Keith Castellain Douglas was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent on 24 January 1920.The son of Captain Keith Sholto Douglas M.C. (retired) and Marie Josephine Castellain. He has become known for his poetry and artistry which he began during his school years. It was also a time when he showed a military interest and excelled as a member of the schools Officer Training Corps. After leaving school in 1938 he went to Merton College Oxford to read History and English.
When war was declared in 1939 Keith reported to an army recruiting centre hoping to join a cavalry regiment. It was not until July 1940 that he reported for Officer training at the Royal Military College Sandhurst. On 1 February 1941 he passed out and was posted to Second Derbyshire Yeomanry, by August he had arrived in the Middle East and transferred to the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry. As a result of passing a course, which he was sent on by accident, he found himself stuck at Divisional Headquarters in Alexandria as a camouflage officer, twenty miles from El Alamein.
On 24 October 1942 the battle of El Alamein began, the regiment had advanced and taken casualties, losing 16 of its officers. A few days later Keith left Div. H.Q. against orders and reported to the C.O. Colonel Kellett at regimental H.Q., lying that he had been sent. As regimental officers were desperately needed, he was posted to “A” squadron as a tank troop leader. After the battle, Division rather ungraciously acquiesced to this fait accompli.
Keith joined the Regiment during the early days in Palestine and had been badly wounded at the battle of Zem Zem, in the desert, but had recovered in time to land in Normandy. His early youth had been unhappy owing to parental matrimonial trouble, but an adoring and hardworking mother had found sufficient money to educate him and to send him to the University for one term before the war started. When he joined the Regiment he appeared to have a grudge against the world in general and particularly his fellow Yeomanry officers, of whom there were quite a few at that time, who had been with the Regiment before the war and consisted of the wealthy landed gentry: these he regarded as complete snobs and accused them of being utterly intolerant of anyone unable to “talk horses” or who had not been educated at an English Public School.
He was a complete individualist, intolerant of military convention and discipline, which made life for him and his superior officers difficult. His artistic talents were clearly illustrated by his many drawings and the poetry that he wrote very much in the modern strain, and, had he lived, would have made a name for himself in the world of art. At various conferences and order groups he was upbraided for drawing on his map instead of paying attention.
In action he had undaunted courage and always showed initiative and complete disregard for his own personal safety. At times he appeared even to be somewhat foolhardy - maybe on account of his short-sightedness which compelled him to wear large thick-lensed glasses. He was not spared to know that he was mentioned-in-despatches for outstanding service.
At the end of the desert campaign he wrote a book about the Regiment and the fighting in North Africa; he asked Major (later Lt Col) Christopherson to read and write a Foreword to it, and he readily agreed to this request. He disguised all personalities with fictitious names and described with cynical detail (for the most part with accuracy), various personalities in the Regiment including some unkind and unjustified allusions to certain officers who had been killed. Christopherson insisted he should omit those for the sake of next-of-kin who would certainly hear about and read the book and find such references most hurtful.
In the book Major Christopherson was given the name of Edward and about him he wrote :- “Edward was a man progressing imperceptibly with conspicuousness of English good manners from youth to middle age. His acquaintance in England, socially, was almost complete. No title or old family but evoked some response in him; he seemed to have attended most of the main social events of the years before the war and the illustrated papers were full of the portraits of his friends. He was superficially a good listener, though very often he did not take in what was said to him, and continued to appear politely interested in anything. He could be relied on to punctuate a conversation with well-varied expressions of concern, amusement, astonishment etc.; of anything artistic, literary or intellectual he was most correctly ignorant - though he would often ask innocently for information to which he never listened. He was a good squash player and a competent dancer in the restrained English style. He was the only one of “The Boys” (original Yeomanry officers) who ever spoke to the new Subaltern unnecessarily, out of pure goodwill, except Guy (Donny Player, second-in-command of the Regiment) who would make occasional polite enquiries of them, like a kind old Squire interrogating his tenant’s children over the garden gate. Edward carried modesty to the point of self-effacement, and this led to his domination by Tom (Sam Garrett, the Squadron second-in-command) who instinctively took advantage of it.”
In the original text he described the Colonel’s dancing as being “deplorable”, to which he objected, pointing out that he had never seen his efforts on the dance floor and that he considered himself well above the average, and as a result of his protest he agreed to alter the text.
After the war ended his mother published his book which is called "From Alamein to Zem Zem". His description of life in a tank with a crew of four other men and tank battles in the desert is vivid and accurate and the realistic illustrations, all drawn by himself, will recapture disturbing recollections of bitter experiences and recall unforgettable sights for all those who fought with Tanks in the desert. Unfortunately he did not have the opportunity to write a foreword, which would have given him great pleasure. This book is full of cynical but amusing humour which portrays so clearly his intolerant nature and his analytical and impressionable mind. To Colonel Flash Kellett, who commanded the Regiment in the desert, appearing in the book as “Piccadilly Jim”, Keith devoted many critical pages, but when he read in the paper about his death in action while he (Keith) was recuperating in Palestine from his wound, he writes in the last chapter of his book :-
“It was impossible to realise it. The whole moment and everything in it - the coloured tables, the sun-glare on the pavements, the white houses and the morning pedestrians, - seemed suddenly part of a dream. Piccadilly Jim, with all his faults of occasional slapdash and arbitrary conduct, had been a brave man and a Colonel of whom we could be proud, of whom, I discovered somewhat to my surprise, I had been proud myself. He was an institution: it seemed impossible that in a moment a metal splinter had destroyed him. He had embodied in himself all the Regimental characteristics he had been at pains to create. That assumption of superiority, that dandyism, individuality and disregard of the duller military conventions and regulations that made the Regiment sometimes unpopular - the Australians could never understand men who polished their cap badges for a battle - but always discussed and admired. We knew we were better than anyone else, and cared for no one. But the focal point of this confidence was Piccadilly Jim. I was amazed to find, reading of his death, that I felt like a member of the old Regime who looks on at a bloody revolution. Piccadilly Jim had been killed, as one might say typically, while he was standing up in his Tank shaving under shell fire.”
These lines, which I have quoted, present such a vivid picture of both Flash and Keith. Since the end of the War Keith’s mother has published a book of his poems which has received universal praise from all the literary critics, some of whom class him as the outstanding poet of the last War, whose name will go down in history.
The regiment helped to liberate Bayeux and on D-Day +3 they arrived at the little village of St Pierre. Keith and a comrade left their tanks to carry out a recce of the village, which was full of Germans, when they came under mortar fire. A mortar shell exploded directly over them, killing him instantly but not leaving a mark on his body. The chaplain Padre Skinner buried him by the hedge where he had died. He is now buried in the war cemetery at Tilly-sur-Seuilles.
It is perhaps fitting to a man of his character that his last recce was carried out against the express orders of his Squadron Leader and, as befits a poet, more concerned with ‘liaising’ with the French than locating the Germans.