The Guns of Navarone: David Niven’s Commando Coats
David Niven as Corporal Miller, British Army commando and explosives expert
Aegean Sea, Fall 1943
Film: The Guns of Navarone
Release Date: April 27, 1961
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Wardrobe Credit: Monty M. Berman & Olga Lehmann
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Tomorrow would have been the 110th birthday of David Niven, the Academy Award-winning English actor, author, and decorated war veteran. Instead of looking at one of the famously debonair Niven’s tailored suits or elegant dinner jackets, let’s explore his scrappier seafaring attire as a covert commando in The Guns of Navarone, the 1961 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s World War II-set adventure novel.
Niven co-starred as Corporal Miller, an explosives expert who taught chemistry before he enlisted in the British Army at a more advanced age than the typical NCO. In real life, Niven had distinguished himself during World War II when he re-enlisted the day after Britain declared war on German in 1939. The following February, he was recommissioned as a lieutenant into the Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own), though he soon transferred to the British Commandos to see more action. By war’s end, Niven had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was awarded the Legion of Merit, an American decoration presented to him by General Eisenhower himself.
Fiercely loyal with a cheeky sense of humor, the fictional Corporal Miller shared much with the actor who portrayed him. “I don’t mind him as much as he seems to mind me,” remarks the group’s captain, Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), as the team fights Nazi patrol boats and nighttime storms crossing the Aegean Sea en route their mission to disable the titular German artillery on the fictional Navarone Island.
What’d He Wear?
Throughout the mission, Corporal Miller wears a black wool felt Basque-style beret, the only member of the group to do so while Captain Mallory and Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren) wear mariner’s caps often associated with Greek fisherman and Andrea (Anthony Quinn) and Brown (Stanley Baker) wear watch caps.
The iconic flat black berets like Miller wears originated with French and Spanish shepherds in the Pyrenees, with the first recorded commercial production starting in southern France during the 1600s. As industrialization grew, berets became mass produced with factories like Laulhère—established in 1840—still manufacturing traditional berets as well as innovating fashion-forward berets for non-traditional wearers.
While aboard the group’s fishing vessel, Miller wears a long black wool overcoat with a high and tight double-breasted formation of two rows of two buttons in addition to a full belt. The coat has large-flapped lapels with wide notches, set-in sleeves with plain cuffs, slanted hand pockets, and a long single vent.
Although Miller was clad in the long black coat when crawling out of the wreckage of their sinking boat and scaling the mountainside, he has changed into a shorter, pea-length coat by the next morning. This dark navy coat appears to be made from a lighter-weight wool than the traditional melton cloth, possibly serge.
The maritime nature of the group’s mission would make a pea coat very appropriate, though Miller’s hip-length jacket has less in common with the traditional pea coat than the double-breasted coat Captain Mallory wears, though it does have the traditional ulster lapel with a broad collar to button at the top if needed. Aside from the top buttons, the double-breasted coat has three rows of two buttons each, supplemented by a full belt that Niven wears tied around his waist like a sash. The jacket also has slanted welt hand pockets and set-in sleeves that are finished at the cuffs with short semi-tabs that close through a single button.
Knotted around his neck to catch sweat as well as to given Niven some characteristically rakish flair, Corporal Miller wears a knotted scarlet red neckerchief. The dense kerchief, more like a lightweight scarf, is tucked into the top of his sweater.
Layered under Miller’s coat is a plain white cotton long-sleeved shirt, worn wide open at the neck to let the soft long-pointed collar lay flat over his sweater, a navy wool boat-neck jumper with set-in sleeves. Per the group’s disguise, Niven’s sweater is complete with the naturally worn holes of a true fisherman’s jumper, more than half a century before Chris Evans would don his famously “holy” Aran sweater in Knives Out.
