|Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart|
|5 May 1880 – 5 June 1963|
Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart by Sir William Orpen in the National Portrait Gallery
|Place of birth||Brussels, Belgium|
|Resting place||Killinardish Churchyard, County Cork|
|Commands held||61st Infantry Division
Namsos Assault Force
World War I
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George
Distinguished Service Order
Virtuti Militari (Poland)
Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (5 May 1880 - 5 June 1963), was a British officer of Belgian and Irish descent. He is considered by many to be one of the most remarkable figures in British military history, renowned for bravery, his striking character and the sheer adventure of his long life. He is thought to be a model for the character of Brigadier Ben Ritchie Hook in Evelyn Waugh's trilogy Sword of Honour.
Adrian Carton de Wiart was born into an aristocratic family in Brussels, Belgium, on 5 May 1880, eldest son of Leon Constant Ghislain Carton de Wiart (1854 - 1915). He spent his early days in Belgium and in England. The death of his Irish mother when he was six prompted his father to uproot the family and move to Cairo, Egypt, to practice international law. His father was a court magistrate, well connected in Egyptian governmental circles, and was a director of the Cairo Electric Railways. Carton de Wiart was a Roman Catholic. He enjoyed his time in Egypt and learned to speak Arabic.
Carton de Wiart was not particularly close to his father, who was a quiet, indoors sort of man. At an early opportunity his new stepmother sent him to a boarding school in England, the Roman Catholic Oratory School, founded by John Henry Cardinal Newman.
No scholar, he was a truly ferocious warrior. He was shot through the lung in South Africa early on and invalided home. After another brief stint at Oxford, where Aubrey Herbert was among his friends, he was given a commission in the Second Imperial Light Horse. He saw some action in South Africa again and in 1901 was given a regular commission in the 4th Dragoon Guards. Adrian was transferred to India in 1902. This gave him full scope for his love of sports, especially shooting and pig sticking.
Carton de Wiart's serious wound in the Boer War instilled in him a mania for physical fitness and he ran, walked and played sports at every opportunity, especially if the sport involved depleting the local fish, bird, rabbit and big game stocks. He was always up early each day. De Wiart was both quick tempered and modest. In male company he swore like a sailor.
Though de Wiart bears some similarity to Ben Ritchie-Hook in Evelyn Waugh's war trilogy, Sword of Honour, he was more rounded, with considerable personal charm.
A champagne, claret and port man, he detested whisky, liked popular music hall tunes and had no ear for classical music. Formidable and intimidating, Carton de Wiart could be charming, was popular with the ladies and managed to keep a wide circle of friends. A man's man, he was more drawn to the outdoors type of person. His admirers ranged from Winston Churchill to Chiang Kai-shek. He spoke French, Arabic and Polish. He loved South Africa, Poland and Ireland and hated India. He liked the country more than the city, but of the cities, pre-World War I Vienna was his favourite.
The transfer of his regiment to a by-then peaceful South Africa brought him a pleasant interlude when he was appointed an aide-de-camp to the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Henry Hilyard, whom Carton de Wiart admired enormously. Hilyard was, perhaps, the father he wished he had. He describes this period lasting up to 1914 as his "heyday". His light duties as ADC gave him time for polo, another passion.
Carton de Wiart was well connected in European circles, his two closest cousins being Count Henri Carton de Wiart, Prime Minister of Belgium from 1920 to 1921, and Baron Edmond Carton de Wiart, political secretary to the King of Belgium and director of La Société Générale de Belgique. While on leave he travelled extensively throughout central Europe, using his Catholic aristocratic connections to shoot at country estates in Bohemia, Austria, Hungary and Bavaria.
A transfer back to England gave scope for a new passion, fox hunting. He rode with the famous Duke of Beaufort's Hunt where he encountered, among others, the future field marshal, Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, and the future air marshal, Sir Edward Leonard Ellington.
De Wiart found the time in 1908 to marry Countess Frederica Fugger von Babenhausen, more fully Countess Friederike Maria Karoline Henriette Rosa Sabina Franziska Fugger von Babenhausen (1887 Klagenfurt - 1949 Vienna), eldest daughter of Karl Ludwig, 1st Fuerst or Prince Fugger von Babenhausen and Princess Eleonora Fugger von Babenhausen of Klagenfurt, Austria. They had two daughters, the elder of whom Anita (b. 1909, decd.) was the maternal grandmother of the war correspondent Anthony Loyd (b. 1966).
