Maurice Joseph Mickelwhite was born in March of 1933 at St. Olave’s Hospital in London. His father was a fish market porter, while his mom worked as a charwoman cleaning houses. The elder Mickelwhite was conscripted into the British Army during World War 2. Maurice, his mom, and two brothers were evacuated from London during the Blitz.
At age ten young Maurice had a small part in a school production of Cinderella. In his enthusiasm to mount the stage, he left his fly undone to the delight of the audience. This bit of inadvertent comic relief was the highlight of the play.
After the war, the family was reunited in a small prefabricated home built in Canada. “Prefabs” as they were called were intended to serve as a temporary shelter until London’s housing districts could be rebuilt. The Mickelwhite family lived in theirs for another eighteen years.
In 1952 the younger Mickelwhite was called up for his national service. He trained on a WW2-era No 4 Lee-Enfield rifle and the Sten submachine gun as one of the British Army’s Royal Fusiliers. Once while training with his mates on the Sten a fellow squaddie had a runaway gun. This is a condition wherein these crude SMGs would continue firing even after the trigger was released. Maurice reported in later years that the hapless recruit turned toward his sergeant for guidance and inadvertently sprayed the entire firing line as a result. Miraculously no one was hurt. After a brief stint on the continent with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) PVT Mickelwhite was assigned to Korea.
Mickelwhite admitted later to being utterly bewildered when he arrived to fight the Korean War. He knew nothing of Asian politics and even less of the situation on the ground. On his first night on the line, he was assigned to an American-made Browning M1919 light machinegun.
He said later that his first night facing the Chinese near what is now the border between North and South Korea was surreal. He heard the sound of trumpets in the darkness and hadn’t time to ask his foxhole mate what they meant before flares exploded overhead. By the dancing shadows, he saw countless hundreds of fanatical Chinese troops charging his position. He was later to state that he would never forget the horrifying sound of those, “demonic trumpet players.”
The Commonwealth forces responded with searchlights and massed artillery fire. Mickelwhite’s Fusiliers had emplaced barbed wire and a dense antipersonnel minefield in the killing zones ahead of their positions. The Chicom troops never slowed down, throwing themselves over the wire and pushing through the mines to make way for follow-on echelons. Mickelwhite later described them as “insanely brave.”
PVT Mickelwhite burned belt after belt through his Browning, mowing down the attacking Chinese by the rank. Eventually, the weight of artillery and small arms fire broke the back of the assault. However, it was a rude awakening to life as an infantryman in the frozen wastes of Korea.
Death Lurks in the Dark
Later Mickelwhite, his commander, and a signals operator blacked out their faces, bathed in insect repellent, and moved forward into the marshy space between the opposing lines on a recce. Lying there in the dark all three men suddenly realized how pointless their mission was. The patrol commander then offered the two other men five pounds each to help him capture a Chinese prisoner. The younger two soldiers demurred but suddenly caught the strong odor of garlic.
Mickelwhite said the Chinese chewed garlic like gum. The three men realized to their horror that there was a Chinese patrol hunting them. The enemy troops were close enough to smell. By now they could hear movement all around and realized they were cut off, surrounded, and alone. Knowing they were done for, the three men hatched a crazy plan.
They decided to leap up and fire everything they had, assaulting in the direction of the Chinese lines while screaming like banshees. They intended to simulate a large-scale assault on the Chicom positions. Thinking they were facing certain death they were unanimous in their desire to take as many enemy soldiers as possible with them.
The signals operator agreed to the plan but announced softly that he had a desperate need to pee. The other two Brits concurred that this would be a good idea. The three men then got on their knees, loosened their trousers, and urinated together, believing this to be their last act of fellowship before their collective gory demise.
The three young Britons indeed leapt to their feet and charged the Chinese lines guns a-blazing. The Chicom soldiers were so unsettled by the ferocity of their attack that they let the small British patrol escape. Once the three men were outside the reach of the searching Chinese they changed course and evaded back to friendly lines amazed that they had survived. Of these remarkable events, he later said, “The rest of my life I have lived every bloody moment from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep.”
In the immediate aftermath of the miraculous evacuation at Dunkirk, the British Army retained a proper army bereft of small arms. The industrial behemoth of the United States was just awakening, but the Battle of the Atlantic threatened to keep the copious war materiel from the US from reaching the UK where it was needed. In response, Reginald Shepherd and Harold Turpin working at Enfield designed the Sten gun. Sten is a portmanteau combining the first letters of their last names with “En” from Enfield.
In its simplest form, the Sten had a mere 47 parts. The design was left intentionally rough with loose tolerances such that parts could be crafted in small decentralized shops and assembled remotely. This 9mm SMG was selective fire and cycled at a sedate 500 rpm.
The Sten is itself a solid enough gun, but its magazine was simply abysmal. A double-column, single-feed design, the Sten magazine creates quite a lot of internal friction and is subsequently exceptionally susceptible to fouling. The double-column, double-feed magazine of the improved Sterling SMG rectified these problems nicely.
The Sten was produced in a variety of Marks. The Mk II included a rotating magazine well that could be positioned downward to seal off the ejection port against dirt and fouling. The Mk IIS was the first mass-produced SMG with an integral sound suppressor. The Mk III was the simplest of the lot, featuring a fixed magwell welded in place. The Mk V included a wooden stock and the front sight and bayonet from a No 4 Lee-Enfield rifle.
The Browning M1919A4 belt-fed light machinegun was an evolutionary development of the WW1-era water-cooled M1917. The M1919 fired from the closed bolt and was recoil operated. The same basic action drove the entire family of M2 and M3 .50-caliber machineguns as well.
At 31 pounds and 40 inches long the M1919A4 was really designed to be used from fixed positions. Given the gun’s boxy utilitarian architecture there is simply no comfortable way to carry it, particularly across rough terrain. However, the receiver is formed from heavy steel plates riveted together. This makes for a weapon that is fairly easy to produce in quantity while remaining just incredibly rugged.
The M1919A6 was introduced in 1943 as an attempt to make the M1919 into a true General Purpose Machinegun (GPMG) in the vein of the German MG34 or MG42. The A6 included a shortened, lightened barrel as well as a detachable buttstock. However, the final package still weighed a pound more than the M1919A4 and 6.5 pounds more than the MG42.
The Rest of the Story
As a newly-minted 20-year-old combat veteran Mickelwhite answered an advertisement in The Stage, an English theater periodical, for an assistant stage manager position with a theater troupe. This job also entailed his performing a number of walk-on parts as needed. As Mickelwhite seemed a mouthful the young man adopted the stage name of “Michael White.” However, his agent informed him that there was already a Michael White performing as an actor in London and that he needed to find a new name post haste.
This conversation took place from a phone booth in Leicester Square, London. Mickelwhite looked around and noted that The Caine Mutiny was playing at the nearby Odeon Theater. He decided on the spot to change his name to Michael Caine. He later joked that had the intervening trees been arrayed slightly differently he might have become “Michael Mutiny” or “Michael One Hundred and One Dalmatians.”
Michael Caine went on to become one of the most beloved and successful actors in the world, appearing in some sixty major films. He has been nominated for an Academy Award six times and has won twice. He and Jack Nicholson are the only two actors to have been nominated each decade from the 1960s to the 2000s. He carries the title Commander of the British Empire and was knighted by the Queen as Sir Maurice Mickelwhite CBE in 2000. He has remained married to his second wife, Shakira Baksh, for 48 years. By all accounts, Michael Caine is and always has been quite the good bloke.