This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode
Hi all, so we left off just at the end of the Great War. Adrian spent a little time on break in Belgium, catching up with his family – which included cousins Henry – a future Belgian Prime Minister, and Edmond – political secretary to King Leopold II. On getting back to his battalion he found morale low – a big feeling of anti-climax was kicking in, with many of the soldiers feeling purposeless, redundant and more than a little aimless. While many of the rank and file could not wait to get home, Adrian was desperate for some more action. His opportunity arose when the war office called him in to offer him the second in charge role, to General Botha, in the British Military Mission to Poland.
For over a century and a half the Polish – Lithuanian alliance had been broken up and ruled over by the Austro-Hungarian empire, the states which went on to became Germany, and the Russian Empire. With all three in different states of disrepair, Poland was now free to pursue it’s own statehood again – and, with the Treaty of Versailles granting them nationhood again, pursue they did. Were they to survive and keep their nationhood Poland had five more wars to fight – with the Soviet Russians who were fighting at the time to establish the USSR, the Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs and, believe it or not, the recently defeated Germans. The defence of Poland – and at times the expansionist aims of Poland, was to become Adrian’s next posting.
Carton De Wiart was sent to Poland, originally as second in charge, but when General Botha became unwell, the head of the delegation. Though serving for the most part as an advisor to the Poles and a liaison for the UK, he got himself physically involved in the Polish – Soviet war, the Polish – Ukrainian war, the Polish – Lithuanian war and skirmishes on the border with Czechoslovakia. He found over time, while he had a good working relationship with Winston Churchill, his relationship with then Prime Minister David Lloyd George was strained, and they had a falling out over backing the Poles claim on the Eastern Galicia region. He states he also found the Poles difficult to work with at times, primarily that they were unreasonable in their claims for land, and not at all diplomatic when the UK said they would not back them on a land claim. By 1924, however the Poles had completed five wars, winning all the land they believed should fall under their governance. During this time Adrian Carton De Wiart helped repel a sneak attack from the Ukrainians, fought in a relentless gunfight with the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw. Survived a plane crash, was almost claimed by another – where he discovered on the ground he had come within six inches of being shot yet again – by a ground based soldier – and for a short time found himself captured in Lithuania. He was a second in a duel between two Polish officers, and stole wagon loads of guns from Hungary. In 1924, having retired from the British army he took advantage of his close ties to Marshall Pilsudski, the Polish leader, and Prince Karol Mikolaj Radziwill, and got placed on a large estate in the Pripet Marshes – now situated between Ukraine and Belarus but then on recently reclaimed land.
Adrian does not mention what it was specifically which led to him stepping down, other than to say that he had falling out. He does recall soon after his resignation he found himself in Egypt arranging the passage of his step mother back to the UK – she had had a stroke which left her unable to look after herself – and while over there he was almost brought into another conflict. In November 1924 the Governor General of Anglo Egyptian Sudan, General Sir Lee Stack was murdered, and rioting broke out, while Carton de Wiart was still there. He offered his assistance in resuming control, but equilibrium was restored before he would be needed. While there Adrian Carton de Wiart was offered the command of a cavalry brigade in Sialkot – modern day Pakistan. He turned this down.
One may suspect it was more the pull factor of the marshes than any push factor to be honest. Carton de Wiart goes to great length to explain how he first visited the stately home surrounded by half a million acres- run down and neglected but being brought back to life by Prince Karol, Prince Charles as he refers to him. Adrian goes on to explain how Prince Karol offered him a hunting lodge out on an island 40 kilometres from the grand house. Adrian asked how much did he want for the rent. Karol said nothing, it is yours to keep if you want it. He did, and for the most part stayed there till the next great war. He goes on to detail how he spent much time hunting, killing 20,000 ducks in this time. He talks of the dinners and the company of the prince and his entourage on many nights. Of Niemojeski, a local scoundrel he became friends with, of the bandits who were afraid of him, and of finding a love of reading at the hunting lodge. Of the often quiet nights he said quote
“It was a lonely place, but I never felt the loneliness, for the countryside had so much to give, everything in fact that I had ever wanted”. This splendid isolation would soon be disturbed however.
On 30th September 1938 shockwaves from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler – supposed to bring ‘peace in our time’ were felt in Poland. Adrian contacted British army head Viscount Gort, offering his services if needed – but was given the cold shoulder.
In April 1939 Adolf Hitler withdrew Germany from the German – Polish non-aggression pact of 1934, and the London Naval agreement – a treaty which aimed to stop a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Hitler began demanding Poland hand over the free port of Danzig, a mostly ethnic German city in the North of Poland, and a land corridor to access the city. In July Adrian Carton de Wiart is called back to the war office and offered his old job, as head of the British military mission to Poland. He happily signs up for the role.