In his memoirs, Happy Odyssey, Carton de Wiart made absolutely no reference to his wife or daughters.
When the First World War broke out, Carton de Wiart was en route to British Somaliland where a low level war was underway against the followers of Mohammed bin Abdullah, called the "Mad Mullah" by the British. De Wiart had been seconded to the Somaliland Camel Corps. A staff officer with the corps was Hastings Ismay, later Lord Ismay, Churchill's military advisor.
In an attack upon an enemy fort at Shimber Berris, Carton de Wiart was shot in the face, and ever after a black patch over his left eye socket formed part of his appearance.
By February 1915, he was on a steamer for France and years of heavy fighting. De Wiart was in the thick of the fighting on the Western Front, commanding successively three infantry battalions and a brigade. He was wounded seven more times in the war, losing his left hand in 1915, biting off his fingers when a doctor declined to remove them. Shot through the skull and ankle at the Battle of the Somme, through the hip at the Battle of Passchendaele, through the leg at Cambrai, and through the ear at Arras he spent a fair bit of time in hospitals recovering from wounds. He invariably went to the Sir Douglas Shield's Nursing Home, 17 Park Lane, to recuperate, and became a regular customer.
Carton de Wiart's appearance was by now as striking as his character. The eye patch, empty sleeve, bristling moustache, and tall, lean and fit figure turned heads. His dashing demeanor combined with his phenomenal bravery and remarkable exploits made him a figure of legend. And he was amazingly outspoken. He was a warrior, not a peacetime soldier.
During World War I, Carton de Wiart received the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. He was 36 years old, and a lieutenant-colonel in the 4th Dragoon Guards (Royal Irish), British Army, attached to the Gloucestershire Regiment, commanding the 8th Battalion, when the following events took place n 2 July/3 July 1916, at La Boiselle, France, for which he was awarded the VC:
For most conspicuous bravery, coolness and determination during severe operations of a prolonged nature. It was owing in a great measure to his dauntless courage and inspiring example that a serious reverse was averted. He displayed the utmost energy and courage in forcing our attack home. After three other battalion Commanders had become casualties, he controlled their commands, and ensured that the ground won was maintained at all costs. He frequently exposed himself in the organisation of positions and of supplies, passing unflinchingly through fire barrage of the most intense nature. His gallantry was inspiring to all.
His Victoria Cross is displayed at the National Army Museum, Chelsea.
It says much about the man that in his autobiography, Happy Odyssey, there is no mention of his VC. It fell to the publishers to add a special section covering the award. This section does not appear in the Fifth Impression (London: Jonathan Cape 1951.)
Despite all his wounds in the war, de Wiart said at the end, "Frankly I had enjoyed the war..."
At the end of the war Carton de Wiart was sent to Second Republic of Poland as second in command of the British Military Mission under General Louis Botha. After a brief period, he replaced General Botha. Poland desperately needed all the help it could get, as it was engaged with the Bolshevik Russia (Polish-Soviet War), the Ukrainians (Polish-Ukrainian War), the Lithuanians (Polish-Lithuanian War) and the Czechs (Czech-Polish border conflicts). There he encountered Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the great pianist and premier, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the Chief of State and military commander, and General Maxime Weygand, head of the French military mission in mid-1920. Charles de Gaulle was attached to the French military mission.
One of his tasks soon after his arrival was to attempt to make peace between the Poles and the Ukrainian nationalists under Simon Petlyura. The Ukrainians were besieging the city of Lwów (Lvov; Lemberg). He was unsuccessful and formed a negative view of Petlyura, especially after Ukrainian forces machine gunned his train, killing two Polish officers aboard.
From there he went on to Paris to report on Polish conditions to the British prime minister, David Lloyd George and to General Sir Henry Hughes Wilson. Lloyd George was not sympathetic to Poland and, much to Carton de Wiart's fury, Britain sent next to no military supplies. Then he went back to Poland and many more front line adventures, this time in the Bolshevik zone, where the situation was grave with Warsaw threatened. During this time he had significant interaction with the dean of the diplomatic corps, Cardinal Achille Ratti, later Pius XI, who wanted Carton de Wiart's advice as to whether to evacuate the diplomatic corps from Warsaw. The diplomats moved to Poznań, but the Italians remained in Warsaw along with Ratti.
