Carl Giles at War (1939-45)
In 1999, Carl Giles was voted the 20th century's favourite cartoonist. One of the greatest comics of that era, Tommy Cooper, said of Giles, “I think Giles is the funniest cartoonist in the world. He makes me, like millions of others, laugh out loud.” Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of the Daily Express, called Giles “a man of genius who takes the solemnity out of the grand occasion and helps the world to keep sane by laughing at its soaring moments.” The artist Graham Sutherland said that Giles gave him “more pleasure than any other cartoonist. I think he is a great draughtsman, and his insight into the curious goings on of human nature is phenomenal.” His fellow cartoonists applauded him,too. Ronald Searle claimed no one could touch Giles “in his superb understanding of human behaviour,” while Vicky described him as “a present day Hogarth”.
From humble beginnings Giles became the first social cartoonist to have a truly national appeal. This book will attempt to look at how Giles developed and then unleashed his unique talent from small beginnings on a minor Sunday newspaper to working for one with the largest circulation in the world. As we shall see, Giles refined his craft during the biggest conflict in modern history, the Second World War – even working with bombs falling around him during the Blitz - one went through the top floor of the Reynolds News building while Giles was at work there, but luckily did not explode. He also saw the final throes of the war first hand, accompanying British forces fighting through Belgium, Holland and then Germany itself. He even witnessed the liberation of a concentration camp and Germany's surrender to Field Marshall Montgomery at Luneburg Heath in May 1945. Giles’s wartimeexperiences were authentically rendered into his daily cartoons, helping to raise a chuckle or two both at home and with those fighting overseas. As comedian Spike Milligan recalled, “During the war, Giles’s cartoons played no little part in boosting my morale.” Lt. Col. Sean Fielding wrote to the Daily Express stating, “Giles, in my opinion (and the soldiers) is the only artist who truly caught the stink, the discomfort and beastliness of the front line.”
Giles's War by Tim Benson
There have been a number of books about Giles since his death in 1995, but none have accurately told the true and detailed story of his early years as a cartoonist. There are two likely reasons for this. One, Giles wanted to portray himself as he wished others to perceive him, rather than how things actually turned out, and two, he disliked his official biographer, Peter Tory. According to Ric Brookes, who later replaced him as cartoonist on the Daily Express, Giles had an aversion to all journalists and avoided interviews wherever possible, as well astelevision and radio appearances. Maybe, as we will see, he had something to hide. With Tory, in particular, the animosity was mutual. Tory indeed stated that writing Giles’s biography was the worst and most boring assignment he had ever been given. At Giles’s funeral, as mourners took their seats, Tory remarked pithily: “People fish in a very small gene pool in Norwich. Have you noticed how they all look like Carl Giles?”
Tory admitted that getting Giles to talk about his private life was “like pushing a ton weight up a steep hill”. By the time Tory interviewed him, he was well into his dotage. Because of his antipathy towards Giles, Tory did not bother to question his unreliable recollections. The illustrated biographies by Tory were, consequently, full of historical inaccuracies, blatant untruths, gaping biographical holes and incorrectly annotated cartoons. This book attempts to rectify that and tell, for the first time, the true and comprehensive story of how and why Giles left Reynolds News for Beaverbrook Newspapers; a story that Giles deliberately kept hidden. This is also the first book to fully explore and illustrate Giles’s work for Reynolds News, and to use the cartoonist’s own personal archive, despite the fact that the vast majority of his pre-war correspondence was destroyed during the Blitz.
Ronald Giles was born on 29 September 1916,above his father's tobacconist shop on City Road in Islington. Later, his fellow animators nicknamed him Karlo, as his hairstyle supposedly resembled that of the American horror film actor Boris Karloff. The nickname was soon shortened to Carl, which he then proudly adopted as his first name. According to his sister, Giles “intensely disliked” the name Ronald. Despite this, his parents continued to call him by that name.
Giles was a cockney, as he later claimed he was born “well within the sound of Bow Bells”. The shop was next door to The Angel pub, which according to Giles was handy for his father, Albert Giles, because “the old man had to pop me somewhere when he went out”. In 1945, Tom Driberg wrote that the infant Giles literally “drank up the earthy, sawdusty, beery atmosphere which (would later) save his art from any trace of unreal aestheticism.”Although Giles remembered City Road being “a bloody awful dump,” he fondly recalled the noise of an eight-line tram junction outside, adding, “Oh, and the smell, when you got a shower of rain on the dusty streets, and the smells came up like an orchestra, the trams and the oil on the rails and the electricity transformers. Lovely, lovely!” He had also not forgotten the odours and sights of his own home: “Stew on Monday. Washday. The coal piled up in the outside passage (and watch out if you touched it!) A house full of uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. Grandfather sitting with his pile of toast by the fire.”
Despite urban beginnings, Giles did have rural origins, as he later explained. “My father came from a family of Newmarket jockeys and my mother from a family of Norfolk farmers.” Giles went to the local Barnsbury Park School. He later drew it in his cartoons as a place for unruly inner-city urchins. His nemesis at school was a teacher by the name of William James Chalk, who, as ‘Mr Chalky’, later became one of his most enduring cartoon creations. “He was a sarcastic bugger,” Giles recalled. “I vowed to get my own back on him, and did.” Chalk left him with a permanent dislike of authority in any form and as a consequence, he spent his entire career ridiculing petty officialdom, be it tax collectors, army officers, traffic wardens, shop stewards and even on the odd occasion, politicians., He seemed to have always held a low opinion of the latter, influenced no doubt by his father's vulgar cynicism. “The only thing that my father left me was a very true saying appertaining to politicians: 'the further the money climbs up the tree, the clearer you can see his arsehole,'” Giles remarked. In later life, Giles admitted to “love drawing cartoons of politicians, especially if you can make them look as ridiculous as possible, and they always ask for the original.”
