Outgoing author best known for The Virgin Soldiers, a comic novel about national service
Only a few good writers are also good talkers. The novelist and journalist Leslie Thomas, who has died aged 83, was one of them: he could extract on the printed page, on radio and television or in a face-to-face interview good-natured humour from almost anything that life threw at him – including his own bleak orphaned childhood in a Barnardo's home or his national service in Malaya at a time when terrorists attempted to murder as many British troops as possible.
It was his "peacetime" national service – whose humorous possibilities he saw ahead of anyone else – that gave him the idea and material for the novel that made his name and a fortune, The Virgin Soldiers, which was published in 1966 and filmed in 1969 with John Dexter directing. It showed a group of raw young conscripts desperate to get laid while all around them enemies lurked. Thomas had been in that position himself and the bar-girl character Juicy Lucy was based on a Malayan girl who had provided his sexual initiation. She also lost him his lance-corporal's stripe when she threw his trousers out of a window.
The timing of the release of the novel in the swinging 60s was perfect, and so was its attitude. It was bawdy, but drew vivid pictures of the bar girls relentlessly in pursuit of money and adept at changing names to whatever film star was popular that week; the conscripts wetting themselves in moments of crisis and discharging their guns in the wrong direction; the often rather limited NCOs doing their best with raw recruits. Its irreverence about military life exactly suited the needs of the era.
That Thomas was able to divine the funny side of almost any situation made for his survival personally and as a writer. His father was a "wandering Welsh sailor" whose home was in Newport, Gwent – a stoker in merchant ships who became domestically violent aftger getting drunk, which was often. When he was on the dole, his wife went with him to collect his money so that he could not spend it on drink before he reached home. When he once came home excessively drunk even by his standards, his wife threw a chamber pot at him. He didn't show himself again for two years: the pot was full.
During the war, Leslie would pray, "Make dad's ship sink." His father was subsequently killed when a torpedo hit his vessel; his mother took to her bed with cancer and died shortly afterwards. Leslie and his brothers were sent to various Barnardo's homes, at one of which the superintendent told the boys that their brains would be turned to milk because of all the filthy things they did at night. "He had some kindness, but it was well-buried," Thomas wrote later, when reporting it all with vivid and usually restrained humour.
To avoid getting beaten up by the bigger boys, Thomas invented stories – and did it so much better than anyone else that his services were constantly called upon. After a visit to Norwich he won a 2s 6d prize for his description of the city.
While at the Barnardo's in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, he went to Kingston Technical school, and after meeting the journalist and author Charles Mitchell was sent to take a course in journalism at South-West Essex Technical College, Walthamstow. He found a job with a newspaper group that owned the Wickford Times, in Essex, for which he started by folding newspapers, but soon progressed to reporting via a scoop that Princess Margaret was about to visit a Barnardo's home in the area. Though he diligently studied the work of Neville Cardus, the distinguished cricket writer and music critic of the then Manchester Guardian, he wanted to be called up.
He asked to be in the Army News Service and, given the perverse logic of military officialdom, found himself in the Royal Army Pay Corps. He served from 1949 to 1951, watching men "become robots" and experiencing the doubts of many young soldiers at that time during their bayoneting practice on bags of sand: when it came to it, could he actually stick a bayonet into a human being?
In 1950 he went to Singapore for 18 months, hardly cheered by the stories circulating of jungle fighters playing with severed human heads. One conscript who sat in a pool all day in the hope that the chemicals in the water would damage his eyes enough to get him discharged was eventually discharged – for deafness. Thomas was able to recount a funny version of all this not only in The Virgin Soldiers but also in his 1984 autobiography, In My Wildest Dreams. It was when one conscript said wistfully that he hoped he would get a shag before he got a bullet that Thomas got the idea for The Virgin Soldiers, while he also sent articles to his old employers and other newspapers.
Demobbed, he got a job at the already faltering Exchange Telegraph news agency, while submitting short stories to the Evening News's World's Strangest Stories series and winning a £1,000 prize. Eventually he was taken on to the Evening News staff and, bored at the press bureau at Scotland Yard, he wrote his first novel, My Name is Mudd, a local reporter's rites of passage story that was not published.
He was a naturally opportunistic Fleet Street journalist, capitalising on everything including his own misfortunes. When a spy cut his wrists to avoid capture and was taken to a London hospital, Thomas was already there as a patient and was therefore the only journalist who could report on his condition. But his independent writing was proceeding apace. He was commissioned by the BBC to write A Piece of Ribbon, an army detective story set in Malaya. He did talks on Woman's Hour. His first published book, This Time Next Week (1964), about his life at Barnardo's, remained continuously in print long after some of his later novels had slipped out of sight.
When he was short of money, his agent, Desmond Elliott, suggested he "write that novel". It was The Virgin Soldiers and was to free him from Fleet Street and launch him as a bestselling author whose subsequent novels –including Onward Virgin Soldiers (1971), Stand Up Virgin Soldiers (1975) and The Magic Army (1981) – might not have had quite the impact of The Virgin Soldiers, but provided an entertaining view of British life in rapidly changing times. His final novel, Soldiers and Lovers (2007), was a love story set at the end of the second world war.
Thomas was especially proud of his non-fiction books on islands and other picturesque places, Some Lovely Islands (1968), A World of Islands (1983) and The Hidden Places of Britain (1981). He carried on with casual journalism, remained a familiar presence on radio and television, and in 2005 was appointed OBE. His final book, Almost Heaven (2010), was a set of stories relating to Salisbury Cathedral and people connected with it.
Thomas married his second wife, Diana Miles, in 1970. She survives him, as do their son, and the daughter and two sons from his first marriage, in 1956, to Maureen Crane, which ended in divorce.
• Leslie John Thomas, novelist and journalist, born 22 March 1931; died 6 May 2014