David Niven was an esteemed English actor and novelist. During the course of his long and storied acting career, Niven played a leading man, a world explorer, the villain in a Pink Panther movie, a soldier, a sailor, an action hero, and even James Bond in the first Casino Royale. He won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1958 for his role as Major Pollock in Separate Tables.
Today’s crop of actors is, with few exceptions, a bunch of vapid amoral losers. Their standard of accomplishment is running about naked and flying on private jets to A-lister conferences while telling the rest of us what we should be sacrificing to battle climate change. By contrast, David Niven was a real-live warrior.
Born March 1, 1910, at Belgrave mansions, Grosvenor Gardens, London, Niven came from a long line of British soldiers. His father LT William Niven was killed in Turkey during the Gallipoli Campaign serving with the Berkshire Yeomanry in 1915. His maternal grandfather, CPT William Degacher, was killed in 1879 at the Battle of Isandlwana during the Zulu Wars. His great grandfather was LTG James Webber Smith CB.
Two years after the death of his father, Niven’s mother remarried, this time to a prominent British Conservative politician. At age six, young David was remanded to boarding school. His experience there was rocky, predominantly the result of his proclivity toward pranks.
At age 18, Niven impregnated a fifteen-year-old socialite named Margaret Whigham while she was on holiday. Given the puritanical mores of the day this held the potential for great scandal. The young woman’s family arranged for an abortion, but she revered Niven until his death. Whigham was among the VIP guests at his memorial service in London after he died.
David Niven was educated at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, graduating in 1930 as a Second Lieutenant in the British Army. This experience was said to be foundational to his developing the refined unflappable bearing that held him in good stead on the stage and screen. However, the peacetime Army did little to hold Niven’s attention.
LT Niven once ditched a lecture on machinegun tactics delivered by a British Major General in favor of a social engagement with a young woman. Niven was subsequently arrested for insubordination but killed a bottle of whisky with Rhoddy Rose, the officer tasked with guarding him. Rose later went on to become a decorated Colonel in the British Army. With Rose’s assistance, Niven escaped out a window and caught a ship for America, resigning his commission via telegram once underway. Upon his arrival in the United States he tried and failed to make a living first selling whisky and then as a rodeo promoter.
After stints in both Mexico and the Caribbean, Niven eventually made his way to Hollywood, securing a role as an extra in such films as Barbary Coast and Mutiny on the Bounty. His designation as an extra was, “Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2,008.” More serious roles followed until, by the late 1930’s, he had become an A-lister leading man. Niven and Errol Flynn shared a house for a time. By 1939 David Niven was on top of his game, having earned top billing for big budget Hollywood productions. Then Hitler invaded Western Europe, and Niven gave it all up to return to England and rejoin the British Army. At the time, David Niven was the only British movie star working in America to do so.
The Humble Warrior
I watched a couple of interviews with David Niven on YouTube in preparation for this project. Despite his refined, almost haughty British demeanor, you cannot help but be struck by the man’s humility when he was elaborating on his military experience. Once during an interview with Dick Cavett he was asked to relate the most perilous experience he had while serving in World War 2. He prefaced his answer that many other men had done much greater things than had he and that he was likely the most terrified man in Europe during the war. However, cutting through the fluff, David Niven was the real freaking deal.
After being recommissioned as a Lieutenant, Niven was assigned to the motor training battalion of the Prince Consort’s Own Rifle Brigade. The British have some of the most adorable unit designations. Dissatisfied with the pace of that assignment, he volunteered for the Commandos. Niven trained at Inverailort House in the Western Highlands, eventually coming to command “A” Squadron of the General Headquarters Liaison Regiment.
The British Commandos during World War 2 were an elite light infantry unit specializing in small unit operations. A modern counterpart might be the US Army Rangers. Their training was notoriously grueling, and they were relied upon to execute the toughest missions, often with minimal support. Commando training and operational experience laid the foundation for much of the world’s modern Special Operations capabilities.