As a child, Giles did not draw much, except in chalk on walls and rude scribbles on cars. He claimedthat he was never given a chance in art classes at school, because it always seemed that it was his fate “to sit under desiccated art masters who made [him] draw ‘that bloody cone,’ or ‘that wretched green vase which all schools have on the windowsill with never anything in it.’” Giles left school at 14 with no formal qualifications. He later admitted that he could not have got out of school fast enough. “In fact,” he recalled, “even before I left school at 14 I'd been working at night in an animated cartoon studio in the Charing Cross Road cleaning and washing brushes.” He became fascinated with animation,having seen Walt Disney's 1928 short Steamboat Willie, the first ever animated cartoon with sound. Giles may have inherited his love of drawing from his father Albert, who had been an amateur artist himself. According to Giles’s sister Eileen, “My father liked to draw and paint, his subject was always horses, which he did well but he always fell down when he tried to bring people into his pictures. He got hours and hours of pleasure from painting his horses but never did anything professionally.”
Despite his interest in art, Albert hoped his son would become a jockey as his own father had been, and who had even raced for the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in the 1880s. So with his father’sencouragement, Giles reluctantly began work as a stable hand. Sadly he soon disappointed his father by, in his own words, “going overweight at an early age and sprouting to an impossible stature of five foot ten.” Believing he had had a lucky escape, Giles then went to stay with his paternal grandmother, Agnes Giles, in Brighton, where he tried his luck as a pavement artist. Giles soon returned home and got a job as an office boy making “cups of tea” for an advertising agency called Superads. It specialised in animated commercials and was located in Wardour Street, Soho. There he earned the grand sum of ten shillings a week. It was not long before Giles’stalent gave him the opportunity to work in the company's animation studio as a junior animator, where he began working on cartoon shorts. He later remembered how supportive the other animators were with him: “The chaps there had more patience with kids than I have,” and pleasantly discovered that “you learn more working alongside other animators than you could possibly learn in art school.” This was his great opportunity and he took it: “I never had any formal art training to draw, thank God. I reckon the best bit of apprenticeship I had was drawing funnies for those bloody cartoon films.”
In 1932, at the age of only 16, he took some samples of a comic strip he had devised to the office of The Times, with a note asking the Editor to look at the gags he had drawn. Not surprisingly, he did not receive a reply. The Times has never had a cartoon strip and did not in fact publish political cartoons until the mid-1960s. In 1934, aged 18, Giles went to work in Elstree, Hertfordshire for director and producer Alexander Korda on The Fox Hunt. This was to be the first British animated cartoon produced in Technicolor for London Films. It was not a box office success, as Giles later explained: “Of course, it was a lost cause. Disney was the only thing the public wanted in those days and everything else had to be straight copy or else it was done for. And I never liked Mickey Mouse as a character!” Giles never held a high opinion of Walt Disney. He referred to him as a “conman”, in that Disney appeared to him more a showman than an innovator. Giles felt that “the only way to make film cartoons is to get away from Disney.” Maybe that is why he later turned down a job as an animator for Walt Disney Studios. In 1936 Giles was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that left him blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. Giles was sent to recuperate at Castle House, Dedham. This was the home of Sir Alfred Munnings, then President of the Royal Academy, who employed Giles’s uncle as a butler. Whilethere, Munnings was kind enough to give Giles the closest he would ever come to a formal art training. So with Munnings' help he was able to turn his experience in animation and capturing movement into producing static gag cartoons. Some of these were successfully published in Passing Show magazine.
Giles’s earliest influence in cartoons was the work of Bruce Bairnfather, who depicted the stoic British Tommy's comic experiences in the trenches during the First World War. At the early age of four, Giles had copied Bairnsfather's cartoons directly from the Bystander, which his father regularly brought home. He was also taken with the Punch cartoonist Graham Laidler, who worked under the pseudonym Pont. When Laidler died in 1940 at only 40 years old, Giles later admitted it had been “the same sort of shock as when someone dies in the family. I missed his drawings and went on missing them.”However, in Giles’s early work for Reynolds News one can plainly see a similar curvy line to that used by Laidler's fellow Punch contributor, Fougasse, as well as the minimalist wispy approach used by the American New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber. Giles called his wartime work “primitive” compared to what came after, and at times one cannot disagree. However, towards the end of the war one can quite clearly see that he had already honed his skills as an accomplished draughtsman.
Having recovered from his motorbike injuries, Giles was recruited by strip cartoonist Roland Davies to head a team of art school students to bring to life his strip Come on Steve! It featured a lumbering, genial old carthorse, which Davies had first drawn for the Sunday Express in March 1932. From Davies's animation studio in Ipswich, Giles helped produce a series of six animated shorts for cinema release. Although he was the head animator, Giles received no on-screen credit.
