the fighting spirit of the British armed services was so meagre that we had not the slightest hope of defeating the Germans; that he had taken part in a military disgrace, a fact that he would remember with shame for the rest of his life.’

Waugh had formerly viewed the war as a noble crusade against the evil represented by the swastika. Although he was far from being an expert intelligence analyst, he fully realized that there was no material reason for Crete’s loss — it had been a failure of will, not resources.

For the next three years Waugh was placed on extended leave. The world is much richer for it because during that hiatus he penned his beloved masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, in which he managed to come to grips with the erosion of sacred ideals and the cloying tawdriness of much that he had witnessed.

With practically all of Britain’s resources tied down in Italy or committed to preparations for the cross-Channel invasion, Prime Minister Churchill still desired an active role in support of Marshal Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia and sent his own son, Randolph, to command the mission to Croatia. Randolph requested the service of his London drinking buddy, Evelyn Waugh.

Waugh’s selection for this mission puzzled Frederick Lord Birkenhead at the time because he knew the novelist detested communism and Stalin in particular, ‘whom he believed…to be one of the arch-murderers of history.’ As Birkenhead put it, ‘To Evelyn, our alliance with Russia completely deprived the war of the crusading element with which he had first invested it, and our Partisan colleagues’ derogatory remarks about the Germans…were to him merely a particularly nauseating example of Satan rebuking Sin. One could not fail to recognize that holding these views so strongly, he could be of little, if any use as a liaison officer with Communist allies.’

Churchill thought it wise to help Tito, but that did not mean he trusted the Yugoslavian leader. He hoped that having Waugh along more as an observer than actual liaison officer could help balance reportage from the Croatian contingent — especially since the team’s area expert, Stephen Clissold, was believed a bit too ‘pink’ in his sympathies. Further, as Waugh noted in his diary, Randolph ‘asked me to go with him to Croatia in the belief that I should be able to heal the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.’

Waugh was already recognized as one of the more prominent Roman Catholic laymen of his day. The religious schism in Croatia was indeed detrimental to partisan operations, since the feuding factions were battling each other almost as much as they were the Germans. Hence, if Waugh could bring his influence to bear to close this rift, he would surely help the war effort. Ironically, Waugh was available for this job because he had been a victim of the anti-Catholic purge of the Commandos by Lord ‘Shimi’ Lovat, of later Pegasus Bridge fame on D-Day, and had been transferred to the Royal Horse Guards.

Waugh’s part in this diplomatic effort is told in his fiction, via alter ego Crouchback, and the Yugoslavian episode is the focus of The End of the Battle. That operation would also be a sad, though not altogether unexpected, disappointment. For one thing, controlling Randolph Churchill was easier said than done. His father had had no luck on that score, and Waugh — who was much like Randolph in many respects — would be no more successful. Alas, what makes for rum-chumminess in the clubs of London does not necessarily auger as well in the close confines of wartime clandestinity.

While Waugh approached his duties seriously — even going entirely on the wagon during that time — Randolph Churchill partook, with gusto and great regularity, of the local beverages, rakija and grk (which could also be used to fuel a truck), and he succeeded in alienating most of the partisans he was supposed to assist. To keep himself in good spirits, Waugh fashioned a fantasy (one that later proved embarrassing to its author) that Tito was a woman. It was a most amusing story, but the Englishmen began to have ‘vague forebodings’ about spreading the tale, especially after Tito himself got wind of the joke.

In any event, the unavoidable friction between Waugh and Churchill was not the main cause of the mission’s failure. They tried to observe what they could. Their isolation in Topusco was not helpful, but the greatest obstacle was politics. If the prime minister did not trust Communists, they did not trust the British either. Hence, most of Waugh’s and Randolph’s efforts were wasted, except to gain a fairly accurate impression of the ruthless type of men who would take over Yugoslavia after the war.

For his part, Waugh was actually more successful than all the rest combined. At great risk to his own safety, he frequently evaded his Red watchdogs and contacted local Catholic clergymen, both Roman and Orthodox, to get a candid appreciation of Christian conditions in Croatia. His questions about Jews had long since already been answered by the Nazis.

He produced a very thorough and detailed report that — by March 1945 — finally found its way to the Foreign Office. It was a remarkable and alarming document. Although he could not and certainly would not say that the churches had been treated well under the German occupation, they had at least been allowed to exist. Under Tito’s Communists, however, they rapidly disappeared. As Communist power and territorial control increased, Christianity was eradicated — sometimes by the pen, most often by the sword. Moreover, the sectarian rift had been less religiously inspired than actively abetted by the Communists. It was clear that the persecution and murder of clergy, and the disappearances of lay faithful, were Tito’s doing.

Unfortunately, Tito had by now become Britain’s new friend, and no one wanted to hear Waugh’s criticisms. At British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden’s direction, a campaign was mounted to discredit Waugh’s report and its author, even going so far as to threaten Waugh with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. But the truth has an inconvenient resistance to such baldfaced manipulation. The report was too detailed and consistent to be a fabrication, and whatever his other faults Waugh was widely known as a scrupulously honest man. Moreover, one can easily imagine the royal stink that his literary pals — most of whom, ironically, were Labor Party supporters — could have raised if such threats had been carried out.

In the end, as often happens in bureaucracies, the offensive document was buried in the Whitehall files, and thus ended the wartime escapades of ‘Captain Wuff.’ However, a reasonably fitting coda to this unsavory episode was provided by Sir Anthony Rhodes in The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators. After chastising the government for it shameful behavior in this affair and indicating the ethical muddles produced by the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ policy that produced the 1945 whitewash of Tito, Rhodes vindicated Waugh, saying that ‘events in the Communist’satellite’ countries since 1945, still not abated today — the arrests and persecution of priests — would seem to confirm that Captain Evelyn Waugh’s diagnosis of Communist persecution of the Church…was broadly correct.’

The story of Waugh’s wartime service ends much as the novelist would conclude his story of Captain Crouchback in The End of the Battle. One could likewise say of Evelyn Waugh that things ‘turned out very conveniently.’ Back at home with Laura and their children, he wrote to his friend and new Labor parliament member, Tom Driberg, that he could — after all that had happened during the war — face the future ‘with fortitude’ at least, if not joy. Evelyn Waugh died in 1966 at age 63.

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