Robert David Quixano Henriques (11 December 1905 – 22 January 1967) was a British writer, broadcaster and farmer. He gained modest renown for two award-winning novels and two biographies of Jewish business tycoons, published during the middle part of the 20th century.
Life and career
Robert Henriques was born in 1905 to one of the oldest Jewish families in Britain. He was educated at Lockers Park School, Rugby, and New College, Oxford. He joined the Royal Artillery in 1926, and served as a gunner officer in Egypt and the Sudan. A riding accident put him in hospital and caused him to take retirement in 1933.
His book No Arms, No Armour (1939) came out to considerable critical praise. Much of the novel was autobiographical.
When World War II broke out, Henriques was an officer in the Territorial Army. He was immediately called up, and he served with distinction through the war, first in the Royal Artillery, then with the newly formed Commandos, and finally at the headquarters of Combined Operations. During the course of the war, Henriques rose to the rank of Colonel.
In 1943 Henriques published "Captain Smith and Company" (William Heinemann, London), an experimental war novel, now almost forgotten. Drawing directly on his war-time experiences, it tells the collective story of "Captain Smith" and other members of his company of Commandos. (A forerunner of the SAS, and American Army Rangers, and Navy Seals, the Commandos were special-forces elite army units created by Winston Churchill's direct order, after Dunkirk, as a means of raiding and harassing German forces on Continental Europe). The novel recounts how different men in Captain Smith's Company were recruited, or felt compelled to enlist, while revealing diverse aspects of their civilian backgrounds. One of them is a poet. Apart from these flashback episodes, the novel describes the training of the men, and their active service, raiding a coastal facility in Norway, setting explosive charges to blow up and bridge, and then, when the bridge is destroyed, the reflections and slow lingering deaths of Smith and other comrades. The writing varies from descriptive prose to reflective memory, and, at times, free verse, rhymed verse, and Biblical or Book of Common Prayer rhapsody, and other literary devices, including near-sonnets. As a whole literary work, the book is comparable to London-Welsh poet David Jones' early 1930s work, "In Parenthesis", an epic prose-and-poetry autobiographical novel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and their part in the Somme attack in July 1916. It could also be compared to Dylan Thomas's later "Under Milkwood", a prose and verse radio play depicting the characters, voices, and ideas of members of a small Welsh village. Thematically it is comparable to the dying reveries, on events in his past life, recalled by the mortally wounded big-game hunter in Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". It is also similar in theme to Ambrose Bierce's earlier short story of the American Civil War, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek", in which a Confederate sympathiser is executed by hanging for having attempted to destroy a bridge: during the execution the victim reflects vividly on past and imagined events. It might also be compared with William Golding's later World War II novel "Pincher Martin" in which the dying mind of a British naval officer, lost at sea, recreates the world he is losing as he dies. Towards the end of the short book (139 pages), the image of trout-fishing (in the Cotswolds) is evoked, reminiscent of Hemingway's first fragmentary novel "In Our Time", with its final story of Nick Adams, the veteran of fighting on the Italian Front during World War I, finding his own healing as he fishes for trout in the Big Two-Hearted River. Overall the language used varies from literary-ornate, parade-ground matter-of-fact, elusive stream-of-consciousness, and Biblical phraseology. The verse is occasionally weak. But it coheres, as an experience, despite the often thick, repetitive, flowery language. It ought to be reprinted.
After the war, Henriques began a new life as a farmer in the Cotswolds. Starting from rather modest beginnings, his farm near Cirencester became a large and impressive operation. Henriques had outstanding success as a cattle-breeder and won competitions. He lived the life of a country squire, carrying on hunting, fishing and shooting, and even writing occasional letters to the Times on farming issues.
Writing remained his first love, however, and in 1950 he became a recipient of the annual James Tait Black Award for his novel Through the Valley. He was also a frequent broadcaster, and appeared on Any Questions and on various television shows. He also helped to run the Cheltenham Literary Festival with John Moore, although things always did not go his own way.
Robert Henriques later war novel Red Over Green (1956) draws directly, but imaginatively, on Henriques' experiences with the Commandos. Incidentally, the title describes the colours of a Very light signal, a red pistol-flare fired over a green flare, an Army code that means, sometimes, “Operations concluded; going home”.
Henriques may have served in staff positions, rather than in front-line combat, but he knows what he writes about. Red Over Green begins in June 1938 with a hint of Territorial (Army Reserve) troops in the background, at the time of the Munich Crisis and Neville Chamberlain's "Peace in our time", while the main character, Barry, a tubby, mid-thirties lawyer, finds himself caught between love for his beautiful wife who has an incurable disease, and an equally beautiful young girl who Barry has helped get a divorce from her husband. The emotionally complex relationship of Barry and his girlfriend, and her other male friends, stalks through the remainder of the book.
Barry is not a strong or immediately appealing character, and the prospects of anything more interesting than a soap opera around a dying wife and her fragile and confused husband, seem bleak.
Interestingly, the 1954-1956 writing and publication of “Red Over Green” overlaps the appearances of Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honour” trilogy of novels, similarly based on Waugh's experiences in the Commandos (Marines). It is highly likely that Waugh would have known Henriques, although evidence has not emerged that either writer commented about the other at any time in their lives.
Certainly both Waugh and Henriques draw on the same real-life leading figures within Commandos and Combined Operations, such as the piratical one-eyed black-eye-patched senior Army officer who visits the units-in-training in the books of both authors – clearly based on Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart. Henriques calls his eye-patched pirate General Cornish-Raikes”, nicknamed “The Corncrake”.