In the spring of 1937, Giles’s older brother Bert died in an industrial accident while at work in a garment factory. Giles decided to move back to London to be with his mother Emma, who was now also nursing her ailing husband in Burnt Oak, Edgware. Albert Giles passed away in November 1939. As the British animation industry seemed incapable of competing successfully with its American counterpart, Giles felt he had better prospects as a cartoonist than as an animator. In August 1937 he speculatively sent some cartoons to numerous newspapers and periodicals in London. Included was a strip cartoon he had devised, called Young Ernie. Initially, Giles only received rejections, as per The Illustrated Carpenter and Builder, which informed him that they would not be able to use the specimen cartoons he had sent, and suggested he contacted other publications instead. However, only a week later, he got his first big break when he received a belated reply from Bernard Boothroyd, the Humour Editor of the left-wing Sunday newspaper, Reynolds News. Boothroyd also wrote a regular column under the pseudonym ‘Yaffle’. Reynolds News was published by the Co-operative Press, which through its own political party had strong ties with Labour. The paper would be the only one to oppose the 1938 Munich agreement out of hand. Reynolds News did not employ a regular cartoonist, but published four single panel gag cartoons from foreign cartoonists around the world entitled The State of the Foreign Market. Boothroyd,seeing the makings of a popular cartoonist in Giles,replied on 17 September 1937, stating:
“I am sorry I have retained your drawings for so long. But I like the style of them and kept hoping I might find space for some of them. I think some of them are genuinely funny, and would like to use them... Let me say again that I think your drawings display real humour, both as to choice of subject and as to expression and attitude, which is considerably above the average.”
Boothroyd went on to suggest that if Giles could re-draw some of the cartoons he had submitted, he would publish them. One cartoon, a knight with sock-suspenders, was retained by Boothroyd “in order to experiment with it - to see if I can reproduce it in a limited space.” It was published a week later on 26 September 1937. From that very first cartoon, Giles, although freelance, became a regular contributor to the paper. By December 1937, Reynolds News was so impressed with Giles that, three days before Christmas, the then Managing Editor, Sydney Elliott, offered him a full-time contract. This stipulated that Giles was to “prepare drawings for Page Two; to prepare a weekly Comic Strip under Mr. Boothroyd's direction; and to undertake such general work, like the preparation of maps, as may be required by the editorial staff'” and all at a weekly salary of six pounds six shillings. Giles came back to London and moved into his mother's semi-detached house at 319 Whitchurch Lane in Canons Park, Edgware. The Young Ernie strip appeared for the first time on 9 January 1938. Editor Sydney Elliot had advised Giles that the strip “should bear neither labels nor caption; if the joke was not obvious without the aid of a written explanation, it was no joke. Giles accepted the challenge and survived the test. Young Ernie, needless to say, was Giles himself, the little fellow mocking misfortune and poking fun at the pompous fools who delight in pushing other people around.”
The Reynolds News offices were in a building on Gray’s Inn Road, Kings Cross that still stand today. For Giles, now living in the leafy suburbs of Canons Park, it was an easy journey to Kings Cross. Very often he would bump into his first cousin Joan Clarke (later to become his wife) on her way to work. She was a typist in the newsroom at the News Chronicle. It was quite incestuous as her father, Giles’s other uncle, was the Circulation Manager of the Evening News. Her family lived in Hampstead at the time, and so they often met on the Tube as both stations were on the Edgware branch of the Northern Line. She was only two years younger than him and Giles claimed to have known her “since she was that corny old gleam in her father's eye.”
Carl Giles at his drawing board drawing his daily cartoon
Giles worked from an easel in the Reynold's News library. According to Sydney Elliott, the area around Giles’s easel was soon “a child's delight and a newspaper cashier's nightmare; a litter of the latest models of the airplanes, motor cars, speed boats and trains which were the stock-in-trade of his cartoons.” Fellow staffer, Gordon Schaffer, remembered how Giles “enjoyed working on his cartoons. He would do a bit - draw a character - then stand back and say, with a huge grin on his face: ‘Look at that silly bugger there.’ We didn't know of course how famous he was going to be.” Giles usually worked between six to ten hours on a cartoon, mainly because of his love of elaborate detail and authentic settings. According to James Dugan, Giles’s genius as a cartoonist was due to the training he had received as an animator:
“The secret of Giles’s dramatic cartoons lies in his movie training. He draws in a panel shaped like the movie screen; his carefully built background architecture is as authentic as a naturalistic stage setting; his characters are placed on stage with directorial skill. When he shows his drawings to friends he delights in telling what the characters have been doing up to the moment he has chosen to draw them and what happens to them afterward. In dreaming up a cartoon situation, he imagines a complete dramatic sequence and orders his brain children to act it out. When they come to the climactic moment, Giles says mentally, ‘Hold it!’”
Up until the war broke out on 3 September 1939, Giles generally drew joke cartoons as well as illustrations for Yaffle's regular column and, of course, the Young Ernie strip. Giles drew less than a handful of politically themed cartoons up to this point. Once the country was at war, he focused on cartoons that made fun of Hitler and Mussolini, as well as somehow finding humour in wartime conditions both on the home front and for those serving in the military. He had little sympathy for the then Prime Minister and his failed policy of Appeasement. In Giles’s eyes he had been totally discredited. “Anyone with a ha'porth of sense knew that you couldn't like Chamberlain,” he said. In March 1940, he received his call-up papers, but was found unfit for military service due to his motorbike accident. Instead he joined his local Home Guard unit on the Edgware Road, which was attached to the Middlesex Regiment. His experiences here provided him with plenty of material for his cartoons throughout the war, as we shall see.
