Colonel David Smiley: Blues officer and MC recipient

The Times’ Obituary of David Smiley. Times’ content is now subscription only so no link I am afraid. Paddy was a friend and wrote the foreward to Smiley’s book Albanian Assignment.

First published in The Times January 2009.

When Lieutenant David Smiley was ordered to Palestine with the 1st Cavalry Division in January 1940 his immediate concern was how to dispose of his private aeroplane, two racehorses and Bentley. The next five years were to bring him more exacting problems, but he completed the war as a three-times decorated lieutenant-colonel.

The Life Guards and Smiley’s regiment, the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues), each provided two squadrons to make up the 1st Household Cavalry Regiment (HCR), which, together with two other horsed cavalry regiments already in Palestine and several mobilised Yeomanry regiments, provided the 1st Cavalry Division with the capability to relieve an infantry division in Palestine for service in the Western Desert. Smiley found Palestine interesting but, seeking more active duty, he volunteered to join No 52 (Middle East) Commando under training at Geneifa, Egypt, in November 1940.

Operations against the Italians in Abyssinia in the early months of 1941 gave him his first taste of action, but when 52 Commando was withdrawn to Egypt, after Haile Selassie had been restored to his throne, he heard that 1st HCR had been motorised and was about to go to the Western Desert, so he hastened to rejoin. Diversions of the regiment — to Iraq, during the Rashid Ali anti-British revolt, Syria and then Persia with the force assembled to oppose any German thrust from the Caucasus towards the oilfields — intervened. But Smiley eventually reached the desert in time for El Alamein. Afterwards, while in Cairo under orders for return to Syria, he snapped up an invitation to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE) mission about to be sent to Albania.

Although there was little reliable information on the situation in Albania, SOE hoped to orchestrate partisan attacks on the occupying Italians. A team comprising Major N. L. D. “Billy” McLean, Smiley, Lieutenant Garry Duffy — a demolitions expert — and a radio operator was parachuted into Axis-occupied Greece, where an SOE mission was already established. They crossed the Albanian frontier to find that the communist and royalist guerrilla groups were principally engaged in outmanoeuvring each other in readiness to take control of the country once the Axis forces had been evicted.

However, Smiley and Duffy were able to make contact with a group of communist partisans intent on attacking the Italian garrison in the town of Leshovik. Surprise was achieved, and despite the partisans’ failure to press home their advantage, the Italian burnt down their barracks and withdrew. Impressed by this success, Smiley called for an airdrop of explosives and destroyed a bridge used by recently arrived German troops. The encouraging report he sent to SOE headquarters in Cairo as soon as he rejoined McLean and the radio operator elicited news of the imminent despatch of a brigadier to take control of the Albanian mission. On arrival, the brigadier sent McLean and Smiley — whom he suspected of “going native” — to the coast for collection by the Royal Navy and some leave.

They were recalled from London after news that the brigadier and his staff had been betrayed to the Germans, who had taken over the occupation following the Italian armistice of September 1943. In Cairo they met up with Captain Julian Amery — late of the British Embassy in Belgrade — and all three were dropped directly into Albania.

This second mission began well, as initially the two partisan factions agreed to act jointly against the Germans, but the communist leader Enver Hoxha, Stalinist Prime Minister 1944-54 and in effect his country’s leader until his death in 1985, was to renege on this. Even so, damage was inflicted on German lines of communication and supply convoys. After return from Albania, Smiley was awarded the Military Cross for his first mission and a bar for his second.

While on leave in Cairo in early 1945 he received an invitation from the Thai Prince Subha Svasti, whose family had lived near his in Surrey, to join SOE’s Force 136 in the Far East.

Siam — as the country was then known — was supposedly at war with Britain under Japanese pressure, but SOE was active in promoting anti-Japanese activity in the country. Smiley accepted and was instrumental in organising the repatriation of former Commonwealth prisoners held by the Japanese in Thailand. But in French Indo-China he met obstruction from communist partisans interested only in resisting the return of the French colonial authorities. He was appointed OBE for his work in South-East Asia.

On return to England he undertook a secondment to MI6 to work on proposals for the SAS to assume the SOE role in future conflicts and then, as part of an Anglo-US initiative, he went to Malta to help to brief agents being sent to Albania. (Many were betrayed by the traitor Kim Philby, but some escaped to Greece.)

He commanded The Blues with the Army of the Rhine and then in Windsor from 1952 to 1955. This included command of the Sovereign’s Escort at the Coronation, for which he was appointed MVO (later LVO). Stockholm as military attaché followed on promotion to colonel and as this assignment drew to a close, he and his wife were on the point of buying a farm in Kenya when Julian Amery, by then Secretary of State for War, offered Smiley command of the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces.

The Sultan’s forces — then of limited capability — were unable to deal with a rebellion mounted from the hinterland plateau of the 8,000ft-high Jebel Akhdar. At Smiley’s request, two squadrons of 22nd SAS Regiment, a Life Guards squadron and RAF ground-attack aircraft were put at his disposal and the rebels were defeated, after a heroic scaling of the Jebel by the SAS. Modernisation, expansion and better training of the Sultan’s forces were subsequently instituted.

On leaving Oman in 1961, he was offered command of the SAS Group in England but not promotion to brigadier. By his own admission, he left the Army in a huff and tried to settle down as a restaurants inspector for the Good Food Guide.

He was rescued from this by Billy McLean, his friend from the Albanian missions — then MP for Inverness — who asked him to go to Yemen. There he was to act on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government as military adviser to the Imam commanding the force fighting the republican movement supported by President Nasser of Egypt.

Over the next four years Smiley visited Yemen, travelling the areas controlled by the imam, on foot or by donkey, offering his advice on operations, organisation and training until the Israel-Arab War of 1967 obliged Nasser to withdraw from Yemen and the Saudi Government brokered a compromise truce between the two sides.

Smiley and his wife then farmed in the Alicante province of Spain for 20 years, but he maintained his Albanian contacts. When a coalition came to power in Tirana in 1991, Amery and Smiley were invited to visit as guests. At a reunion in the Bixha Valley, site of the wartime parachute drops, they met their former interpreter, who had endured 17 years’ hard labour for his help to the Allies during the war.

David de Crespigny Smiley was the third son of Sir John Smiley, Bt, and was educated at Pangbourne Nautical College and RMC College, Sandhurst, from where he was commissioned into The Blues in 1936. He recorded his adventures in three volumes, Arabian Assignment, Albanian Assignment and Irregular Regular published in 1975, 1984 and 1994 respectively.

He was married in 1947 to Moyra (Moy), the second daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Francis Montagu Douglas Scott, the youngest son of the 6th Duke of Buccleuch. She survives him with two sons, a stepson and a stepdaughter.

Colonel D. de C. Smiley, LVO, OBE, MC and Bar, was born on April 11, 1916. He died on January 9, 2009, aged 92


3 thoughts on “Colonel David Smiley: Blues officer and MC recipient

  1. Pingback: Lives remembered: Colonel David Smiley | Patrick Leigh Fermor

  2. Pingback: Albanian Assignment « Patrick Leigh Fermor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.