|David Niven as General Sir Roland "Rolo" Dane in the 1948 RKO film Enchantment.
James David Graham Niven was born in London, England, the son of William Edward Graham Niven (killed at Gallipoli in 1915)
and French/British Henrietta Julia Degacher, born in Wales, the daughter of army officer William Degacher and Julia Caroline,
the daughter of Lieutenant General James Webber Smith. It should be noted that Niven's grandfather Captain William Degacher
of the 24th Regiment of Foot was one of the British officers who were killed at the disastrous battle at Isandlwana during the
Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
Niven actually had an extensive military career both before and during World War II which will be related in part here. His film
career is well known.
After attending Stowe as a boy, Niven trained at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, which gave him the "officer and
gentleman" bearing that was to be his trademark. Although he had done well at Sandhurst, Niven did not enjoy his time in the
regular Army, in part because he was not accepted for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on which he had set his heart. He
served for two years in Malta and two years in Dover with the Highland Light Infantry. While on Malta, he became acquainted and
friendly with Captain Roy Urquhart, who would later lead the British 1st Airborne Division in the ill-fated Operation Market-
Niven grew tired of the peacetime Army and saw no opportunity for promotion or advancement. As he related in his memoirs, his
ultimate decision to resign came after a lengthy lecture on machine guns, which was interfering with his plans for dinner with a
particularly attractive young lady. At the end of the speech, the major general giving the lecture asked if there were any
questions. Showing the typical rebelliousness of his early years, Niven stated that he felt compelled to ask, "Could you tell me the
time, sir? I have to catch a train."
After being placed under close arrest for this act of insubordination, Niven claims to have finished a bottle of whisky with the
officer who was guarding him and, with the connivance of the latter, escaped from a first floor window. En route across the
Atlantic, Niven sent a telegram resigning his commission. Niven relocated to New York, where he began an unsuccessful career in
whisky sales and horse rodeo promotion in Atlantic City. After subsequent detours to Bermuda and Cuba, he finally arrived in
Hollywood in the summer of 1934.
After Great Britain declared war in 1939, Niven rejoined the British Army. First serving with the Rifle Brigade, Niven was assigned
to a motor training battalion. Niven later interviewed for a position with the British Commandos, and was assigned to a training
area near Lochailort Castle in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Niven would later claim credit for introducing British hero
Robert Laycock to the Commandos. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel by General Frederick E. Morgan and assigned as a
liaison officer between the British Second Army and the First United States Army, Niven took part in the Normandy landings,
arriving several days after D-Day. He acted in two films during the war, both of strong propaganda value: The First of the Few
(1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). During his war service, his batman was Private Peter Ustinov.
Niven remained politely, but firmly, close-mouthed about the war, despite public interest in celebrities in combat and a reputation
for telling good stories over and over again. He said once: "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."
Niven also had special scorn for the newspaper columnists covering the war who typed out self-glorifying and excessively florid
prose about their meager wartime experiences. Niven stated, "Anyone who says a bullet sings past, hums past, flies, pings, or whines
past, has never heard one − they go crack." One story has surfaced: about to lead his men into a battle with an expectation of heavy
casualties, Niven supposedly eased their nervousness by telling them, "It's all very well for you chaps, but I'll have to do this all over
again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!"
He did, however, finally open up about his war experience in his 1971 autobiography, The Moon's A Balloon, mentioning his private
conversations with Winston Churchill, the bombings, and what it was like entering a nearly completely destroyed Germany with
the occupation forces. Niven stated that he first met Churchill during a dinner party at in February 1940 when Churchill singled
him out from the crowd and stated, "Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you,
had you not done so − it would have been despicable."
In spite of a six year virtual absence from the screen, he came in second in the 1945 Popularity Poll of British film stars. On his
return to Hollywood after the war, he was made a Legionnaire of the Legion of Merit, the highest American order that can be
earned by a foreigner. This was presented to Lt. Col. David Niven by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Black and White Publicity Photograph
8 inch by 10 inch
RKO Radio Pictures Corporation
Hollywood, California, United States