Giles got on very well with his colleagues at Reynolds News and enjoyed their company. Politically he felt comfortable on the left, and even considered joining the Communist Party at the time. In an interview in 1966, he still admitted to having left-wing sympathies, despite his wealth: “I'm really a dirty leftist ... what else can you be?” He squared the circle by saying he was a “Bentley-driving socialist.” He would later say of his colleague on the Daily Express, Michael Cummings, that he “detested” his right-wing politics and unlike OsbertLancaster refused to have any of his cartoons on display in his home or studio. Over the years, Giles grew tired of being asked if his wealth had affected his political outlook: 'I'm always getting asked how I reconcile my Socialist views with my money, you know?” Maybe that is another reason he avoided interviews. His colleagues at Reynolds News, such as Alan Hutt, Monty Slater and Gordon Schaffer, were great drinking buddies, too. They frequented the local pubs along the Gray’s Inn Road on a daily basis, such as the Pindar of Wakefield, the King's Head and Giles’s favourite The Bell. The only colleague Giles did not get on with was the News Editor, Arnold Russell, as he later recalled: “I hated the bloody sight of him. He was a typical Tory fart, typifying the little capitalist shit that Alan, Gordon and Monty would warn us all about. He was difficult as a News Editor, too. Bad tempered, always firing off at everything. We all knew him as the terror of Richmond Gulch. In his first week in the Home Guard he had been posted to a lonely vigil as a sentry in Richmond Graveyard. I did a cartoon of him looking miserable as sin, surrounded by tombstones.”
Giles wrote several articles for Reynolds News and never missed an opportunity to have a dig at Russell. For example, in one article he sarcastically wrote, “I have to put up with interruptions from the News Editor, who keeps dropping his funny little jokes at my expense, and every time he makes one of these little jokes everybody laughs ‘Ha, Ha.’ So of course, I have to laugh ‘Ha, Ha’ as well.” As we will see, Giles would conveniently use Russell as a scapegoat and blame him for why he later left the paper. According to Gordon Schaffer, “I think what happened is that the news editor, Arnold Russell, whom Giles didn't get on with anyway, wanted to squeeze some more news into the page. As a result he demanded that Giles’s cartoon be cut down. He was furious. I think, though I cannot be certain, that this is what triggered him off. In practice, this did not just simply mean that the cartoon was reduced in size but on occasions parts of it were cut out, which meant losing a section of the drawing.” According to Peter Tory, “This act of savagery did not simply mean that the cartoon was reduced in size, but an inch or so of it was actually cut out. It may have been a slice of sky, a section of pavement in the foreground or a wall at the side of the picture, but whatever it was this represented to the artist an act not just of insensitivity but also brutal barbarism.” The truth is that despite what Schaffer and Tory say, none of Giles’s cartoons were ever reduced in size or cut into at Reynolds News. Why did Giles encourage this fabricated story to flourish?
By 1941, Giles’s reputation as a cartoonist was growing both in Fleet Street and in the country at large, despite the paper's comparatively small circulation. His cartoons for Reynold's News were also being syndicated in other publications, and the paper was inundated with requests from readers to publish an annual anthology of his cartoons; one reader suggesting that an Annual would be the perfect Christmas gift to send to troops serving overseas. With growing confidence, an increasingly ambitious Giles started to think about a bigger audience than the one he had, as well as greater remuneration and more space for his work in the newspaper, something Reynolds News could not offer him. So he took it upon himself to approach Bill Farrer, the then Editor of the Labour-controlled Daily Herald. Farrer had been looking for another cartoonist to work alongside George Whitelaw, who had replaced Will Dyson in 1938 after hisdeath. Giles even got as far as negotiating a contract for himself of £1,200 a year, four times what he was currently earning. However, the deal fell through because the then editorial director of the Daily Herald, John Dunbar, rejected Giles on the grounds that he felt his caricature was so poor it was not possible to know who was who in his cartoons. In a letter to Giles, Farrer wrote, “He (Dunbar) thought you could not draw faces - that your Hitlers would not be identifiable. There's a page for your memoirs!” Giles later admitted to a colleague that he “couldn’t draw people.”
On 14 March 1942, Giles married Joan, whom he called the “the prettiest girl I had ever seen”. The ceremony took place in East Finchley. His Home Guard colleagues lined up outside the church using their bayonets to give him a guard of honour. Only one photograph of the occasion survives as the ones taken by the official photographer from Reynolds News did not come out. Giles was devoted to Joan and relied upon her heavily. According to Giles’s sister Eileen, “Giles would be completely lost without her. She is not only his wife but secretary, too. She runs their home and business side of his life with great efficiency. Her energy is unbounding, to sit down and relax is almost an impossibility for her.” By today's standards Giles would probably be considered something of a misogynist, a sort of southern version of Reg Smythe's Andy Capp. He said of Joan: “She's my secretary, nursemaid and everything else thrown in. I'm always trying to catch her out when we go on a trip, but she's never forgotten anything yet.” However, it seems he also had other needs, for according to cartoonist Raymond Jackson 'JAK', Giles had a long-term mistress, whom he saw at the Savoy Hotel on his occasional visits to London, all paid for courtesy of the Daily Express.