On August 22nd 1939 he gets a message to head to Warsaw immediately. He borrows Prince Karol’s car and is advised by his superiors that another war is only days off. Two days later he was in a meeting with the Polish commander in chief, Marshall Edward Rydz-Smigly. Carton de Wiart’s advice to attack the Germans as soon as they crossed the border fell on deaf ears. He also suggested getting the Polish navy out of the Baltic, in case they were captured – which Rydz-Smigly grudgingly accepted. On the 1st September the Nazis attacked, taking out the airfields within hours, and steamrolling through town after town. On the first the Nazis bombed Warsaw. Adrian Carton de Wiart, still in the city later commented on the bombings.
“with the first deliberate bombing of civilians I saw the very face of war change- bereft of romance, its glory shorn, no longer the soldier setting forth into battle, but the women and children buried under it”.
On the fifth day of the invasion the embassy made the decision to clear out and get to safety, and Adrian Carton de Wiart was put in charge of getting all to safety. This initially meant getting back into Polish held territory – at times frantically dodging aerial assault. At one point a Mrs Shelley, the wife of one of the diplomats, was killed by a strafing plane- but at a certain point, the USSR having entered the invasion of Poland by the 17th September, they found themselves 15 miles from the border with Romania. Adrian Carton de Wiart approached Marshall Rydz-Smigly, stating if the marshall was to stay and fight he would too. Rydz-Smigly made the decision to make the final dash across the border into Romania. FYI the two countries don’t share a land border now, they did, in the South East in 1939. Finding Romania, at the time officially on the side of the allies, but with revolution in the air, they flew out of Romania for Britain, under false identities, on September 21st. Just as their plane was leaving, their pro British prime minister Armand Calinescu was assassinated, and the Romanian fascist Iron Guard party took control of the country.
On returning back to Britain he discovered the Russians, on getting involved, went straight for his hunting lodge looking to capture him, and were surprised to hear he had already left for the war.
In April 1940 Carton de Wiart was redeployed, in charge of a joint French- British force headed into Norway to invade Trondheim and stop the Nazis from pushing further into Norwegian territory, making a good launch pad to attack Britain from. He had to leave his newly acquired 61st Division he had been training for the war, and pick up a collection of British- mostly Northern command troops, and French Chasseurs Alpins. Having arrived and set up near the Namsen river Carton de Wiart was struck by how indefensible the area was, unless held by highly specialized soldiers, trained especially for the cold, mountainous terrain. Their orders were to attack Trondheim as soon as the allies brought in a fleet to attack from sea. Unfortunately, before they could get prepared the French troops drew attention to themselves from the Nazis, drawing German bombardment.
The Nazis showed up with ships and planes before the Allied expeditionary force could get set up, before the British naval attack – and began shelling the city. Though they did their best to dig in, it was hopeless – Carton de Wiart, quote
“We had rifles, a few Bren guns and some two inch smoke bombs, but none of them were either comforting or effective against a destroyer”
They dug in at a farm house outside of Trondheim, and waited for a chance to evacuate, as it was clear the mission had failed. Eventually Lord Mountbatten’s ships managed to break through and rescue them. One ship, the French destroyer Afridi, was sunk in the escape. Adrian Carton de Wiart comments he almost ended up on this ship, but for his gear being loaded onto the York, and, presumably half jokingly, states he was robbed of the experience of a shipwreck.
On the voyage home, Carton de Wiart turned 60, the age one must retire from active military service. He was briefly put back in charge of his 61st Division and put in charge of the defense of Northern Ireland, but soon called back due to his age – something he fought hard against, and pointing out he had, unlike his replacement – experience of the crushing, mechanized warfare deployed in World War Two. His replacement Lieutenant General Henry Pownall had no idea what to expect. He would soon be redeployed on a diplomatic mission however, to provide his expertise to Yugoslavia. While flying to the Balkans via a circuitous route, first stopping at Malta to refuel, then Egypt, the plane’s engines failed – and it crashed in the ocean off the coast of Libya. Adrian Carton de Wiart was knocked out on impact, but came to as he was pushed out of the sinking plane. Without a dinghy – they had one, which had sprung a leak, they had to hang onto wreckage from the plane – till the wreckage began to sink. The then swam for the shore, where the passengers and crew of the plane were shadowed by Italian police officers, till some soldiers come arrive to take them away. Adrian Carton de Wiart was taken to a prisoner of war camp in Italy, where he would remain from 1941 to 1943.
