Dudley Clarke’s Commandos

WWII

Dudley Clarke’s Commandos

Dudley Clarke’s British Commandos carried out complex operations that were crucial to toppling the Axis powers in World War II.

Dudley Clarke’s British Commandos carried out complex operations that were crucial to toppling the Axis powers in World War II.

By Jon Diamond

After the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) debacle at Dunkirk in northern France in May 1940, the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, needed a novel type of fighting force to strike back at Nazi Europe. Britain needed to project to the remaining free nations, especially the “isolationist” United States with its pro-surrender faction, that the island nation was determined to fight on. This meant not only deterring a suspected Nazi invasion by successfully defending the airspace over the island against the vaunted Luftwaffe, but also by engaging in offensive actions on the Continent and in Norway, no matter how small the attacking force or operation might be.

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Also, Britain would be fighting Italy across North Africa. General Archibald Wavell, C-in-C Middle East, needed to devise a way to convince the overwhelmingly superior Italian forces in Libya, Abyssinia, and Italian Somaliland that they were, in fact, pitted against a substantial Commonwealth army.

Dudley Clarke: An Aviator in the Royal Artillery

A South African named Dudley Clarke came up with the answer to the problems facing Churchill and Wavell. Clarke was born on April 27, 1899. He attended Charterhouse, one of the major English public schools, and subsequently entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in May 1916, at the age of 17. Six months later, he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery but could not serve in France because he was underage. Instead, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and was a pilot in Egypt for the remainder of the conflict.

After the war he returned to the artillery, but he proudly wore his RFC wings against regulation. From 1919 to 1930, he traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and served in the Territorial Army in Sussex. After three years with the Transjordan Frontier Force, he attended the Staff College at Camberly, in 1933-1934, becoming a protégé of its commandant and future Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), General John Dill.

After Camberley, Clarke served in the coastal defense at Aden, and in 1936 was transferred to Palestine, where he functioned as the chief of the operations staff initially for Dill, the C-in-C Palestine, and then for Wavell. Before the start of the war, Major Clarke was stationed at the War Office in London.

During the early days of the war, Clarke served with Wavell again, reconnoitering overland supply routes astride the Red Sea. In the spring of 1940, he went to Norway twice, formulated anti-invasion plans in Ireland in the event of a German assault, and was in Calais during the BEF’s forlorn attempt to hold that port before the Dunkirk evacuation.

“A Ceaseless Offensive Against the Whole German-Occupied Coast”

The day after Dunkirk ended, as one of Dill’s military assistants Clarke devised the conceptual framework for the British Commandos, which he believed should become the offensive organization of a weapon-depleted British Army. Clarke recalled British military history and his own past to address the military challenges facing Great Britain. He recalled the guerrilla warfare against Napoleon in Spain and the term “Commando” from the Boer War. The Boers, using guerrilla tactics against the British, called operational units Commandos. The Boer Commandos were able to prevent a quick and decisive victory by an army vastly superior to theirs in numbers and arms. Clarke also reflected on his service during the Arab Revolt in Palestine in 1936, when a handful of poorly armed Arab fanatics had been able to negate the strength of more than an army corps of regular troops. Clarke envisioned a force that could operate without artillery, baggage trains, and other supply paraphernalia against an enemy with forces arrayed against Great Britain from Scandinavia to the Pyrenees. On the last day of the Dunkirk evacuation, June 4, 1940, Clarke sat down in his London quarters and began formulating his ideas.

His ideas were first submitted to his superior, Dill, on June 5, and were then forwarded to the prime minister the next day. On Clarke’s recommendation, Churchill issued orders for the establishment of elite units capable of harassing the Germans. “Enterprises must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast,” wrote Churchill. “I look to the Chiefs of Staff to propose measures for a ceaseless offensive against the whole German-occupied coastline, leaving a trail of German corpses behind.”

First Raid, First Casualty

On June 8, Churchill’s assent was rapidly passed on to Clarke with the caveat of celerity. The prime minister wanted the military to mount a raid across the English Channel at the earliest possible time. Later that afternoon, Section MO9 of the War Office was created with Clarke being promoted to colonel to implement his scheme for Commando-style raiding.

Dudley Clarke’s British Commandos carried out complex operations that were crucial to toppling the Axis powers in World War II.

Brig. Gen. Dudley Clarke devised the
conceptual framework for the British Commandos.

The only conditions laid down by the prime minister to Clarke were that no unit should be diverted from its most essential task, the defense of Britain, which might soon face invasion. Thus, Clarke was basically given a free hand to form the Commandos. When Clarke first went to seek the cooperation of the Admiralty, he was cordially received by the assistant chief of the naval staff, who was delighted that the Army was ready to go back into action and said that the Navy would furnish any resources needed for the effort.