From all these affairs, Carton de Wiart developed a sympathy with the Poles and supported their claims to the eastern Galicia. This caused a falling out with Lloyd George at their next meeting, but endeared him to the Poles. His larger than life personality, straightforward manner, bravery and passion for hunting appealed to the Poles. At one time during his Warsaw stay he was a second in a duel between Polish members of the Mysliwski Club, the other second being Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, later commander-in-chief of Finnish armies in World War II and President of Finland. Norman Davies reports that he was "...compromised in a gun-running operation from Budapest using stolen wagon-lits".
He became rather close to the Polish leader, Marshal Piłsudski. After an aircraft crash occasioning a brief period in Lithuanian captivity, he went back to England to report, this time to the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill. He passed on to Churchill, Piłsudski's prediction that the White Russian offensive under General Anton Denikin directed at Moscow would fail. It did shortly thereafter. Churchill was more sympathetic to Polish needs than Lloyd George and succeeded, over Lloyd George's objections, in sending some war materiel to Poland.
Carton de Wiart was active during the desperate days in August 1920, when the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw. While out on his observation train, he was attacked by a group of marauding Red cavalry, and fought them off with his revolver from the running board of his train, at one point falling on the track and reboarding quickly.
When the Poles had won the war by 1921, the British Military Mission was wound up and Carton de Wiart resigned his commission. He was not a peacetime soldier.
His last Polish aide de camp was Prince Karol Radziwiłł, who inherited a gigantic 500,000 acre (2,000 km²) estate in eastern Poland when the Communists killed his uncle. They became friends and Carton de Wiart was given the use of a large estate called Prostyń, in the Pripet Marshes, an enormous wetland area larger than Ireland and famous for waterfowl. Since borders have changed, it is now where Belarus and Ukraine come together. De Wiart's home was a converted hunting lodge on an island, only a few miles from the Soviet border.
In this setting Carton de Wiart spent the rest of the interwar years. Even though he had only one hand, he became an excellent shot. In his memoirs he said "I think I shot every day of those fifteen years I spent in the marshes and the pleasure never palled". Some 20,000 ducks fell to his guns during this time and he hunted elk and wild boar as well. The game shot went to the local families, who were only too glad to get it. He discovered the pleasures of reading with a particular interest in true adventure stories. He made a point of not listening to the radio and took up fishing. He went back to England only twice.
Carton de Wiart's Polish idyll was interrupted by oncoming war in July 1939 when he was summoned back to the colours and appointed to his old job, as head of the British Military Mission to Poland. Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany on 1 September and on 17 September the Soviets allied with Germany attacked Poland from the east. Soon Soviet forces overran Prostyń and de Wiart lost all his guns, rods, clothes, and furniture. They were packed up by the Soviets and stored in the Minsk Museum, but destroyed by the Germans in later fighting. He never saw the area again, but as he said "...they could not take my memories".
Carton de Wiart met with the Polish commander-in-chief, Marshal of Poland Edward Rydz-Śmigły in late August 1939 and formed a rather low opinion of his capabilities. He strongly urged Rydz-Śmigły to pull Polish forces back beyond the Vistula River, but was unsuccessful. The other advice he offered, to have the seagoing units of the Polish fleet leave the Baltic Sea, was, after much argument, finally adopted. This fleet made a significant contribution to the Allied cause, especially the several modern destroyers and submarines.
As Polish resistance faltered, de Wiart evacuated his mission from Warsaw along with the Polish government. Together with the Polish commander Rydz-Śmigły, de Wiart made his way with the rest of the British Mission to the Romanian border with both the Germans and the Soviets closing in. His car convoy was attacked by the Luftwaffe on the road, and the wife of one of his aides was killed. He was in danger of arrest in Romania and got out by aircraft on 21 September with a false passport, just in time as the pro Allied Romanian prime minister, Armand Calinescu, was assassinated that day.
After a brief stint in command of the 61st Division in the Midlands of England, Carton de Wiart was summoned in April 1940 to take charge of a hastily drawn together Anglo-French force to occupy a small town in western Norway, Namsos. His orders were to take the city of Trondheim, some distance to the south, in conjunction with a naval attack and an advance from the south by troops landed at Åndalsnes. He had never met his troops before.
He flew to Namsos to get the lay of the land before the troops came in. When his Short Sunderland flying boat came in for a landing, it was attacked by a German fighter and his aide was wounded and had to be evacuated. After the French Alpine troops landed (without their transport mules and missing straps for their skis), the Luftwaffe bombed and destroyed the town of Namsos in a matter of hours. The British landed without transport, skis or artillery. There was no air cover. The French stayed put in Namsos for the remainder of the short campaign.
