Writer of Nazi thrillers
Monday 08 October 2007
Charles Whiting, historian and novelist: born 18 December 1926; twice married (one stepson); died York 24 July 2007.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the writer Charles Whiting had a fixation on Nazi Germany. The bulk of his fairly tremendous output – around 350 books, both fiction and non-fiction – concerned its hierarchies, its notorious figures, its battles and its beginnings. Whiting was a kind of "Nazi" cottage industry, although his own politics were not particularly to the right.
Although his first book, The Frat Wagon, a mainstream novel, was written and published during the early 1950s, it bore little or no resemblance to what would become his later work, other than that it was set in the ruins of post-war Germany, a milieu Whiting experienced at first hand while in the British army. In fact he only became a full-time writer 20 years later, during the 1970s, when he found that punching out action-adventure paperback originals to order was a paying proposition, whereas writing finely wrought literary novels wasn't.
He was one of the pioneers of the "Wehrmacht's-eye view" thriller – novels told from the point of view of the Second World War German stormtrooper. During the 1970s, thanks to the straight war thrillers he was writing under his own name for Sphere Books, he was talent-spotted by the publisher Anthony Cheetham, and offered a contract to write German "poor bloody infantry" actioners as "Leo Kessler". The name was deliberately created so the double "s" could with ease be transformed into the Nazi "SS" sigil beloved of pulp-fiction paperback-cover designers.
The sub-genre had been inadvertently created back in the 1950s by the Danish-born writer Sven Hassell, whose Legion of the Damned (1953), a semi-autobiographical account of its author's time in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, had become a surprise, and massive, bestseller in the UK as a paperback in the 1960s. Cheetham recognised a money-spinning formula when he saw one, and found in Whiting a willing grafter. In the end, "Kessler" produced well over a score of thrillers featuring a bunch of hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-fighting German soldiers who (a nice touch) had no regard for the Russian "pigs" they were fighting, but even less for "those lousy Gestapo scum" or "that damned SS offal".
Later on, Whiting became "Klaus Konrad" for further storm-troop epics, as well as "K.N. Kostov" to take in the adventures of Russian cannon fodder. He was also "Duncan Harding", "Ian Harding" and "John Kerrigan". From the 1980s onwards he began to concentrate more on non-fiction, pouring out scores of volumes of popular history and biographies devoted in the main to the Nazi regime and its ruling élite.
Charles Whiting was born in York in 1926 and educated at Nunthorpe Grammar School. At the age of 16, in 1943, he left school and joined up, lying about his age. At 18 he was already a sergeant and during 1944 and 1945 saw service with the 52nd Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment, which fought its way across northern Germany to meet up with the Russians in the ruins of Berlin.
After demob in 1948 he stayed on in Germany teaching English, and finishing off his education by correspondence course. Returning to England, he studied History and German at Leeds University where, in his final year, he tried his hand at a novel, The Frat Wagon, about post-war fraternisation between the Allies and the conquered Germans, which Jonathan Cape (a publisher Whiting chose by simply stabbing a pin at a list of publishing houses in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook) issued in 1954.
After graduation he taught for a while in Leeds then moved to Germany. He spent the next decade in a variety of jobs, working in a German chemical factory as an interpreter, training NCOs and officers in the US army, working as a publicist and peripatetic lecturer. He changed countries often, going where the work was – whatever work took his fancy – and lived in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Turkey, and finally in Belgium.
During his years in Germany in the 1950s he was a correspondent for The Times for a while, and began selling fact-pieces to magazines as diverse as Soldier, Playboy and the International Review of Linguistics. In the German city of Trier, he established a language school, and later a European Studies centre in Bradford.
After the success of his first novel he wrote three more, Lest I Fall (1956), Journey to No End (1957) and The Mighty Fallen (1958), the first of which earning him the George Dowty Prize at the 1956 Cheltenham Festival, which also paid for a study tour in North America. Even so, he soon came to the conclusion that the only paying fiction was pulp fiction, and at the height of his success paperback publishers came begging to him rather than the other way round.
His writing regime was as fixed and immutable as the laws of the Medes and Persians. Starting at 5.30am, by mid-morning he would have produced at least 3,000 words of publishable "top copy". He usually took a break after two o'clock in the afternoon and then settled down at his Olivetti typewriter for another couple of hours. In this way, and working seven days a week, he was able to turn out half a dozen books a year, and could even, if pressed by an importunate editor who might have an unexpected gap in his schedules, produce a full-length paperback of around 70,000 words in less than a month.
Whiting had always been interested in history, and after a while he began to shift more and more into factual mode. One of his best works of non-fiction was York Blitz (1975), an account of the German bombing of his native city in April 1942 (reissued as Fire Over York in 2005). Soon a steady stream of wartime histories issued from his typewriter, including Britain Under Fire (1987), A Bridge at Arnhem (1974), The Battle of the Ruhr Pocket (1972), Slaughter Over Sicily (1992), etc. The favourite of all his non-fiction books was one he wrote with a fellow ex-soldier, Eric Taylor, Fighting Tykes (1993), a history of the various Yorkshire regiments in the Second World War.
During his time in Germany he sought out various survivors of the Nazi elite as well as the relicts and families of those who were either hanged at Nuremburg or disappeared in the regime's Götterdämmerung in 1945. His books invariably feature uneasy photographs of the author chatting to elderly Nazi wives – such as the widow of Reinhard Heydrich, "the Hangman of Bohemia", showing him a silver dish given to her son as a christening present by the egregious Ernst Roehm – or old Nazis who, somehow or other, had managed to save their necks – like the half-American fantasist and erstwhile backer of Hitler, "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, playing a jolly tune on the piano.
Biographies of Nazi notables made up a large portion of his non-fiction output: Heydrich: henchman of death (1999), The Search for "Gestapo" Müller (2001), Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe (1998), The Hunt for Martin Bormann (1996), etc. Although in his latter years he did have a habit of recycling old material to bulk out new books – the story of "Hangman" Heydrich, as told in Heydrich: henchman of death, is re-run again in The Search for "Gestapo" Müller, for instance, as well as Bormann's possible escape from Berlin, for the umpteenth time. But he gave short shrift to writers in much the same line of business whose theories he had no time for – the Hungarian/American Ladislas Farago, who made up an entire book, The Fourth Reich, about actually meeting Bormann in South America, was a particularly detested figure.
Whiting himself never minded running with a bizarre theory, although in the main he left wilder speculations to his fictional side. The Phoenix Assault (1980, as by "John Kerrigan") is, for instance, an excellent thriller which posits that a top-echelon Nazi, trapped in Hitler's bunker in 1945, is in touch secretly with the Soviet High Command, and a high level British-American assassination squad must take him out before the Russians reach the bunker.
Charles Whiting was still writing within months of his death. His main non-fiction publisher, Pen & Sword, is reissuing Fighting Tykes later this year.
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