To demonstrate the pitiful state of arms in Britain, on the first Commando raid carried out on the night of June 23-24 against the Boulogne-Le Touquet area, the expedition had half of the 40 Tommy guns then remaining in the country. Ironically, Dudley Clarke, who accompanied the expedition as an observer, was the only soldier injured when a German bullet struck him in the ear, almost severing it. Thus, the conjurer of the Commandos was its first casualty.

Under Wavell’s Command in the Desert War

Following Churchill’s chiding, MO9 lost no time in thinking up another raid.  On the night of July 14-15, a raid was mounted against the German garrison on the island of Guernsey. This raid produced no German casualties and was deemed unimpressive. When he heard of the attack’s lackluster performance, Churchill said that he didn’t want any more operations  that failed to produce results. Two days later Admiral of the Fleet Roger Keyes became director of combined operations, in effect superseding Clarke’s role.

For five months after his wounding in the Boulogne-Le Torquet raid, Clarke was engrossed in Commando affairs—until he was summoned by Wavell. In November 1940, Wavell, still the C-in-C Middle East, decided to reunite with his protégé and brought Clarke from England to Cairo. On November 13, 1940, Wavell advised London by personal signal that he intended to form a special section of intelligence whose primary mission would be deception of the enemy. For that purpose, he requested that there be assigned to that responsibility an officer, now a lieutenant colonel, who had served under him in Palestine in the 1930s, and in whom he had, in his own words, “recognized an original, unorthodox outlook on soldiering,” coupled with “originality, ingenuity, and [a] somewhat impish sense of humor.”

Clarke’s work has been referred to as a one-man show. Wavell’s regular chief of intelligence confessed after the war that he had no clear understanding of Clarke’s job during the early months of the Desert War.

On December 19, 1940, Clarke arrived and reported to Wavell for duty. As the war developed, British soldiers and policy makers settled down to organize deception seriously. Wavell concluded that trickery would have to be used as a substitute for strength until real strength could be built up again. From an alternative viewpoint, Clarke wrote in his draft memoirs, which were never completed or published, “The secret war was waged rather to conserve than to destroy; the stakes were the lives of the frontline troops, and the organization which fought it was able to count its gains from the number of casualties it could avert.”

Operation Camilla

In December 1940, Clarke would be personal intelligence officer for special duties to the C-in-C Middle East. The post entailed not only the planning and conduct of deception activities, but also the organization and operation of a Middle Eastern equivalent of M19, the element of military intelligence at the War Office responsible for assisting British soldiers to evade capture and for securing information from prisoners of war in enemy hands and assisting them to escape.

Clarke ran M19 for the Middle East and subsequently the whole Mediterranean from January 5, 1941, until August 1944. Being less secret than deception, it served throughout the war as a cover for Clarke’s primary task. Clarke’s first assignment with deception was to implement Wavell’s plan, Operation Camilla, which centered on making the Duke of Aosta believe that Wavell’s attack would come from the east and not the north in an attempt to recapture British Somaliland.

Camilla gave Clarke experience in the mechanics of deceiving, but it taught him one of his most important principles that what you must focus on is not what you want the enemy to think but what you want him to do. Simply misinforming the enemy does no good for the deception team if as a result of the ruse, the opposing force takes an undesirable action. That lesson Clarke never forgot, and it became a fundamental axiom of deception that he continued to preach.

Clarke further wrote about this principle in the summer of 1942: “The only purpose of any deception is to make one’s opponent act in a manner calculated to assist one’s own plans and to prejudice the success of his. In other words, to make him do something … too often in the past we had set out to make him think something, without realizing that this was no more than a means to an end. Fundamentally it does not matter in the least what the enemy thinks: it is only what line of action he adopts as a consequence of his line of thought that will affect the battle.”

In this analysis, Clarke clearly understood the vital tool that the British possessed in Ultra. The Enigma decrypts enabled the British to, in essence, read the Germans’ own intelligence summaries and plans. This provided a degree of unimaginable certainty that the Germans and Italians were not only taking the bait, but also what sort of bait was the most effective.

SAS in Operation Abeam

Clarke’s first operation entirely of his own creation, Operation Abeam, was to support Wavell’s new drive into Libya. The Italians were concerned that the British might land airborne forces in their rear, but Wavell had no such troops. Clarke established a notional British unit called the First Special Air Service (SAS) Brigade that was training in the Transjordan desert. In Clarke’s deception parlance, notional indicated something or someone imaginary to the deceiver but factual to the enemy. This was Clarke’s first foray into the long-term order of battle deception.