A uniformed Carl Giles having just married his first cousin Joan Clarke.
In September 1942, to Giles’s dismay, Sydney Elliott left Reynolds News to work for Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard as deputy editor. At first glance this seemed politically a strange move as Beaverbrook was a Tory peer and later admitted to using his newspapers primarily for propaganda purposes. However, the 'Beaver' was a political maverick and had a long history of employing left-wingers on his newspapers. A 28-year-old Michael Foot had just replaced another radical left-winger, Frank Owen, as Editor of the Evening Standard. Foot had co-written with Owen the classic polemic against the appeasement of Hitler, Guilty Men, under the pseudonym Cato. It had attacked the Conservative hierarchy, such as previous Tory Prime Ministers Baldwin and Chamberlain, for the failures of Appeasement and for not having fully prepared Britain for war. The paper, encouraged by Beaverbrook, also supported the popular left-wing cause for an early Second Front in Europe. This was to take pressure off the Soviet Union, which was bearing the brunt of the fighting against the Germans. Finally, the Evening Standard employed the most talked about cartoonist of the time, David Low. Beaverbrook had even given Low, who was on the political left, a much-lauded contract that made him the first cartoonist to have “complete freedom in the selection and treatment of his subject matter in his cartoons”. Giles was himself a great admirer of Low and later stated: “I think it is an accepted fact in most circles that Low, of the Standard, is by far the greatest of our political cartoonists.”
By the spring of 1943, Giles was busier than he had ever been and, as a result, was beginning to feel the strain. Apart from his duties for Reynolds News, he had taken up animation work for the Ministry of Information from his small Ipswich studio, with six animators to assist him. One of the commissions was a three-minute animated cartoon designed to increase grenade production. The grenade, known then as a Mills bomb, is the hero of the film. It is at first cocky, then overawed by the far grander weapons of war, but finally does its job by devastating the German eagle. Ministry of Information officials were so impressed with it they began to refer to Giles as the 'Cockney Disney' and asked him to make another film on how to instruct prospective mothers in prenatal care. Unfortunately, British mothers never got to find out, as the film was never made. Giles’s storyboard was declared highly unsuitable. His central character was an unborn child who loafed around inside his mother smoking a cigar and giving out prenatal advice in a voice highly reminiscent of the American comedian W.C. Fields.
As if his output were not enough, Giles also produced cartoons for several other Ministries,including Defence, Health, Food and Agriculture and the Railway Executive Committee. When the Home Guard asked Giles to design backcloths and posters for an event in June 1943, the cartoonist replied that he was working 12-14 hours a day for the Ministry so he would be unable to do it. Giles must have looked on enviously at those cartoonists employed by Beaverbrook. Not only were Low and Strube the best paid men in Fleet Street, but Beaverbrook gave them an unprecedented amount of space for their cartoons. Low, in particular, received a half page for his daily cartoon in the Evening Standard and an unprecedented full-page for his collection of topical cartoons on a Saturday. On 18 July 1943, Giles decided enough was enough. He contacted his former colleague, Sydney Elliott, asking him about the possibility of being employed by the Evening Standard. Elliott wrote back to Giles, saying there was no vacancy for a cartoonist, but told him there might be an opening at the Express. Giles seemed undeterred, despite the Express being a Tory mouthpiece. He later admitted to seeing the Express as “a kind of Palladium, a vast stage that had room for everyone.” On 16 August, Giles wrote to Elliott thanking him for introducing him to John Gordon (Editor of the Sunday Express) and for the subsequent opportunity to work for the Express.
Giles was quite fortuitous in his timing, for there had been no vacancy either at the Daily or Sunday Express, with Strube as staff cartoonist on both papers since 1912. However, Arthur Christiansen, Editor of the Daily Express, had just fallen out with Strube over his lack of support for the ‘Second Front Now’ campaign. According to Strube, “He (Christiansen) would not look at my usual set of ideas – he had an idea about Dieppe – but I would not do it. The people were not in that mood, in fact there was a lot of dangerous feeling so I suggested my idea but of course he wouldn’t look at it. He was furious and walked up and down his room saying I’ll get you on the Second Front yet! Next day, he was at it again. I still refused to do his idea. He said I didn’t believe in the Second Front. I replied that I did but that we were not yet ready to launch one.”
Christiansen never forgave Strube for standing his ground. From that moment on Christiansen was determined to replace Strube with a cartoonist more in line with his own ideas and views. Yet he could not sack Strube as he was enormously popular with readers and still had the support of Lord Beaverbrook. Beaverbrook had once told Christiansen, who had consulted him about an idea Strube had had that was not in line with the paper’s opinions, “George is a law unto himself”. Instead, Christiansen decided to make life difficult for Strube in the expectation that it would lead to his resignation. Christiansen then told Strube that he was going to employ another cartoonist to work alongside him because he needed plenty of time to train a new cartoonist in preparation for Strube’seventual retirement. Strube told Christiansen that he would be unhappy if another cartoonist “appeared on my pitch - after all my loyalty to the paper it would hardly be fair”. As regards his possible retirement, Strube went on to say that at 50 years old he did not consider himself an old man and certainly not even ready to contemplate retirement. “If Churchill had retired at 50,” he told Christiansen, “we would probably have already lost the war!” Undeterred, Christiansen informed Strube that he was no longer to be the sole cartoonist on the paper. When he was told that the new cartoonist was Giles, Strube was unimpressed, considering him no more than just another joke artist.