Despite these handicaps, de Wiart managed to move his forces over the mountains and down to Trondheim Fjord, where they were promptly shelled by German destroyers. They had no artillery to challenge the German ships. It soon became apparent that the whole Norwegian campaign was fast becoming a shambles. The naval attack on Trondheim, which was the reason for the Namsos landing, did not happen and his troops were sitting ducks without guns, transport, air cover or skis in a foot and a half of snow. They were being attacked by German ski troops, machine gunned and bombed from the air and the German Navy was landing troops to his rear. He recommended withdrawal. He was asked to hold his position for political reasons. He did.
After orders, counterorders and some genuinely foolish suggestions from London, the decision to evacuate was made. However, on the date set to get the first of the troops off, the ships did not show up. The next night a naval force arrived, led through the fog by Lord Louis Mountbatten. The transports got the whole force away, though bombed very severely on the way out, with a French destroyer and a British destroyer, HMS Afridi, sunk.
For more particulars about these events see Namsos in April 1940.
His one active command in World War II was not a success, but the blame could not be put on him in this cauldron of politics. As de Wiart said about the campaign "...war and politics seem bad mixers, like port and champagne. But if it wasn't for politicians we wouldn't have wars, and I, for one, should have been done out what for me is a very agreeable life."
De Wiart was posted back to the command of the 61st Division, which was soon transferred to Northern Ireland as a defence against invasion. A great trainer of troops, de Wiart brought the 61st up to a high standard of efficiency. He made many good friends in the country. However the arrival of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Royds Pownall as Commander-in-Chief in Northern Ireland brought sad tidings. De Wiart was told that he was too old to command a division on active duty.
He remained inactive very briefly, as he was appointed as head of the British Military Mission to Yugoslavia on 5 April 1941. Hitler was preparing to invade the country and the Yugoslavs asked for British help. De Wiart departed England in a Wellington Bomber, bound for Belgrade.
After refuelling in Malta the aircraft left for Cairo running the gauntlet with enemy territory to the north and south. Both engines failed off the coast of Italian-controlled Libya, and the plane crash landed in the sea about a mile from land. Carton de Wiart was knocked out, but the cold water brought him to. When the plane broke up and sank, he and the rest aboard were forced to swim a mile to shore. They were captured by the Italian authorities.
De Wiart was a high profile prisoner. After four months at the Villa Medici at Sulmona (from which the Imperatore Hotel at Gran Sasso, from where Mussolini was later rescued, could be seen) he was transferred to a special prison for senior officers at Castello di Vincigliata. There were a number of senior officer prisoners here because of the large "bag" made by Rommel in North Africa early in 1941. De Wiart made friends, especially with General Sir Richard O'Connor, Thomas Daniel Knox, 6th Earl of Ranfurly and Lieutenant-General Philip Neame VC. The four were committed to escaping. He made five attempts including seven months tunneling. Once de Wiart evaded capture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant, no mean feat considering that he was in northern Italy, did not speak Italian, and was 61 years old, with an eye patch, one empty sleeve and multiple injuries. Ironically, de Wiart had been approved for repatriation due to his disablement but notification arrived after his escape. As the repatriation would have required that he promise not to take any further part in the war it is probable that he would have declined anyway.
In letters to his wife, Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly, Ranfurly described Carton de Wiart in captivity as "... a delightful character" and said he "...must hold the record for bad language." Ranfurly was "...endlessly amused by him. He really is a nice person - superbly outspoken."
Then, in a surprising development, de Wiart was taken from his prison in August 1943, and driven to Rome. Italy was trying to get out of the war, and backdoor negotiations were going slowly. Carton de Wiart was to accompany an Italian negotiator, General Zanussi, to Lisbon to meet Allied contacts to facilitate the surrender.
But to keep the cover, de Wiart was told he needed civilian clothes. Distrusting Italian tailors, he emphasized that they must be properly made. He was not going to wear one of their "bloody gigolo suits".
When they reached Lisbon, de Wiart was released and made his way to England, reaching there on 28 August 1943.
Within a month of his arrival back in England, de Wiart was summoned to spend a night at the Prime Minister's country home at Chequers. Churchill informed him that he was to be sent to China as his personal representative. He left by air for India on 18 October 1943.