Typically, most of the characters have the armed-services nicknames of the era. Barry is known, descriptively and affectionately as “Buffer”.
Repeatedly Barry is posted on short courses, such as Catering, and Physical Training (P.T.), as his senior officers hope to find a specialist niche in which he will prove to be capable. Each time the results are comically disastrous. Nonetheless as a competent clear-thinking lawyer, Barry can think on his feet, and does have occasional good ideas, and is a surprisingly competent adjutant (an Army administrative officer who ensures a unit runs smoothly). (Waugh was inept in almost all ordinary military activities, but could use his writer’s skill to redraft clear efficient orders, and showed enormous courage under extreme and dangerous circumstances.)
Both Waugh and Henriques briefly describe dud officers, full of ego, spit and polish, and military stupidity. Henriques describes Colonel Charlie Chapman, with monocle and fussy false teeth. He takes over the Territorial artillery unit, has a pedant’s eye for the colour of blanco (pipe-clay applied to canvas webbing straps and belts), gun-firing drills run by formula (without live ammunition), and the preposterous details of obsolete regulation books. And he has a fundamental misunderstanding of the risks, or not, of German attack across impossible beaches – something that Barry, the far from competent captain, sees at a glance, based on his experience of sailing: “I happen to know a bit about beaches. I happen to like sailing …” “I happen to be no end of a swell at tiddly-winks,” the brigadier said (p 183) … sometimes Henriques is as hilariously satirical, and poignant, as Waugh.
The famous real-life Letter creating the Commandos (pp 184-185) is quoted – “It is proposed to raise a special force of volunteers for independent mobile operations …” – and becomes the ticket for Barry and some of his friends to escape the stupidities in which they have been wallowing, having missed the catastrophic debacle in France, culminating in Dunkirk. It is their chance to join an active group where they CAN fit in, and contribute.
Waugh proceeds to tell the story of his lack-lustre middle-aged main character, Guy Crouchback, across all the years of the war, through several campaigns.
Henriques, by contrast, deliberately focuses on a fictionalised version of the beginning of the Commandos, formed in June shortly after the evacuation from Dunkirk, their training at a fictionalised version of the remote Scottish village of Achnacarry, and a fictitious first Commando raid, loosely based on the much later Operation Biting, the information-gathering attack on a secret French-coastal German radar station. (Henriques’ “Author’s Note” makes the fiction clear.)
Interestingly, the first Commando leader was John Frederick Durnford-Slater, author of the autobiographical Commando: Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in World War Two. Henriques’ charismatic Territorial colonel, and then Commando leader is similarly hyphenated, “George Hatherly-Cooke”. Most of Hatherly-Cooke’s fighting doctrines (such as, the night is never too dark to see, and pocket torches ruin night vision, …) are famously those of Durnford-Slater! The Letter was Durnford-Slater's way of escape from a stultifying post in an anti-aircraft battery.
Nearly 300 pages of “Red Over Green” describe, often with vivid dialogue, the recruiting, waiting around, leaves in London, operational training, and operational planning that leads to the final few pages of action during the crucial Commando raid that is the focus and climax of the book.
“Nevertheless, if we had those same decisions to make all over again [about the extremely dangerous raid], and if we knew that they might cost us the whole lot of you, and all the naval craft involved, and not a few of the aircraft, … we should still launch the operation. We should have to.” (p 311 ellipsis in the original) The colonel who planned the operation is reassuring Barry, after the raid, that the price in dead and wounded was worth paying. This is part of the summation of the novel, and its meaning.
Of the many books about World War II, and Commandos, and Special Operations, this is one of the most satisfying, because it feels so life-like. The conflicts and uncertainties that occur between different members of the different armed services, during strategic and tactical planning, the grizzling over inadequate equipment and shortages of trained men, and the high risks of casualties, and low chances of success, are brilliantly achieved.
It may be timely to reassess Henriques as a neglected major war-time writer who wrote from the heart, and from his richly lived life.
Although he had accomplished much in all his various fields of endeavour – soldiering, farming, writing and broadcasting – Henriques was described as a restless character, who remained dissatisfied with himself and who was difficult to please.
The following year, he wrote 100 Hours to Suez, and it was around this time, in his late forties, that Henriques began to take an active interest and pride in his Jewish identity. He was won over by the Zionist cause, and made frequent trips to Israel where he bought a small property.
In the 1960s, Henriques wrote two biographies. The first one charted the life and career of his wife's grandfather Marcus Samuel, the great oil pioneer and leader of the Jewish community, and the second one described the life of Sir Robert Waley-Cohen.
He married Vivien Doris Levy, granddaughter of the 1st Viscount Bearsted in 1928, and the couple had two sons and two daughters. The younger son Michael Henriques (b. 1941) is father of Katrina Henriques, wife since 1991 of the Hon. David Seymour Hicks Beach (b. 1955), heir presumptive to his brother the 3rd Earl Saint Aldwyn.
The second Son of Robert Henriques (Michael Henriques) is also father to Guy Henriques married to Tamara Louthan since 1989.
- Debrett's 1951 gives the names of his two sons and two daughters as:
Hon. Nellie Samuel, born 1883; married 1st, 1903, Maj. Walter Henry Levy (died 1923) [she remarried a __ Ionides and died 1962), and had (inter alia)
Vivien Levy; married 1928, Col. Robert David Quixano Henriques, MBE, and had
1. David Vivian Quixano Henriques, born 1929.
2. Michael Robert Quixano Henriques, born 1941. 3. Veronica Esme Henriques, born 1931.4. Penelope Jane Henriques, born 1945.
- Per a family genealogy website and Debrett's 1951, his year of birth is given as 1941.