Writing in the Irish Times, author Mark Felton describes one of the British officers who appear in his new book as the model for Evelyn Waugh’s eccentric Ben Ritchie-Hook in his Sword of Honour trilogy. This is Brigadier-General Adrian Carton de Wiart, VC– half-Irish, half-Belgian veteran of the Boer War as well as World Wars I and II. Felton’s book is entitled Castle of the Eagles: Escape from Mussolini’s Colditz and deals with the escapes organized from an Italian POW camp where Carton de Wiart and several other generals were imprisoned. Carton de Wiart was captured after a plane crash in 1941 en route to Yugoslavia. The excerpt from the book describes how Carton de Wiart and several other high ranking British officers organized an elaborate escape from the prison:
Working together, the generals completed their massive tunnel excavation in March 1943. Six, in three teams of two, escaped later that month. Four risked the Italian railways, while De Wiart and [Lieutenant-General Sir Richard] O’Connor walked, sleeping rough each night and relying on the kindness of strangers in a bid for Switzerland. They struggled on through rain and cold, hunted by the Italian army and police, short of food but never of guts. O’Connor, a small wiry 55-year-old, with silver hair and a white moustache helping along the 6ft 2in De Wiart, 63 years old, with a black eye patch and missing left hand that had earned him the nickname “Long John Silver” from the castle’s young orderlies, both incongruously dressed as Italian peasants. Not for them, or the other esteemed escapers, a comfortable chair beside a roaring fire and a cup of cocoa, instead this band of eccentrics in their twilight years proved to be some of the most determined and imaginative escapers of the second World War.
It was Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes who identified Carton de Wiart as a contributor to Ritchie-Hook’s character, along with Major-General Orde Wingate and Waugh’s first Brigade Commander, Brigadier St Clair Morford. He supports his conclusion by noting that Waugh knew Carton de Wiart “slightly but enough, as a fellow member of White’s Club” (Sykes, Penguin, 1977, pp. 555-56).