Held captive with a number of other Allied senior officers at the Villa Medici, Abruzzi, Carton de Wiart planned, and made numerous attempts to escape – at one point spending seven months digging a tunnel under the camp. He escaped via tunnel just days before an order came to release him and ship him back out to Britain. On the run, with his missing hand, eye patch and not a word of Italian he still managed to hide among the locals for eight days before being found. He talks of this time in captivity as being relatively comfortable, and that the Italian soldiers detaining him treated him and the other officers well, on the whole. He does make mention of a camp supervisor called Viviani, who he wished he could run into again in quote “more equal circumstances”, but seems for the most part to have gotten on with his captors. He mentions their prison was not far from Terminillio, a mountaintop base where Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, would later be imprisoned by the Italians themselves, and rescued by the Nazis. Just putting this out there – at some point I’ll have to come back to Mussolini’s rescuer, Otto Skorzeny – perhaps the most dangerous man in Europe in his time. In August 1943 the Italians released Adrian Carton de Wiart – in part owing to his age and missing body parts, in part due to his rank, and that an Italy who were on the verge of calling it a day on World War Two wanted to send a diplomat back with him to discuss with the British just what to do with Allied prisoners of war in Italy. He was returned to the British via neutral Portugal.
Carton de Wiart, once home, was kept under wraps until 7th September 1943, when Italy formally surrendered. Once his presence in the UK was revealed many people thought he had something to do with the Italian surrender, and Carton de Wiart began to get inundated with letters from families asking questions he couldn’t answer about the whereabouts of their captured family members. After a few weeks back Adrian Carton de Wiart began to wonder what next, still hoping he could be deployed in Yugoslavia.
Adrian Carton de Wiart did not have long to wait till his next assignment. Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent him as his personal representative to China. He would travel there via Cairo, where he sat in at the top brass meeting- there is a group picture of Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang Kai Shek surrounded by various generals – Carton de Wiart among them – then on to India, then China. This role was a desk job, to report any news from India, China and Burma back to Churchill. While there however he appears to have enjoyed living among the Chinese. He was also offered a combat role by Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai Shek, but he turned the role down. Much of his recollections of his time in China he shares tales of the people, and of the progress of World War Two down to its conclusion. He does mention he had very little to do with the Communists, except that at one point he did give Chairman Mao a piece of his mind. He clearly was no fan of Communism- this being one of a very few times he speaks ill of another group of people. He would get to fly to Singapore to take part in the Japanese surrender following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He then prepared to return to Britain – after World War One he felt aimless, this time he admitted to feeling a diffidence- an awkwardness and unsureness as to what he would find there. Churchill’s successor Clement Atlee asked him to stay on as his eyes and ears for a little longer, which Adrian Carton de Wiart would do, till a fall down a flight of stairs in Rangoon in 1947 forced him into retirement. In the fall he broke his back, avoiding paralysis. It would take him several months to fully recover however. He was 66 years old at retirement, having survived 11 major gunshot wounds, two plane crashes, both World Wars, the Boer War, action in 4 of Poland’s five post WW1 wars with her neighbours – numerous battles, detainment, and seen warcraft progress from fighting on horseback to dropping atomic bombs.
I haven’t said much about his family life. In 1949 his first wife died – yes he was married – to an Austrian countess no less – he also had two daughters .. He never actually mentions his family once in his autobiography “Happy Odyssey”, I do wonder if he thought the countess Penelope to his Odysseus. In 1951 he remarried, to a woman 23 years his junior by the name of Joan Sutherland (not the opera singer), and settled down to a genteel life – though continuing to hunt and fish – in County Cork Ireland. He died in 1963, aged 83.
My final thoughts on Adrian Carton de Wiart; I first came across his tale while lying in a hospital bed in Phuket in 2014. My dad came in with a suggestion to keep my brain active while I recuperated “Google up this General Carton de Wiart, the story is crazy” It is, and I think from my first readings I had him pegged as some real life terminator – someone like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old men. I originally saw myself ending this piece with a quote from the man himself, quote
“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.” End quote.
I think this sums him up, to a degree, but I came away with a sense of Adrian Carton de Wiart as an honourable man; open-minded, respectful to all. Strangely introspective. Anything but a raconteur, although very much the adventurer. Never relishing in tales of bloodshed. Rarely looking on his enemy with cruelty or malice. I came to this episode with the concept he was the stereotypical rough man, standing ready – doing the things we dare not ourselves so we can sleep safe. I think this still is true, but I understand what that rough man is less than I thought I did.
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.