This approach to dressing would also be a perfect fit for gents looking to wear the navy ribbed sweater from N.Peal that has been popularly featured on the posters for Daniel Craig’s fifth and final James Bond film, No Time to Die. While 007 appears to wear it during the film for action-oriented sequences on land, N.Peal’s advertising materials feature model Paul Sculfor sporting his ribbed sweater with its distinctive wide boat neck and drawstrings while out to sea, much like Niven in the corner of his commando group’s fishing trawler in The Guns of Navarone.
Little is seen of Miller’s taupe brown wool flat front trousers, as he wears them tucked into his tall black leather cavalry boots.
Strapped over his coat, Miller wears the standard 1937 pattern gun belt in khaki cotton webbing that was authorized by the British military during World War II. The wide belt has a brass hook-and-loop front buckle flanked by a brass keeper on each side.
Miller wears these seagoing duds for much of their mission until the group is briefly captured by the Wehrmacht in the fictional Greek city of Mandrakos. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn) dupes the Germans and manages to turn the tables, at which point Miller, Mallory, and the rest of the men seize their uniforms.
Despite his NCO rank, Corporal Miller dons the uniform worn by Hauptsturmführer Sessler (George Mikell), the cruel SS officer, and comments: “Not very hygienic, I must say. Shocking taste in undies, too.”
As the commandos are engaged in a British operation, they all carry weapons issued by the Commonwealth during World War II. Holstered to Corporal Miller’s gun belt is an Enfield No. 2, a top-break revolver developed during the interwar period as a lighter weight and lighter caliber alternative to the venerable .455 Webley service revolvers. Developed in 1928 but not produced until four years later, the Enfield was chambered in the .38/200 round, a British modification to the .38 S&W bullet.
More significantly fielded by the commandos is the Sten submachine gun, named for its designers Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin as well as the RSAF Enfield factory where they were produced from 1941 through the end of the war. Though prone to jamming and other issues, the weapon’s low production cost, simple, easy-to-use design, and universality of its 9x19mm Parabellum bullet made the Sten series a popular choice not only for Commonwealth forces but also many armed resistance groups allied with them.
Production of the Sten was streamlined through 1940 and 1941 with the original wooden furniture and flash hider removed to expedite production, though the wooden furniture would be added back on for the later Sten Mk V variant. In the meantime, the modifications allowed for mass production of the new generation of Stens, and the Sten Mk II as carried by Corporal Miller and his fellow commandos was the most commonly encountered variant with more than two million manufactured.
Carried over from the earlier Lancaster submachine gun, the Sten’s side-mounted box magazine was one of its most distinctive features and would go on to be a prominent part of the British-issued Sterling submachine gun as well.
How to Get the Look
Aside from some of the more commando-inspired elements of Corporal Miller’s outfit for his covert mission in the Greek mountains, David Niven’s dark wool pea coat, navy jumper layered over a white shirt with taupe trousers and black boots makes for a timeless “smart casual” ensemble. Feeling continental? Top it off with a black beret and a scarlet scarf.
- Dark navy wool serge belted pea coat with ulster collar, 6×3-button double-breasted front, slanted welt hand pockets, and single-button semi-tab cuffs
- White cotton long-sleeved shirt with soft collar
- Navy wool boat-neck sweater
- Scarlet red neckerchief
- Taupe brown wool flat front trousers
- Khaki cotton web 1937 pattern gun belt, with holster (for Enfield No. 2 revolver)
- Black leather knee-high cavalry boots
- Black wool felt Basque-style beret
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and read Alistair MacLean’s novel.
Sir, I’ve inspected this boat and I think you ought to know that… I can’t swim.
A great film for rugged outerwear.
Look closely in the early scenes and you’ll see David Niven wearing Rifle Brigade badges on his battledress.
This was so very interesting the costumes, clothing worn, finishing off with the scarlet red neckchief. The guns used extradionry. David Niven my favourite actor, wonderful author. I loved this movie.
I just acquired a copy of this film, looking forward to watching and noticing the points mentioned.