was best known for his acting work in roles such as The Pink Panther's Sir Charles Lytton
, aka the Phantom, a suave playboy burglar with, as calling card, a white glove embroidered with a "P". Niven is also remembered as a generous, if not always entirely truthful, fountain of (mostly saucy) anecdotes
, as well as a famous wit
. However, there was one part of his life about which he was always notoriously serious and tight-lipped: his military service in the Second World War.
A Gallipolli orphan
, Niven had graduated in 1930 from Sandhurst
. His early military career was however short-lived: three years later, escaping from arrest for insubordination, he resigned his commission on his way to America, where he was to start his film career as Anglo-Saxon Type #2008 from Central Casting
After the war broke out, Niven abandoned his budding stardom to re-join the British Army. However, most units, possibly aware of Niven's less-than-shining previous military record, rejected him. It was thus that Niven ended up in a rather eccentric and secretive outfit called the GHQ Reconaissance Regiment
. Their task? Reconnaissance and liaison behind enemy lines
. Their nickname? The Phantoms. Their regimental emblem? A "P"
It's difficult to know whether Niven ever saw combat as a Phantom, although they were notorious for sending high-ranking officers to combat. Niven joined the unit as Major in command of Squadron A (this article
includes a picture of him reviewing his squadron while wearing a helmet with the regimental "P"), but simultaneously worked in two propaganda films (together with his batman
, a Pvt. Peter Ustinov
). Later in the war he was attached to SHAEF
, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Apparently, he only ever gave one explanation for his discretion about the matter:
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.