Niven was an acting Lieutenant Colonel by the time he landed on the continent several days after D-Day. He served with a unit called “Phantom” that was tasked with covertly locating and reporting enemy positions in the chaos following Operation Overlord. One of the few war stories that he was willing to relate publicly concerned his being shelled while attempting to cross a bridge between the American 1st and British 2d Armies.
LTC Niven Earns the Iron Cross
LTC Niven was crossing a bridge just as the Germans began dropping artillery on it. He dove out of his jeep and into a nearby foxhole with heavy German artillery fire impacting all around. Amidst the unfettered chaos of the moment he looked up to see John McClain, an old friend and drama critic, hunkered down the next foxhole over.
The Germans obliterated the bridge, but Niven and McClain emerged unscathed. McClain was uniformed as a Lieutenant in the US Navy. After a happy reunion McClain produced a sack filled with German Iron Crosses. The German forces at Cherbourg were cut off and surrounded. Their commander, Generalleutnant von Schlieben, had requested a sackful of Iron Crosses be air dropped into the salient to be distributed to his men in an effort at shoring up their morale. The Luftwaffe attempted to drop the sack from a fighter plane but inadvertently deposited it in McClain’s hole.
These men were in show business, after all, and were ever on the lookout for an opportunity at levity. Niven’s friend formally presented him with a German Iron Cross for bravery right there in their foxhole. Niven said that he affixed the decoration to his shirt underneath his combat jacket and wore it for the rest of the war.
Though Niven was tight-lipped concerning the details of his wartime service, it was undeniably extensive. He was evacuated as part of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. When once he was preparing his men for an assault he attempted to allay their jitters with,”Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I’ll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!”
During the Battle of the Bulge, Niven was challenged by a nervous American sentry jumpy over stories of Otto Skorzeny’s commandos infiltrating Allied lines in American uniforms. The trigger-happy American asked him who had won the World Series in 1943. Niven responded with, “Haven’t the foggiest idea, but I did co-star with Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother.” The sentry let him pass.
Many Hollywood actors had actively avoided combat. When pressed about his wartime service, Niven said this, “Anyone who says a bullet sings past, hums past, flies, pings, or whines past, has never heard one – they go crack!”
Niven ended the war a Lieutenant Colonel and returned to Hollywood. Among his several decorations was the American Legion of Merit. Like most combat veterans of that era, Niven seemed ready to put the war behind him and move on with his life.
The Rest of the Story
Soon after his return to Hollywood, the Niven family was enjoying an evening as guests of Tyrone Power. While playing Sardines, a lights-out version of hide and seek with the accumulated kids, Niven’s wife Primmie took a tumble down some stairs, fractured her skull, and was tragically killed. The distraught man immersed himself in his work to compensate. Prominent roles alongside the likes of Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple followed.
David Niven’s career waxed and waned as is often the custom for movie stars. He played on Broadway opposite Gloria Swanson in Nina as a respite from movies. His fortunes lagged for a time until he was cast as Phileas Fogg in the smash 1956 hit Around the World in 80 Days. Around the World took home Best Picture that year.
David Niven holds the distinction of being the only person ever to win a Best Actor award at a ceremony he was hosting. Appearing on-screen for only 23 minutes in Separate Tables, his performance was also the briefest ever to be afforded this honor. Niven’s Oscar proved to be the key that opened all the doors in Hollywood.
Niven shined in movies like The Guns of Navarone, Death on the Nile, Rough Cut, and Seawolves. While hosting the 46th Academy Awards ceremony in 1974, Niven was interrupted when a naked man went streaking past in the background. Streaking was considered quite the popular pastime in the early 1970’s. His classic off-the-cuff response was, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” David Niven was ever the refined English gentleman.
This quote lends insight to this remarkable man’s worldview, “I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.” What a stud.
David Niven died in 1983 at the age of 73 from complications of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The archetypal English gentleman on the silver screen, Niven was also quite the British patriot when it counted.