As his accommodation in China was not ready de Wiart spent time in India getting an understanding of the situation in China, especially being briefed by a genuine tai-pan, John Keswick, head of the great China trading empire, Jardine Matheson. He spent time with the Viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell and with Sir Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief in India. He had great respect for both. He also met the controversial Orde Wingate.
Before arriving in China, Carton de Wiart attended the Cairo summit meeting attended by Churchill, President Roosevelt and Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek. There is a famous picture of these worthies gathered in a Cairo garden, with Carton de Wiart standing behind them.
When in Cairo, he took the opportunity to renew his acquaintance with Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly the wife of his friend from prisoner of war days, Dan Ranfurly. They became fast friends. She described him as "...tall, slim and elegant - very direct and amusing".
De Wiart was one of the few to hit it off with the notoriously irascible commander of US forces in the China-Burma-India Theatre, General Joseph Stilwell.
He arrived in the headquarters of the Nationalist Chinese Government, Chungking (Chongqing), in early December 1943. For the next three years he was to be involved in a host of reporting, diplomatic and administrative duties in the remote war time capital. He got on well with Chiang kai-Shek and his formidable wife, indeed, when he finally retired he was offered a job by Chiang. He regularly flew out to India to liaise with British officials. His old friend, O'Connor, had escaped from the Italian prisoner of war camp and was now in command of British troops in eastern India. The Governor of Bengal, the Australian Richard Casey, became a good friend, his wife having nursed de Wiart on one of his many hospital visits in World War I. De Wiart had a great capacity to make the most of life.
On 1 November 1944, de Wiart was promoted to lieutenant-general.
De Wiart returned home in December 1944 to report to the War Cabinet on the Chinese situation. He seems to have made such a good impression on the Deputy Prime Minister as well as on Churchill, that Clement Attlee, when he became head of the Labour Government in June 1945, asked de Wiart to stay on in China.
De Wiart was assigned to a tour of the Burma Front, and befriending Admiral Sir James Somerville, Commander-in-Chief of the British Eastern Fleet, he had a front seat (actually a deck chair) on the bridge of the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth for the bombardment of Sabang in the Netherlands East Indies in 1945, including air battles between Japanese fighters and British carrier aircraft. It was the first time the Queen Elizabeth had fired its guns in anger since the Dardanelles in 1915.
A good part of de Wiart's reporting had to do with the increasing power of the Chinese Communists. The historian Max Hastings writes: "De Wiart despised all Communists on principle, denounced Mao as 'a fanatic', and added: 'I cannot believe he means business'. He told the British cabinet that there was no conceivable alternative to Chiang as ruler of China." He met Mao Zedong at dinner and had a memorable exchange with him, interrupting his propaganda spiel to give him a tongue lashing for holding back from fighting the Japanese for domestic political reasons. Mao was briefly stunned, and then laughed. De Wiart had had no illusions about Communists since his encounters with them in Eastern Europe in the early twenties.
After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, de Wiart flew to Singapore to participate in the formal surrender. After a visit to Peking, he moved to Nanking, the now liberated Nationalist capital, accompanied by Julian Amery, the British Prime Minister's Personal Representative to Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek.
A visit to Tokyo to meet General Douglas MacArthur came at the end of his tenure. He was now 66 and ready to retire, despite the offer of a job by Chiang.
En route home via French Indochina, de Wiart stopped in Rangoon as a guest of the army commander. Coming down stairs, he slipped on coconut matting, fell down, broke his back and several vertebrae, and knocked himself out. He eventually made it to England and into a hospital where he slowly recovered. The doctors succeeded in extracting a remarkable amount of shrapnel from his old wounds and generally patched him up. He recovered and was on the road again, to Belgium to visit relatives.
His wife died in 1949 and in 1951, at the age of 71, he married Ruth Myrtle Muriel Joan McKechnie, a divorcee known as Joan Sutherland (she died 13 January 2006, aged 101), and settled at Aghinagh house, Killinardish , County Cork, Ireland, taking up a life pursuing salmon and the snipe. His wife was 25 years his junior.
De Wiart died at the age of 83 on 5 June 1963.
His remains are buried in Killinardish Churchyard, in County Cork, Ireland.
Carton de Wiart's will was probated in Ireland at 4,158 pounds sterling and in England at 3,496 pounds sterling.
In his memoirs he wrote, "Governments may think and say as they like, but force cannot be eliminated, and it is the only real and unanswerable power. We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose."