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News > Pangbournian Stories > Book Reviews > The Clandestine Lives of Colonel David Smiley by Clive Jones

The Clandestine Lives of Colonel David Smiley by Clive Jones

David Smiley (30-34) perhaps led the most extraordinary life of any OP to date. He was “an exceptionally brave man (and) an exceptionally fortunate soldier.”
6 Sep 2019
Written by Robin Knight
Book Reviews

David Smiley (30-34) perhaps led the most extraordinary life of any OP to date. He died in 2009 aged 92 and was, in the words of the author of this academic biography, “an exceptionally brave man (and) an exceptionally fortunate soldier.” That is putting it mildly. If a cat has nine lives, David Smiley had at least a dozen, surviving multiple near-death experiences, numerous wounds and injuries and many hair-raising incidents. A notably modest man, ever loyal to his friends, he would be amazed by the attention his exploits now command. 

Clive Jones, the author of this book, teaches at Durham University and this volume is one of a series sponsored by Edinburgh University on the theme of “Intelligence, Surveillance and Secret Warfare.” More than 17 years in the making, it is comprehensive, analytical and balanced and is helped enormously by Smiley’s own three autobiographical books and by interviews with the subject and other family members dating back to 2002.  

That said, its generally forensic, contextual tone largely fails to capture the excitement, the challenge, the fear and the rationale of the life under this microscope. Smiley the human being proves elusive although there are a number of colourful stories in the narrative. All his achievements and courageous exploits are recorded in great detail yet somehow the man at the centre of it all fails to come alive. What is lacking in the book is some flair and feeling – those elusive extra somethings that can bring a dead hero back to life for future generations. 

David Smiley’s career can be told briefly here. Like many of his generation he went to the NCP having failed the entrance exam into the Royal Navy. He excelled at sport but illness sank his second attempt to get into the RN and instead he went to Sandhurst. Subsequently, he joined the Guards (the Blues) in 1936, rode, played polo and owned a plane. Once war began in 1939, he served with his regiment in Palestine, Iraq and Syria, spent time in the Commandos and, in his search for action, gravitated to the SOE (Special Operations Executive) after the battle of El Alamein. 

As an SOE officer he was attached to the organisation’s Balkan section and took part in many guerrilla incidents in German-occupied Albania from 1942. Joining Force 136 (an SOE offshoot) in Thailand early in 1945, he personally liberated a prisoner-of-war camp containing 3,000 Allied servicemen and took the surrender of 10,000 Japanese soldiers as well as rescuing 800 French hostages held by rebels in Laos. Post-war, he commanded the Muscat and Oman Field Force in a guerrilla war against rebellious tribesman in the 1950s and later played a key role in British attempts to undermine Egyptian dominance of Yemen. By the end of it all, when he retired from the Army in 1961 aged 45, he was a full Colonel who had been Mentioned in Despatches, been awarded two Military Crosses, a military MBE and the Croix de Guerre and three times been recommended for a DSO but denied it by ambivalent governments in London which never fully endorsed the unconventional warfare that he represented. 

In recommending his appointment to command the Oman forces in 1958, the War Office summed up Smiley very accurately: “He is essentially a commander with a bent for guerrilla warfare and one who gets results by precept and example rather than by coercion. He draws wholehearted co-operation from his subordinates by reason of the confidence that he inspires in them. He is resourceful, determined and has good powers of command.” Morally, Smiley was a pragmatist, turning a blind eye to “harsh measures” such as destroying homes when it suited his purpose. Equally, although the War Office assessment did not mention it, speaking truth to power was always his style and he had little time for diplomatic or political niceties.  

Today, when life seems full of boring shades of grey, Smiley’s black-and-white character, ingenuity and refusal to accept the decline of Britain’s influence in the world can seem anachronistic. Yet he always judged others on their merits regardless of colour, class or faith invariably putting ability and integrity before all other virtues. 

Clive Jones’s biography is likely to be the last word on David Smiley’s life and career so it is fitting that he ends this book by putting it in context. “His career personified the wider struggles of a Britain trying to make sense of its place in a post-war world where its prestige, if not power, counted for a great deal less.” Added David Smiley’s son Xan  at his funeral in 2009: “I’m proud that some of my father’s exploits may go down in the annals of military history. And, of course, I’m proud of his bravery. But I think I’m proudest of all of the simpler virtues of his life: his disarming modesty, his uncomplicated patriotism, his down-to-earthness, his instinctive decency, above all his straight-as-a-dye honesty.”

by ROBIN KNIGHT

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