American Sniper; Shooter; Enemy at the Gates; the public’s fascination with sniper movies is both old and well-documented. Of course, this is not without reason. From old Jack Hinson to more well-known figures like Vasily Zaytsev, men and women who can hit targets at fantastic distances have gained a mythic status, even amongst other shooters, who attribute an almost black-magic ethos to practitioners of the art. This being America however, the home of competitive spirit, we’ve decided to take our admiration one step further on this Throwback Thursday. Of four of the best-known snipers—Chris Kyle, Carlos Hathcock, Simo Häyhä and Lyudmila Pavlichenko—who would come out on top in a friendly, but realistic, shoot-off?
To properly hold a contest of course, we’ll need some basic parameters by which to judge our contestants. So why not mimic the current real-world test of sniping skill, the International Sniper Competition, held annually at Fort Benning, Georgia? Not simply a test of shooting prowess, the International Sniper Competition tests mental and physical endurance, as well as the ability to evade detection. Thus we will use anecdotes from the careers of our contestants to roughly evaluate the following three parameters: accuracy; endurance; and stealth.
Fourth Place-Chris Kyle
The protagonist of American Sniper, Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle is undoubtedly the most well-known sniper of recent years. With a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars with valor (among other awards), it’s not hard to see why. Kyle grew up hunting the Texas countryside with his father, before becoming a rodeo rider and attending several years of college. Having already lived more in 25 years than most have in 60, Kyle then joined the Navy SEALS, where he was assigned to SEAL Team-3, sniper element, Platoon “Charlie.”
Serving in many of the major battles of the Iraq war, Kyle stacked up more than 150 confirmed kills, earning him a bounty on his head that started at $20,000, and was later increased to $80,000. His most impressive was what he described as a “straight-up luck shot” from 2,100 yards, using his McMillan TAC-338 sniper rifle. Chris served four tours of duty in the Iraq War, which he survived despite being shot twice, and being involved in six IED detonations.
All of the above means Kyle was one impressive shooter, but on this list that’s almost a prerequisite. For endurance, the man served four tours despite being wounded multiple times, so he earns some definite points there. As far as stealth is concerned, however, there are no reported instances (at least, not available to us civilians) which attest to any particular ability to stay hidden. In fact, given that he often served as overwatch for teams of door-kickers, it’s reasonable to assume that concealing himself was never something of especial concern (relative to the other snipers we will come to, who often worked alone and behind enemy lines). Thus, Chief Petty Officer Kyle occupies position four on this list.
Third Place- Lyudmila Pavlichenko
The infamous “Lady Death,” bane of Nazi existence, comes next. Lyudmila Pavilchenko was born in Bila Tserkva, in what is now Ukraine. He early shooting skills were molded in the local OSOAVIAKhIM paramilitary youth program, where she achieved the “Voroshilov Marksman” badge, second degree, entailing not just sharpshooting, but also but also navigation, grenade throwing and physical training. While she left the program in her early adulthood, she returned to it as the clouds of war formed over Europe, enrolling in the two-year OSOAVIAKhIM sniper course in Kiev which familiarized her with the Mosin model 1891/1930 she was later to carry.
When Pavilchenko first attempted to enlist in the armed forces in 1941, she was turned away with an admonishment to try nursing. Luckily for the USSR, she was far too persistent to listen, and enrolled the next day in the 25th Chapayev Rifle Division. When she finally got her hands on an old Mosin (she had to take it from a fallen comrade), Lyudmila already knew its intricacies and weaknesses. She removed wood from the forend allowing her to better bed the barrel, filed the gunstock tip, padded where the receiver and magazine join and filed the bolt mechanism to ensure reliability.
Once the rifle was up and running, Pavilchenko wreaked a line of havoc across Odessa, Moldavia and Sevastopol. In just 11 months, she notched 309 confirmed kills, 36 of which were enemy snipers she stalked and dispatched. The most famous instance of this saw a three-day cat-and-mouse battle between her and an enemy sniper. When she felled him on the third day, Pavilchenko simply remarked, “he made one move too many.” Pavilchenko became such a thorn in the Germans’ side that they attempted to affect her defection by offering her chocolate and an officer’s rank over loudspeakers. When that didn’t work, they turned their rhetoric to naked threats, warning she would be torn to shreds. The Russians however, as ecstatic with her performance as the Germans were annoyed, promoted her all the way to Junior Lieutenant.
