Argus title : Making order out of chaos
One of the privileges of writing this column, is that I meet so many diverse and fascinating people. Not only that, I am allowed to step outside the normal constraints of polite English society and ask them as many questions as I like. They may not answer, but at least I am permitted to inquire.
Despite the latitude I enjoy as a journalist, I was a little uneasy when someone suggested I write about local author Patrick Delaforce. Patrick is a prolific military historian, from a family steeped in British military tradition. A troop commander in the Second World War, he was twice mentioned in dispatches and was awarded the Bronze Cross of Orange-Nassau. His father served at Supreme Headquarters (SHAEF) and his uncle was active in Special Operations (SOE).
I am the daughter of a Scottish/South African conscientious objector who was spat at and sent white feathers because he would not enlist. I spent my adolescence reading about pacifists such as Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Though my maternal grandfather fought in East Africa during the First World War and was promoted to captain, he seemed anxious to forget the horrors of war. He kept his medals, but never wore them.
Patrick, on the other hand, does not want to forget. He doesn’t just write history, he is steeped in it. And so he has responded to his experiences by remembering and recording them. In truth, this is a reaction I can understand more readily than that of my grandfather. To write history is to make order out of apparent chaos. Historians make sense of the past.
In the course of his life, Patrick has seen much that defies sense and reason. During the war he was wounded twice – on one occasion being blown up by the Wehrmacht. He survived, but his driver was ripped to pieces.
He was with the first battle group to enter the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. It held 35,000 men and 25,000 women, most of them political prisoners of the Nazis.
Racked by Typhus and weakened by torture and starvation, the inmates died in their thousands. As the troops entered the camp, three thousand corpses lay unburied on the ground. The living tore each other to pieces for a piece of chocolate. The stench was unimaginable.
Not long afterwards, Patrick almost succumbed to a Typhus related illness. His organs gave way and, as he says, he “started to die”. He remembers his Colonel and Brigadier coming to the hospital to say their farewells, so convinced were they that he was dying.
Thereafter, still only 21, he served on War Crimes Tribunals in Hamburg, examining the cases of concentration camp officers and guards who had committed appalling atrocities. As the most junior of the officers present at the Tribunals he was required to give his verdict first, in order to ensure that he was not influenced by senior officers’ opinions. He also witnessed the executions of the convicted camp guards in Hameln by Alfred Pierrepoint, the official British Hangman.
Such experiences cannot fail to have marked him. He has a quality of stillness and self control which perhaps springs from these terrible events.
As Patrick welcomed me into the peaceful terraced house in Brighton in which he and his wife Gillian now live, the first thing I noticed on his living room wall was a large portrait of 4 men and a boy. Patrick and his cousin are posed alongside their grandfather, Patrick’s father and his uncle John. Though many of the men are in uniform, this is not an ordinary portrait of an influential military family. It is also portrays, as Patrick explained, a dynasty of affluent merchants.
The Delaforces have been fine port wine growers for generations. Typically, the family business began when two young Delaforces went to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Realising there was a ready market for imported wines, both at home and in other countries, they set up bases in Oporto and London. The family have traded ever since, supplying Delaforce port to the monarchies and aristocracies of Europe.
The family’s European connections are deep-rooted, for the Delaforces have not always been British. The family can trace their history back to mediaeval Aquitaine in the area of La Force, near Bergerac, territory which was controlled first by the French and subsequently the English. At that stage the family became English. As a consequence, when the French recaptured the territory, the family lost their land, being compensated by the English kings with property in the Auvergne. The family became Huguenots (protestants) and suffered persecution by the Roman Catholic majority.
In 1540 a father and son arrived in London from Paris. Besides being successful merchants (and hotel owners in Calais and Dover) they became secret agents for several centuries. As Patrick laughingly told me, when his Uncle John joined Special Operations during the war, he was simply carrying on a family tradition.
After the war Patrick worked for the family firm for 7 years, much of the time in Oporto. His first marriage foundered and he returned to England, subsequently leaving the family firm. He moved into advertising and worked successfully in both Britain and the USA. It was only after a successful career in business that Patrick began to publish in earnest.
His personal life has been as rich and rewarding as his professional life has been varied and successful. Some years after his first marriage ended, Patrick remarried. His face softens as he speaks about his wife Gillian, now an elegant and doughty campaigner to save St Peter’s Church, but at the time he met her, a beautiful young actress in a repertory theatre company. He became he says “a stage-door Johnny” following her around the country, seeing her at weekends. He smiled as he told me “After a while we were married and well, since then we’ve lived happily ever after”.
I thought it a peculiarly sweet and childlike use of language for a man whose life has been so shaped by stereotypically masculine pursuits. And yet, I realised that it was of a piece with an approach to history which is, at times, distinctly romantic.
When I asked Patrick why he began to write, he said he’d wanted to write “about his heroes”. As a consequence – in addition to his more conventional histories of famous divisions, military action and battles – he has written about great men such as the diarist Samuel Pepys, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Nelson and Churchill.
Many of these books focus less upon the already well-documented public lives of the individuals concerned than upon their private and domestic lives. In particular, they explore the lives and experiences of women loved by these famous men.
Throughout their marriage, Patrick and Gillian travelled extensively and later bought a house in France, where they and their children spent many happy years. Patrick began to write travel books, often associated with wine and wine-growing and eventually was commissioned to write travel guides for Collins the publishers. As he said “It was wonderful to be paid to travel around beautiful places.”
Patrick’s latest book is “The Hitler File – The Essential Facts”. It is a quirky and easily accessible compilation of facts about Hitler’s life, some of them quite extraordinary. He makes no attempt to produce major political biography, but presents known facts from a fresh angle, introducing at times fascinating nuggets of information.
I for one did not know that Hitler’s style of moustache was called in Bavaria, a “Rotzbremse” or “snot break” nor that Rudolph Hess was once nicknamed “Frau Hitler”. Neither did I know that during an official dinner during the 1937 visit to Germany of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Duke honoured Hitler with “numerous” Nazi salutes.
Patrick says this will be his last book. I asked him why he had chosen to write about Hitler, who clearly is no “hero”. Patrick replied quietly “I wrote about him because he disrupted my family’s and my own life”.
It was the closest he came to an expression of anger.
Patrick Delaforce’s “The Hitler File – The Essential Facts” was published on 20th September 2007 by Michael O’Mara Books Ltd. at £9.99