Early on in the deception game, Wavell asked Clarke what his notional troops were worth to him? Clarke said it would take three divisions, one armored brigade, and two squadrons of aircraft. As the war progressed, the strength of these notional forces continued to grow enormously.

Another result of Abeam was that when in August 1941, the legendary Major David Stirling formed a small parachute-qualified unit for his Long Range Desert Group he called it the 1st SAS Brigade as a cover to help the Abeam deception. The SAS is considered to be the model unit for special forces throughout the world. So Dudley Clarke could claim to have developed both of the British elite special formations, the Commandos, and the SAS.

Clarke’s Principles of Deception

Clarke’s next idea was an abortive one called the K-Shell Plan. It consisted of spreading a rumor that the British had a new artillery shell that worked by producing a titanic concussion rather than the usual fragmentation effect. Clarke drew a valuable lesson that became another axiom of deception, which was not to initiate a deception plan with no clear object just because the means existed to do it.

Through myriad other plans, Clarke learned and then applied a number of other important principles for his evolving deception operation. First, a deception should begin with a thought-out scenario around which the deceptive activity would consistently be built. Second, it was useful to build the story on an alternate plan of action that had actually been considered and discarded. Third, to persuade the enemy that the main operation was to come later than the real one. Fourth, to persuade the enemy that the real operation was merely a feint. Last, a proper deception plan must have time to work. Only a quick and simple tactical deception can be expected to work on short notice. A major operational deception might take weeks to worm its way through the enemy system; a large-scale strategic one might take months.

On March 28, 1941, Dudley Clarke’s great pioneering deception organization was officially designated A Force. On April 8, 1941, A Force moved into 6 Kasr-el-Nil, a building that also housed a brothel, and it remained there until the end of the European war in May 1945. In a little more than a year since being given his new assignment by Wavell, Clarke had devised deception principles, often mainly by trial and error. Clarke believed that some methods acquired largely through error were the most effective lessons.

Organizing A Force For Overlord

Because of Clarke’s successes in the Middle East, the chiefs of staff solicited suggestions from him for the upcoming invasions of Europe. Following recommendations made by Clarke in October 1941, the chiefs of staff approved the formation of the London Controlling Section, which assumed control over the establishment of deception policy and the development of deception plans for particular operations.

British commandos train for close-quarters combat. They excelled at tricking the enemy into acting in a manner to assist Allied plans. Commandos.

British commandos train for close-quarters combat. They excelled at tricking the enemy into
acting in a manner to assist Allied plans.

Clarke was not immune from attempts to usurp his power base, so meticulously built up under Wavell. Unfortunately, the proliferation of interest in deception and of personnel involved caused serious problems as various factions tried to exercise control. In October 1941, Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham’s chief of staff, Brigadier J.F.M. Whitely, tried to resolve such issues by separating strategic deception, to be controlled by Clarke’s A Force, and tactical and operational deception in the field, which he recommended should be run by a staff officer of Eighth Army.

This tactical deception commander would handle planning and development of deception units and schemes for the control of camouflage. This was an unsatisfactory division of responsibilities for Clarke. He had learned in 1941 that what differentiated deception in the Middle East from its counterpart in London was its centralized control. When Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck became aware of the deception organization difficulties in February 1942, he immediately ordered that all deception should be the responsibility of Clarke’s A Force, which would answer directly to the operations branch of General Headquarters.

A Force was reorganized as of December 19, 1943, for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. That month, Clarke was promoted to brigadier. Although this was not a general officer rank in the British Army, Clarke somehow procured a staff car flying a one-star flag like an American brigadier general. Again, he had flouted authority quietly.

“No Ordinary man”

Clarke retired from the Army soon after the war. He worked on the staff of the Conservative Party and served on the board of Securicor, Ltd., the leading British private security firm. He published in 1948 a book of memoirs, Seven Assignments, about his services during the war until he joined Wavell. In 1953, he approached the authorities for permission to write a book on deception, but it was not approved.

Clarke received a United States Legion of Merit award in 1946. The citation originated in the White House and was personally signed by President Harry Truman. When Dudley Clarke died in 1974, his obituary recalled that Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis had publicly stated that Clarke had done as much to win the war as any other officer. For Clarke to receive such praise from a British field marshal, especially since he did not attain rank higher than brigadier and remained unknown to all but a few of his contemporaries, prompted the obituary columnist to rightly conclude that Clarke was “no ordinary man.”

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