Unfortunately, this increased attention eventually caught up with Junior Lieutenant Pavilchenko. In June 1942, she was grievously wounded when an artillery barrage blew off half her right ear. She spent the rest of the war touring the USSR and the USA, in an attempt to inspire morale, and convince America to open a second front in Europe.
Junior Lieutenant Pavilchenko’s marksmanship, not to mention her technical know-how in reconstructing her rifle, are quite impressive. Staying hidden from a sniper on her trail for three days, ultimately besting him, is even more so. For these reasons alone, Junior Lieutenant Pavilchenko arrives at third place on our list.
Second Place-Carlos Hathcock
I can hear the angry Marines at my door already. Please keep in mind that second-best among some of the most legendary combat shooters in history is still rarified air by any stretch of the imagination, and Gunnery Sergeant Hathcock certainly has the lungs to breathe it. Utilizing a self-converted M21 Springfield variant he dubbed the M25 “White Feather”, after the nickname given him by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) for the tall feather he wore in his bush hat, Hathcock made his presence well known in-country. Already an experienced shooter prior to combat service, Hathcock grew up hunting on visits to his relatives in Mississippi, and later shot competitively. This culminated in his winning the Wimbledon Cup at Camp Perry in 1965.
On the battlefield, these skills served Hathcock well. He racked up a deadly reputation, with his fellow Marines dubbing him “the Legend” for countless incredible deeds. While his sheer number of downed enemy is certainly impressive, sitting at 93 confirmed (but more likely between 300 and 400, considering no third party was ever present to “confirm” things when he was behind enemy lines), his skill and tenacity is far more so. The PAVN themselves placed a $30,000 bounty on his head for killing so many of their own snipers. One of his most famous deeds occurred in just such a counter-sniping scenario, when seeing the glint off an enemy sniper’s scope, he shot him directly through the scope’s tube. While he claimed the damaged rifle, hoping to bring it home as a trophy, it was unfortunately stolen from the armory and lost to history. Another display of skill, not to mention sheer grit, came when he inched his way over 1,500 yards across a field, over four sleepless days and three nights, to eliminate a PAVN general. During this ordeal, he remained hidden despite almost being bitten by a bamboo viper, and stepped on by an enemy patrol
In 1969, Hathcock’s wartime career came to an unfortunate end when his LVT-5 struck an anti-tank mine. While the burns he sustained were too severe for him to return to combat, Hathcock continued his work on the home front, helping to establish the Marine Corps Scout Sniper School at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia.
While he may never have made a shot at 2,100 yards like Chris Kyle, Hathcock’s skill with the old M21 was impressive. After all, placing a bullet through another’s scope, a feat so incredible it was officially “busted” on the Discovery Channel program Mythbusters, cannot be overstated. As far as mental and physical endurance is concerned … have you ever stayed awake for 84 hours to crawl across a field of snakes? Has ANYONE else, for that matter?? He also managed to stay fully hidden during this feat, earning him high marks across both our final two categories. Gunnery Sergeant Hathcock, therefore, sits at position two on our list.
First Place-Simo Häyhä
Simo Häyhä, the unassuming wintertime warrior from Finland, unquestionably wins this contest. Born in the rural Küskinen, Rautjärvi province (which is now Russian territory), Häyhä honed his skills from a young age, hunting in the Finish woods around his home. At the age of 17, he joined the Rautjärvi Civil Guard, and later served mandatory conscription in the Army from 1925-1927, in Bicycle Battalions 1 & 2. After being discharged, he continued on in the Civil Guard, winning numerous Viipuri Civil Guard regional competitions throughout the 1930s. Outside of the guard, his primary living was made as a hunter and trapper, meaning that in all areas of his life, a rifle rarely left Häyhä’s hands.
When the Winter War began, with Russia conducting a false-flag shelling of its own village of Manilla to initiate conflict, 450,000 Soviet troops poured over the Finnish border. His abilities quickly recognized, Häyhä was immediately relied upon to take out high-value targets others could not reach. Counter sniping, therefore, became his primary responsibility. This particular duty meant Häyhä conducted his business primarily with iron sights, an unthinkable method for a 20th century sharpshooter. He did this to prevent other snipers from spotting him in the snow, where the telltale glint of a scope could prove fatal. At one point, Häyhä even dislodged a well dug-in enemy sniper at 400 yards with such a setup. Eschewing any and all comforts in pursuit of his craft, Simo regularly removed his gloves to use them as a rifle rest, despite weather that dipped to -43 degrees Celsius, and filled his mouth with snow to eliminate the steam from his breath.
As the small ranks of the Finnish military required even snipers to pull double duty, Häyhä was sometimes called upon to fight in close. During one such occasion, he crawled silently with his comrades almost to the light of a Russian campfire, before opening fire on the unsuspecting soldiers and making off with their weaponry. All this technique, daring and skill led Häyhä to rack up 542 confirmed kills over just 98 days on the Kollaa front. The Soviets became so frustrated with the devastation he wreaked that they began to call down artillery strikes onto his suspected positions. But Häyhä always escaped into the safety of the forests, leading the Finnish media to bestow upon him the moniker of “White Death,” for his ability to materialize, kill, and vanish into the snow without a trace.
Finally, on March 6, 1940, Häyhä was grievously wounded in close-quarters combat in the forests of Ulismaa. A Russian infantryman hit Häyhä in the jaw with an exploding bullet, shattering the bone and half his face. Despite being taken for dead and thrown onto a pile of corpses (according to one story, anyway), Häyhä was recognized as alive when someone saw his boot twitching around, and was transported to the hospital on a sleigh. There Häyhä remained in a coma for seven days, until March 13. By the time he awoke, the war was over.
Häyhä ‘s prowess not just with a rifle, but with a fully unmagnified one, puts him atop our list for sharpshooting skill. The endurance displayed despite the bitter cold and long odds lend him high marks there as well, while finally, his total evasion of airstrikes and counter-snipers, only eventually being wounded when acting as infantry in a pitched battle, combine to thrust Second Lieutenant Häyhä to the top of our list.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this Throwback Thursday sniper shoot-off. For more on Simo Häyhä and Lyudmila Pavilchenko in particular, check out the following stories right here at nrafamily.org:
Editor’s Note: For today’s #ThrowbackThursday, we’re examining the lessons the Allied powers learned in World War II from one of America’s most formidable enemies at the time.
Arguably the greatest general that Germany produced during WWII was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), The Desert Fox. A career soldier, he fought during both World Wars, and became so revered for his tactical leadership skills and aggressive battlefield style that some Allied forces began to believe he was superhuman. To that point, the British Army Commander-in-Chief C.J. Auchinleck, issued the following order to his officers:
There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming a kind of magician or bogey-man to our troops, who are talking far too much about him. He is by no means a superman, although he is undoubtedly very energetic and able. Even if he were a superman, it would still be highly undesirable that our men should credit him with supernatural powers. I wish you to dispel by all possible means the idea that Rommel represents something more than an ordinary German general. The important thing now is to see that we do not always talk of Rommel when we mean the enemy in Libya. We must refer to “the Germans” or “the Axis powers” or “the enemy” and not always keep harping on Rommel. Please ensure that this order is put into immediate effect, and impress up all commanders that, from a psychological point of view, it is a matter of highest importance.
No, Rommel was not superhuman, but he did have what the Germans called (big-word warning) Fingerspitzengefuhl, an innate sixth sense of what the enemy was about to do. For instance, a German general, Fritz Bayerlein, Rommel’s Chief-of-Staff at the time, relates the following two anecdotes.
“We were at the headquarters of the Afrika Korps…when suddenly Rommel turned to me and said, ‘Bayerlein, I would advise you to get out of this [location]: I don’t like it.’ An hour later the headquarters were unexpectedly attacked and overrun.”
Bayerlein continues, “That same afternoon, we were standing together when he [Rommel] said, ‘Let’s move a couple of hundred yards to a flank, I think we are going to get shelled here.’ One bit of desert was just the same as another, but five minutes after we had moved, the shells were falling exactly where we had been standing. Everyone…who fought with Rommel in either war will tell you similar stories.”
Rommel also had the ability to quickly size up a battle in progress, and the decision-making skills to then seize the opportunity to attack when one presented itself. Consequently, he earned a reputation for, at times, making rash decisions, but those decisions seemed to pay off for him and his armies more times than not.
A trait that endeared Rommel to his vanguard troops was that he “led from the front,” spending nearly as much time with the frontline, everyday soldier as he did with his officers back at headquarters. As a result, his soldiers were willing to follow him anywhere.
Another characteristic that helped make Rommel the military legend he became was that he was constantly learning, not only from his victories, but also his defeats—especially his defeats, which seemed to haunt him. And he was open to new ideas, new equipment, new weapons, anything that would make his armies more efficient and in turn, more successful.
For example, Rommel did not invent blitzkrieg—a highly mobile style of warfare employing armored, motorized forces—but he and his 7th Panzer Division of tanks certainly perfected it in France during 1940. Later in the war, his Afrika Korps then continued using the technique in the deserts of North Africa to win battle after battle.
Rommel had always been a prolific writer, and following his time in Africa he authored a paper titled The Rules of Desert Warfare, the small portions below being just a few of the more interesting excerpts from the six-page document.
- The tank force is the backbone of the motorized army. Everything turns on the tanks, the other formations are mere ancillaries. War of attrition against the enemy tank units must, therefore, be carried on as far as possible by one’s own tank destruction units…[they] must deal the last blow.
- Results of reconnaissance must reach the commander in the shortest possible time, and he must then make immediate decisions and put them into effect as quickly as possible. Speed of reaction in Command decisions decides the battle. It is, therefore, essential that commanders of motorized forces should be as near as possible to their troops and in the closest signal communication with them.
- It is my experience that bold decisions give the best promise of success. One must differentiate between operational and tactical boldness and a military gamble. A bold operation is one which has no more than a chance of success but which, in case of failure, leaves one with sufficient forces in hand to be able to cope with any situation. A gamble, on the other hand, is an operation which can lead either to victory or to the destruction of one’s own forces. Any compromise is bad.
- One of the first lessons which I drew from my experiences of motorized warfare was that speed of operation and quick reaction of the Command were the decisive factors. The troops must be able to operate at the highest speed and in complete coordination. One must not be satisfied here with any normal average but must always endeavor to obtain the maximum performance, for the side which makes the greater effort is the faster, and the faster wins the battle. Officers and NCOs must, therefore, constantly train their troops with this in view.
- In my opinion, the duties of the Commander-in-Chief are not limited to his staff work. He must also take an interest in the details of Command and frequently busy himself in the front line.
- The Commander-in-Chief must have contact with his troops. He must be able to feel and think with them. The soldier must have confidence in him. In this connection there is one cardinal principle to remember: one must never simulate a feeling for the troops which in fact one does not have. The ordinary soldier has a surprisingly good nose for what is genuine and what is fake.
In the WWII movie Patton, released in 1970, actor George C. Scott portrays the brash and flamboyant American General George S. Patton. Near the end of the movie, after Patton and his army have defeated Rommel and his troops, Patton shouts loudly across the battlefield in victory, “Rommel, you magnificent b______, I read your book!”
The book he was referring to was Rommel’s Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks). Published in 1937, it chronicles his experiences during World War I. If you’d care to read it, the treatise will give you a look into the mind of one of the greatest tactical military geniuses of the 20th Century. The Rommel Papers, edited by B. H. Liddell Hart and published in 1953, is also highly recommended, relating Rommel’s WWII experiences in his own words.