Giles was contracted to draw two cartoons a week for the Daily Express and one for the Sunday Express. He was allowed to work from his new marital home, a rented cottage in Tuddenham, near Ipswich in Suffolk. This was not altogether unusual. David Low had already set the precedent by working from his own studio in Hampstead, free from editorial control or proprietorial influence. As a result, Giles was free to draw what he liked and did not have to seek approval for any of his ideas. Contrary to popular opinion, his employer Lord Beaverbrook was not that enamoured with Giles at first. This may have been because Beaverbrook might have been under the misapprehension that Giles was, like Low and Strube, a political cartoonist. Arthur Christiansen tried to correct this in a letter to Beaverbrook. “In one of your notes you say that Giles is not developing as you had hoped, and that he has not got the ‘firm, stern, harsh qualities of Low’. I do not think that Giles could possibly compete in Low’s field. He is not a political cartoonist. Whenever he tries this line of country, he flops badly. But his humour makes the widest appeal in this country, and there is no sign whatsoever of his losing his grip on the public.” In Giles’s defence, he had never suggested or implied that he was a political cartoonist. He saw his cartoons simply as social satire meant solely to entertain, and he became distrustful of any attempt to analyse his work. According to Robert Allen in his history of the Daily Express, Giles had imposed upon himself a rule that, “he never draws a cartoon which is primarily political… He has never believed that politics on its own makes good journalism. He points out that if politics sold papers, then the Morning Star, which has yet to discover jokes, would be the best-selling paper in the country.” In any case, as previously mentioned, Giles would have made a poor political cartoonist, as he freely admitted that could not capture a good likeness of people.
Giles either felt guilty over resigning from Reynolds News or was made to feel so by his former colleagues, who believed he had sold his soul to the Tories. A few months after leaving the paper, Giles seemed compelled to write to Boothroyd, the man who had originally employed him, in order to defend and justify what he personally admitted to be his 'Judah's act':
“I left Reynolds as you may well imagine in the face of violent opposition and took the risk of losing the friendship of many people for whom I have a great respect, and who I believe had come to look on me as a permanent fixture of Reynolds. Foremost, yourself. The explanation of this act is chiefly that I felt like a complete change of stage and scenery. Many times during the past few years one or other of the Nationals have invited me to work for them and I have declined, but this time I went because I did not, at a future time, want to look back and say, ‘I wish I had, etc.’ By making this change I am gaining the experience of working for a completely different organisation and will be able to say ‘I know, I've tried it’. It was not the financial side which influenced me in any way as things have been running fairly smoothly in that way lately owing to the fact that I am working on film production for the Ministry of Information, and a multiplying of salaries did not interest me greatly, which I hope eliminates the 'pieces of silver' side of the story.”
Giles, as evidenced by this letter, did not want it to appear to Boothroyd or his other colleagues at Reynolds News that he had put money and ambition before principle. Many former colleagues obviously saw Giles’s desertion to a Tory newspaper as a desperate betrayal. This reaction clearly hurt the cartoonist deeply. Giles emphasised to Boothroyd that he just needed a new challenge and did not move for political or financial reasons. However, those at Reynolds News evidentlyconsidered Giles joining the Express as going beyond the pale. In order to deflect the criticism he received, Giles created a smokescreen to hide behind. He first suggested disingenuously that he had turned down offers from rival newspapers over the past years out of loyalty to Reynolds News. Second, he falsely claimed that ExpressNewspapers had aggressively pursued him and had made him an offer he could not refuse. “They bribed me,” he misleadingly recalled. “They stuck a cigar in my face and told me what was to be.”
Despite his new salary being three times more than he was earning at Reynolds News, it was less than the Daily Herald were going to give him before they had retracted their offer two years previously. Giles also persuaded John Gordon to be complicit in making out that he, Giles, had been extremely reluctant to leave Reynolds News. When Gordon, in his introduction to Giles’s first published collection of cartoons in 1946 said he had taken “the lid off Aladdin's cave and let him (Giles) peep in”, ie he had offered him a King's ransom to join the Express, Giles had replied, “I am very happy where I am. I would be very unhappy if I changed.” Then Gordon went on to say that Giles had “required a considerable amount of persuasion before he would move to the Express.” As we have seen, this was not the case. Giles had explicitly approached Gordon for a job and not the other way around. Apart from that, Giles also used his animosity towards the former news editor, Arnold Russell, as the main excuse for leaving. As we have seen, Gordon Schaffer peddled this false assertion that the News Editor had continued to reduce the space for Giles’s cartoons. A disappointed Reynolds News reader sent in a poem about Giles’s departure:
Why oh why?
Laski and Driberg, Brailsford and Bullett,
Excellent writers with differing styles,
We read them with profit, enjoyment and fervour,
But tell me, oh why have you robbed us of Giles?
The serious side of your paper is splendid,
Historical truth is stored in your files,
Each Sunday for years you have brightened the day for us,
Now it's all different - page two has no Giles.
Letters from readers raise serious issues,
Young Ernie would light up our faces with smiles,
Dear Editor, you cannot know, I am certain,
The difference it makes to us not to have Giles.
