Obituary: Donald Wise

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A DEFINITIVE memory of Donald Wise is in a bathroom of a Saigon hotel in 1965. Wearing a silk dressing-gown, he is massaging soap into his cavalier moustache with long, bony fingers, muttering, "Shampooed the bloody thing three times and it still smells." It smelled of death because he had spent the past 24 hours with a South Vietnamese battalion that was being destroyed by the Viet Cong somewhere outside the city; he had filed his report and was changing for dinner.

To those who reported the wars brought about by the end of the European empires, Donald Wise was a regular companion. Tall and tough, debonair and witty, he was a bulwark of confidence and military wisdom. A newcomer to the Cyprus terrorism of the late 1950s would learn from him - over a drink in the bar of the Ledra Palace Hotel - how to survive a walk down Ledra Street, the "Murder Mile", where the British expected to be shot in the back.

Look at reflections in shop windows, he would advise; inside a shop, face the door (a gunman may think you will recognise him if his shot is not fatal); in a restaurant, sit, back to a wall, near a service door or window; in the street, walk towards oncoming traffic, and so on.

Always immaculate, often in well-cut combat jacket and jaunty camouflaged hat; when he was wounded by a grenade in an Aden backstreet, a photograph taken as the smoke of the explosion cleared, showed him, blown off his feet, in snowy, short-sleeved shirt, pressed slacks and cowboy boots.

Wise was wounded four times but only once as a professional soldier. Born in Leatherhead in 1918 - the son of the owner of a department store in South Africa - he had been educated at Mill Hill but sent down from Worcester College, Oxford, for inattention to his studies. Becoming a junior reporter for the Daily Mirror and then the Daily Sketch, he joined the Territorial Army and, in 1939, was called up.

Commissioned into the Suffolk Regiment, he arrived in Singapore with the 18th Division just before the surrender but in time to fight and to be mentioned in despatches, wounded and taken prisoner. When the Japanese ordered captured officers to carry out manual labour in defiance of the Geneva Convention, Wise refused. Told that he should work because Jesus Christ had worked as a carpenter, Wise replied, "Jesus Christ was not a British officer."

On liberation, he decided to stay in Malaya as a rubber planter, but the Chinese Communist insurrection began and he returned to soldiering as part of the counter-guerrilla Ferret Force in the jungle. Later he returned to journalism first for the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, then in Kenya, where he joined the staff of the Daily Express as a result of an exclusive interview with Ernest Hemingway, who had survived an air crash in the bush.

It was then that Wise began some 20 years as one of the dozen or so correspondents who regularly reported wars in Africa, Asia and the middle East. Had he not been a journalist himself, the others would have written about him as a survivor from the age of gentleman-adventurers who carried their intrepidity lightly. But there was a hard centre to the elegance and charm.

When a British sergeant's wife was murdered by Eoka gunmen in Cyprus and British soldiers took the law into their own hands, or, rather, fists, Wise hastened to report the scenes. Returning, with his own fist banadaged, to a bar, the proprietor, a known Eoka sympathiser, remarked pointedly, "Mr Wise, you have hurt your fist?" "Just a monkey-bite," remarked Wise, "so it's gone a bit septic."

His off-beat style of reporting was right for Beaverbrook's Daily Express: reporting a public execution in Saigon, he described not the shooting itself but the reaction of a Vietnamese, woken by the volley below his window - opening the shutters, scratching himself and yawning - as a metaphor for the prevailing war-weary cynicism.

In 1960, he was enticed back to the Daily Mirror, where the foreign editor was Cecil King's gentle and intelligent son, Michael. This was a mistake since the Mirror had little space, or taste, for his ironical style, or political assessments. When he moved to Hong Kong to write for the Far Eastern Economic Review in the late 1970s, he kept in touch with his war correspondent friends, particularly the equally legendary Clare Hollingworth, who found him and his wife a flat near her own in the South of France, where they lived from 1995.

Donald Wise was married five times and two of his marriages were notably happy; his fourth, which ended with his wife's premature death, and his last, to Daphne Salvesen, the widow of a friend with whom he had been imprisoned in Singapore.

Donald Wise, journalist: born Leatherhead, Surrey 7 February 1918; married five times (one son, two daughters); died Kelsale, Suffolk 20 May 1998.

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