Obituary: Canon David Strangeways

FEW IN the congregations in Suffolk and Norfolk where David Strangeways officiated in his retirement in the 1980s and 1990s would have realised that their vicar had been 24 years a regular soldier before ordination and was involved in some of the most significant covert operations of the Second World War or had led a battalion in the jungles of Malaya.

In 1942, he was sent from the War Office in London to General Sir Harold Alexander in Cairo with the plans for deceiving the Axis powers over the time and place of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Impossible to conceal from the enemy was the vast armada of landing craft gathered at Gibraltar. A bogus destination had to be conceived for them. This was brought about in the most unusual way.

The novelist Dennis Wheatley, then working in the London Control of Strategic Deception, gave Strangeways a copy of his latest novel and a letter for an acquaintance in Cairo. The light-hearted letter also spoke of landing craft being assembled in Gibraltar to go to the aid of besieged Malta. Knowing that hotels in Cairo were notorious for the presence of enemy agents, Strangeways left the letter inside the book. It was undoubtedly read and misleading information passed to the German military secret service.

He was then selected for Brigadier Dudley Clarke's A-Force, who were to carry out strategic and tactical deception throughout the Near and Middle East, and given command of their HQ in the Western Desert. Here he was in his element. He would deploy units with radio nets to deliver false information to the enemy. Using his imagination but backing it with sound military strategy he would devise a plan and clear it through Major- General Richard McCreery, Alexander's Chief of Staff, and London Control via the Ultra Network.

Troops and vehicles were then positioned so as to create a misleading scenario for German intelligence. On several occasions Axis forces moved rapidly against a supposed threat, leaving them in the wrong area when the real attack took place. Rommel became one of Strangeways' victims when he moved a division into action only to find empty desert untouched by Allied tanks.

As the campaign in North Africa moved to a close, Strangeways' HQ, in order to continue his deception work, gained engineers, military police and other units as well as armoured vehicles. As soon as the Germans collapsed his unit moved into Tunis. In one particular task, which involved considerable skill, boldness and a fair amount of bluff, he and another officer took over the German HQ. He then blew open the safe, seized secret documents, and made contact with what remained of the French Colonial Police and had the capital virtually under control as the Allied Forces marched in the next day. For this audacious action and his previous work in the desert, he was awarded the DSO.

Strangeways was next involved in the plan for the Sicily landings. Over the radio from bogus headquarters the enemy was constantly given misleading information as to the direction of the Allied invasion. This was further reinforced by "The Man Who Never Was", the body of an alleged Marine officer who was washed ashore in Spain carrying specific documents indicating the invasion would be a beach landing in Sardinia or Greece. The German High Command moved units to both areas. Strangeways then moved his HQ to Salerno on the Italian mainland.

When Montgomery took over command of 21st Army Group for the invasion of D-Day at the end of 1943, he asked for Strangeways and gave him command of R-Force. This comprised armoured vehicles, several squadrons of field engineers and a special wireless unit about 800 strong. He worked with Montgomery on his plan for the invasion and took R-Force to Normandy in June 1944. From there he fought with them up to the crossing of the Rhine. En route his special unit was diverted to make the initial takeover of Brussels and Rouen.

David Strangeways was the third son of Dr T.S.P. Strangeways, the founder of Strangeways Research Hospital in Cambridge. He was born in 1912 and educated at Cambridge County High School, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History.

In 1933 he was commissioned into the Duke of Wellington's Regiment and served with the 1st Battalion in Aldershot and Malta before the Second World War. In France from 1939, he saw his first action, a rearguard defence, as the British forces fought their way to Dunkirk. An able sailor since childhood, he saw a Thames barge inexplicably empty on the beach and was able to transport part of his battalion back to Dover. For this initiative he was mentioned in despatches.

With the end of the war and Germany in chaos, Strangeways was appointed political adviser to the Allied Commissioners for Westphalia and the Rhine. It was complex work involving collating intelligence, supervision of some 15,000 Germans in temporary detention camps and frontier control along the borders of Germany. He then returned to England for two staff jobsm where he was able to pass on his experience in deception work.

After a short spell with the Green Howards, in 1949 he joined the British Military Mission in Greece, advising the Greek government in the unsettling business of civil war.

In 1952 Strangeways was given command of the 1st Battalion the East Yorkshire Regiment which was on a three-year operational tour of Malaya. His battalion performed well in the fiercely held Communist areas and he was again mentioned in despatches. He was promoted to substantive colonel and after holding the post of Assistant Chief of Staff Training (Northern Command) in Nato he was asked to command Task Force for atomic tests on Christmas Island. He had already felt a calling for the Church and he retired from the Army to take holy orders.

He studied at Wells Theological College for a year and was appointed curate of Lee-on-Solent in 1958. He was vicar of Symondsbury, Dorset, from 1961 to 1965 and then enjoyed eight years at Bradford-on-Avon. He then moved to Stockholm as Chaplain to the British Embassy before being appointed Chancellor and Senior Canon of St Paul's Cathedral in Malta, in 1977.

On his retirement he returned to England but continued his ministry as a priest in the diocese of Norwich and St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. He was a caring pastor with a good sense of humour who had a natural rapport with his congregation. He was also a gifted speaker whose sermons were direct, to the point, and never lasted more than eight minutes.

He and his wife, Eleanor, to whom he was happily married for 59 years, shared a great interest in gardening.

David Inderwick Strangeways, soldier and priest: born Cambridge 26 February 1912; DSO 1943; OBE 1945; ordained deacon 1959, priest 1960; Vicar, Symondsbury, Dorset 1961-65; Vicar, Bradford-on-Avon 1965-73; Chaplain to the British Embassy, Stockholm 1973-77; Chancellor and Senior Canon, Malta Cathedral 1977-81; married 1939 Eleanor Crogan (two sons, one daughter); died Beccles, Suffolk 1 August 1998.