Giles’s first cartoon for the Daily Express was published on 3 October 1943 and was on a grand scale. It offered a smorgasbord of characters such as Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels and Goering, all seated in the Reich Chancellery, surrounded by Stalin and numerous Soviet soldiers. It was an ambitious start. He even continued, on the odd occasion, the Young Ernie strip. Giles settled in quickly at the Express, and was inspired by the fact that he now had a much larger audience for his work. However, a number of readers were unhappy that Strube had been partly usurped by the introduction of a 'lesser' cartoonist and wrote to the Editor to complain. For example, one said “I have been a reader of the Daily Express for many years. I am a great admirer of Strube and wonder why he is being coupled with an inferior cartoonist. I have mentioned the subject to a number of D.E. readers who are also surprised. Is anything now good enough for us?” Another reader complained: “I am rather surprised to find another cartoonist introduced into your paper. How I like Strube. He is miles in front of any other cartoonist and should not in my opinion, and many others, be paired with an inferior artist!”
Giles was also enjoying living in Ipswich again. He found it preferable and probably safer than living and working in war-torn London. It enhanced his work, as Sydney Elliott noticed: “Giles finds recreation in wandering around the market-place at Ipswich. He goes there and to the nursery and the pub for his characters and types and gags.” Giles’s cottage was close to an American air base. Stationed there were members of an engineering battalion, the vast majority being African-Americans. Their task was to build runways so that American bombers could take off from there. Because of Giles’s love of jazz, he soon became their friend and local champion. He was proud of the warm relationship that he helped to foster between the African-Americans and the locals. On Saturday evenings the Black engineers would cycle into the local pub, The Fountain Inn. They would arrive balancing “bass fiddles, drums, trumpets, trombones and saxophones and their other instruments on the handlebars. The bass player would lean his instrument at a 60-degree angle to keep clear of the low ceiling, with its Scotch thistles, Tudor roses, and fleurs-de-lis impressed there by Elizabethan workmen. The Suffolk farmers would then crowd into the back room with their pints of mild and bitter as Giles struck up the opening bars on the piano and the 16 piece hot band went into ‘Big Fat Mama With the Meat Shakin' on Her Bones.’” In April 1944, the renowned photographer Lee Miller visited Giles for a story that featured in Vogue, capturing that exact scene. Giles was horrified by the racist attitudes of white G.I.s, who refused to socialise with their Black compatriots.
A Lee Miller photograph of Carl Giles playing the piano alongside an American GI jazz band.
After the successful invasion of northern France in June 1944, Giles was keen to experience life at the Front first hand. He joked that “I had to join the Army with a name like mine, or else I'd have been lynched!” He asked Christiansen if he could go over as a war correspondent. Enquiries were made but it was considered too dangerous at first to risk sending him. However by September 1944 Gileswas given his War Correspondent's licence alongside the rank of Captain, with orders to proceed by military aircraft to Brussels to represent the Daily Express with the 2nd Army. Indeed, Express Newspapers were so happy with his work that it raised his annual salary nearly four-fold in less than a year, to a whopping £3,900. Just before he said his goodbyes to Joan, he witnessed what he thought was the “most glorious sight” of the war, that of the Allied air armada going out over East Anglia towards Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden. He admitted at that moment to being “a jingoist”. Three days later, he was in the battle itself.
Giles flew to Belgium in a Dakota, his first ever flight. Once there, he noticed British soldiers grumbling more about the awful weather conditions than about the enemy itself: “There are many things to be said of this Holland and its Nijmegens, Eindhovens, and the rest of the front line towns and villages. I doubt if the average soldier's comments would get past even the most broadminded censor, but one and all agree that: (a) It is cold. (b) It is wet. (c) There may be worse places. (d) But not many. In fact, what beats most of us around these parts is why the Germans, having been pushed nearer home, are trying so hard to come back again.”
What he found most disconcerting about his uniform was not the itchy woollen battledress but having to wear WC in white letters on his helmet. “Can you imagine anything so daft?” he remarked. Giles complained about it to his superiors in case others got the wrong impression about what it stood for. Eventually orders came back from London that the 'W' could be removed. “After that”, said Giles, “I was required to go round just wearing the letter 'C'. Daft buggers!” Within days of arriving, Giles was driven to the front line near Eindhoven. There he witnessed the fighting for the first time. “The noise was unbelievable,” he recalled. “Shattering. At first all you wanted to do was dodge in and out of doorways, like in the Blitz but a bloody sight worse... Bullets seemed to be coming from every direction, which I suppose they were. The last thing that came naturally to mind was to set up an easel, get out the pencils and start drawing amusing cartoons.”
During the weeks and months that followed, Giles did come up with 'amusing' cartoons that entertained the readers of the Daily and Sunday Express. In addition, he came up with a new stock of characters for his cartoons after the war, the 'Giles family': “I first conceived the idea and main character when I was a war correspondent,actually, and the whole thing just ballooned from there.” During his time in Belgium, Giles came across a number of Nazi collaborators, some of who were still at large in the black market restaurants, while others were in jail. “I'd like to shoot 'em straight out,” he said at the time. “My conscience would be clear after three or four drinks.”
