David Smiley: Military officer who became a master of irregular warfare

In a military career that encompassed clandestine operations in the Balkans, the Middle East and South-east Asia, as well as more conventional soldiering with the Royal Horse Guards (the “Blues”) during the Second World War, David Smiley was one of Britain’s most skilled proponents of irregular warfare – and his post-war activities were to prove equally as colourful.



Noted for his plain speaking, but equally, his absolute honesty, loyalty and integrity, David de Crespigny Smiley was born in 1916. His maternal grandfather, Claude de Crespigny, was a noted sportsman and adventurer, traits that his grandson clearly inherited.

Although it had been his intention to pursue a career in the Royal Navy, having attended Pangbourne Nautical College, he eventually passed out from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in September 1936 with a commission in the Blues. His time at Sandhurst lasted longer than he had intended. A serious riding accident – which left him with a fractured pelvis, contused kidneys and a collapsed lung – resulted in an extended period of convalescence at a military hospital.

The peacetime idyll of a Household Cavalry officer was broken by the outbreak of war in 1939 and with the Blues amalgamating with the Life Guards to form the 1st Household Cavalry Regiment, Smiley was posted to Palestine in February 1940. Soon frustrated at the tedium of performing internal security duties, he volunteered for the Somaliland Camel Corps in the hope of seeing action against Italian forces in the horn of Africa. While these hopes were soon dashed, a chance meeting with a fellow Cavalry officer, Neil “Billy” McLean, was to have a profound impact on Smiley’s future career. Equally frustrated at his lack of action, McLean suggested that they join a new military formation, the commandos.

While Smiley was to see action as a regular officer with the Blues in the invasions of Iraq, Syria, Iran as well as at the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, it was his introduction to irregular warfare, operating behind Italian lines in Abyssinia with 52 Middle East Commando, that came to define his subsequent military career.

In the winter of 1942, while on leave in Cairo, Smiley once again chanced upon his old friend McLean. Having joined MO4, a cover name for the Middle East section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), McLean recruited Smiley, who needed little encouragement, for operations in the Balkans. After undergoing paramilitary training at the Special Training School run by SOE in Haifa, Smiley, McLean and two companions were dropped by parachute in April 1943 into northern Greece, from where they walked into Albania.

Smiley was to find his experience of this country a bittersweet affair. He excelled in the art of guerrilla warfare, demonstrating outstanding leadership and bravery in training Albanians, gathering operational intelligence, ambushing German convoys and, in a subsequent mission to Albania, destroying a strategic bridge at Gjoles.

These actions led to Smiley being awarded the Military Cross and Bar.

But the political sectarianism that defined Albanian society meant that organising resistance to the Axis forces often came second to trying to prevent civil war erupting between the Communists, led byEnver Hoxha, and the Nationalists and Royalist forces loyal to the former monarch King Zog.

The perception that elements within SOE came, over time, to increasingly favour Hoxha led Smiley, McLean and Julian Amery – who accompanied them on their second mission to Albania – to believe that British interests in the Balkans had effectively been suborned to those of Moscow.

Although Smiley had intended to rejoin the Blues at the end of 1944, he was persuaded to transfer to the Siamese section of the SOE, Force 136, eventually parachuting into the northeast of the country in May 1945.

Tasked again with organising effective guerrilla resistance against the Japanese, his mission was cut short when his thermite briefcase, designed to incinerate documents quickly should capture appear imminent, exploded prematurely in his hands. This inflicted serious burns on his face, arms, and knees. But for the actions of his signaller and a prompt evacuation back to India, Smiley was convinced he would have died.

While recovering from his wounds in Calcutta, Smiley met Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru, all of whom, he noted, refused to believe the newsreels being shown of Nazi atrocities in Europe. He returned to Siam in August 1945, but the dropping of the atomic bomb forced Japan’s surrender without the need to organise further resistance.

Although only a Major, he took the sur render of the 22nd Division of the Imperial Japanese Army as well as liberating the Japanese prisoner of war camp at Ubon that contained 4,000 British, Dutch and Australian prisoners.

The sight of these men, many emaciated, standing to attention clad just in their “ball bags” and singing the national anthem was the most moving moment of the war for Smiley.

He did, however, rearm a company of Japanese troops on British orders to affect the release of French civilians held hostage in Indo-China by Annamite Communists, the forerunners of the Viet Minh. The Annamite Communists enjoyed the support of officers from the US Office of Strategic Services – the equivalent of the SOE – keen to see the back of British and French colonial rule in South-east Asia. As a result of this action, which freed 120 women and children, Smiley was awarded a military OBE, but it left him with an abiding suspicion of American foreign policy.

On returning to the UK and attending Staff College, he was appointed assistant military attaché in Warsaw, but in March 1947 was expelled for alleged spying. While he returned in May 1948 as second in command of the Blues, this period of regular military service punctuated two secondments to MI6. Among his activities during this period was responsibility for the training and infiltration of Albanian exiles back in to their homeland.

“Operation Valuable” was supposed to establish the potential for overthrowing the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, but ended in disaster, with most of the infiltrators being captured or executed. It is believed that the operation was betrayed by Kim Philby, although recent research has also pointed to the lack of field security among those exiles who knew of the operation. Even so, it was a failure that affected Smiley for the rest of his life.

Smiley took full command of his regiment in 1952, a responsibility that included riding escort for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, and became a military attaché in Stockholm between 1955 and 1958. It had been Smiley’s intention to leave the Army at this point and settle down to farm in Kenya, but Julian Amery, now Under Secretary for War in the government of Harold Macmillan, persuaded him to accept the command of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman’s Armed Forces.

A ruler noted for his insularity and almost medieval form of government, the Sultan faced a growing insurrection that enjoyed the support of Saudi Arabia and Aramco. Britain, by contrast, was bound by treaty to defend the Sultan but proved reluctant to invest the necessary military resources to fully dislodge the insurgents from the mountain vastness of the Jebel Akhdar. In a campaign noted for both its daring and judicious use of force, Smiley planned and oversaw the capture of this mountain fortress in January 1959. To the chagrin of many of those involved in this operation, he was never awarded the DSO he so richly deserved.

Although he was offered the command of the three SAS regiments, David Smiley decided to retire from the army in 1961. Having unsuccessfully tried his hand at, among other things, mushroom farming, he was offered employment in the service of the Saudis – his former opponents in Oman – as military advisor to Royalist forces in the Yemen who were seeking to restore the Imamate that had been overthrown by an Egyptian-backed republican government. From 1963 to 1968, Smiley made 13 extended trips to the Yemen, and in time came to lead and organise ex-members of the SAS as well as French mercenaries who had been recruited to train the Royalist guerrillas.

In 1968 Smiley retired to Spain where he farmed for 19 years, before returning to live first in Somerset and then in London. With the fall of Communism he was delighted to return to Albania, enjoying similar trips to Thailand and more recently, Yemen, to revisit his old battlegrounds.

Clive Jones

David de Crespigny Smiley, military officer and secret agent: born 11 April 1916; MC 1943 and Bar 1944; married 1947 Moyra Tweedie (née Scott; two sons, one stepson, one stepdaughter); died 9 January 2009.

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