When Mussolini was executed in April 1945, Giles was one of the few people who felt a sense of loss: “I sure hated to see old Musso go. He was half my bloody stock in trade.” A few days later, Giles did not feel such loss when the other half of his 'stock in trade' shot himself in a Berlin bunker. This was after he witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by the Coldstream Guards. The unimaginable sights and sounds he encountered that day never left him. “You could actually hear the screams and the shouting, from what I suppose you would call the depot, where a train full of prisoners had just drawn in. All you could do was look and just try to absorb what you were seeing,” he said. Initially, Giles did not want to enter the camp at all, but a fellow colleague from the Daily Express told him, “You have to go in, Carl. We both have to. It is important that we see it so that we can pass it on. Tell the world. We have a duty. We have to go in. We really do. When you see this in the papers back home you won't want to believe it, any more than will the readers. We have to confirm to them that this place existed. We must go in.” Giles enteredthe camp and was truly horrified by what he saw. The Express had asked him to draw the full ghastly horror and tragedy that he witnessed there, but Giles could not bring himself to do so, choosing instead to just draw the various rooms and cells, rather than the thousands of dead bodies that littered the ground. He later noted: “It was the most dreadful, terrible thing in my life. Not a day or night goes by even now when I don't think of Belsen.”
Giles met the camp commandant, Josef Kramer. He was greatly disconcerted when Kramer admitted to being an admirer of his work. Kramer gave Giles his Walther P38 pistol and holster, a ceremonial dagger, and his swastika armband. In return he asked for a signed original cartoon. Later Giles wrote, “I have to say that I quite liked the man. I am ashamed to say such a thing. But had I not been able to see what was happening outside the window I would have said he was very civilised. Odd, isn't it? But maybe there was a rather dishonourable reason. I have always found it difficult to dislike someone who was an admirer of my work. And strangely, Kramer was. I never sent him an original. What was the point? He had been hanged.”
Kramer's pistol and armband, as well as the whip carried by SS Guard Irma Grese, warden of the women's section of Bergen-Belsen, were later given by Giles to a private collector in Suffolk. At the end of the war, Beaverbrook wrote to Giles to praise him for his work for the paper, saying, “It is with pride and joy that I look at your work in the SE and also in the DE everybody admires and praises your work... As I was coming out of the Lords some days ago, Lord Cholmondeley spoke with me. He said how much he had benefited by your inspiration during the war. Yesterday Sir Sholto Douglas (Marshall of the Royal Air Force) was speaking in praise of you, and he said that in the desperate days of the Battle, he always followed your appearance in the papers.”
Giles believed the war had given the British public a greater appreciative of newspaper cartoonists. He felt that before the war they had not been, in his words, "cartoon conscious”. He also believed the cartoon had come into its own during the war and become a powerful propaganda tool. In an article Giles wrote in June 1945 entitled 'How It Looks to the Cartoonist', he stated:
“I think the war has made people more alive to situations and environments. I know this by the large number of interesting letters I receive from people nowadays, especially men in the Forces. Sometimes a man will write saying he likes or does not like such and such a cartoon, and then go on to give an interesting and intelligent reason why. This seldom happened before the war. Your letters consisted either of the usual pat on the back or kick in the rear, but seldom did people bother to write why they were patting or kicking... But besides being merely a means of giving a laugh, the cartoon, particularly during recent years, has become a powerful weapon. I am not referring to the dear old lions with Union Jacks on their tails, kangaroos with cricket pads, or any of the other insipid symbols which are supposed to represent parts of the globe and which never really mean anything to anybody but to the way cartoons have been used by the Russians and the Underground Movement on the Continent as a method of propaganda and attack. By ridicule you can sometimes bring to light a situation quickly and effectively in its correct proportion. Take that Musso. (For whom let all cartoonists be truly grateful.) We know there was nothing really funny about him or any other Fascist or Nazi, but I am sure that one thing that pompous little gent could not stand was ridicule. By causing people to laugh at such a creature, I think a cartoon fired a good shot at making them realise in a cheerful way the futility and stupidness of Fascism-just as articles and photographs of atrocities can, by their cold authentic presentation of the facts. Let's have the atrocities as well. In fact, they can't be demonstrated too often over here. There are people who still don't believe stories of Nazi and Fascist atrocities. Perhaps the most important thing the cartoon gives is a balance. It's a relief after reading the heavy and serious matter to be able to turn to your cartoon, which, as long as you like it, and you laugh, is a good one, however bad!”
In post-war Britain, Giles became an institution as year on year his annuals topped the bestseller lists at Christmas time. He remained with Express Newspapers for 48 years, a record that is only surpassed by Sir John Tenniel and Sir Bernard Partridge at Punch. Giles, like Low before him, influenced future generations of cartoonists. Mac, Chrys and especially Jak closely imitated his style. Giles resented Jak for doing so, sensing that he was also hankering after his job. In the comic world, Giles inspired Leo Baxendale to create the 'Bash Street Kids' for The Beano. After 46 years, Giles’s failing health and eyesight led to a deterioration in the quality of his output and inevitably he retired from the Daily Express in 1989. Although his former sub-editor at the Daily Express, Alan Frame, has suggested that “his eyesight was still okay then because he was still driving his Bentley Turbo and took his mistress in it when they stayed at The Savoy.” His longtime colleague on the paper, Michael Cummings, was fired a year later. Giles struggled on, but those in charge at the Sunday Express felt it was time for him to go. He retired in 1991. Giles was a true giant amongst this country’s cartoonists and, with diminishingnewspaper circulations, it is unlikely that we will ever see his like again.