Obituary: Peter Kemp MC DSO

Peter Kemp was a fellow SOE officer and would have known Paddy, Xan Fielding and Billy Moss.

by M. R. D. FOOT

First published in the Independent Thursday, 4 November 1993

Peter Mant MacIntyre Kemp, soldier and writer: born Bombay 19 August 1915; MC 1941; DSO 1945; twice married (marriages dissolved); died London 30 October 1993.

PETER KEMP was a distinguished irregular soldier during the Second World War, and long retained his nose for trouble spots thereafter.

His father was a judge in Bombay, where he was born. After conventional education at Wellington and Trinity, Cambridge, he started to read for the Bar, but was called away by the outbreak of civil war in Spain. Already alarmed at the menace of Communism, he joined a Carlist unit in General Franco’s forces in November 1936 and later transferred to the Spanish Foreign Legion in which – rare distinction for a non-Spaniard – he commanded a platoon. He was several times wounded, but stayed at duty till a mortar bomb broke his jaw in the summer of 1938.

He had barely recovered from this wound when a chance meeting with (Sir) Douglas Dodds-Parker brought him into MIR, a small research department of the War Office which was one of the starting components of the wartime Special Operations Executive. MIR sent him on an abortive expedition to Norway by submarine. He was one of the earliest pupils at the Combined Operations Training School at Lochailort on the shores of the Western Highlands; sailed in intense discomfort to Gibraltar in the hold of that dubious craft HMS Fidelity; and went on another abortive submarine voyage in pursuit of a German U-boat. This aborted because a British destroyer attacked the submarine carrying Kemp by mistake. The operation SOE had planned for him in Spain was cancelled. He returned to the United Kingdom for further training in parachuting sabotage and undercover tactics.

With a small-scale raiding force he took part in a few cross-channel commando raids, including a successful one which captured all seven of the crew of the Casquets lighthouse (one of them still wearing a hair-net). When the force closed down after its leader’s death in action he went out to Cairo, and was absorbed into SOE’s Albanian section. He spent 10 months clandestinely in Albania, many of them in disagreeable proximity to Enver Hoxha, the Communist leader. He had several close brushes with death, and found the complexities of Balkan politics intensely confusing in a many-sided war. Eventually he walked out into Montenegro, across the border with Yugoslavia, and was safely brought back to Cairo.

He did one more mission for SOE in Europe, into southern Poland at the end of 1944, in a party commanded by Colonel DT Hudson, who had been a leading SOE agent in Yugoslavia. Their Polish friends protected them from capture by the Germans. They were then overrun by the Red Army, and imprisoned in odious conditions for three weeks by the NKVD. Two months hanging about in Moscow waiting for an exit visa followed.

He had still not had enough fighting. He parachuted once more, in the summer of 1945, into Siam and ran arms to the French across the border with Laos – again fighting a polygonal war, for both the Japanese and the Viet Min tried to stop him.

Tuberculosis forced his retirement from the Army, and his health thereafter was always precarious. His energies remained enormous. He sold life insurance policies for a living, and wrote some excellent books. One, Mine Were of Trouble (1957) described his part in the war in Spain, and No Colours or Crest (1958), his life with MIR and SOE. These were strong, spare narratives, in beautifully clear English, extremely readable then and since. He acknowledged many of his own mistakes and never said a word of his calm, gentle, unfailing courage.

He went to Hungary during the rising in 1956, nominally as the Tablet’s correspondent, and helped some students escape to Austria. He was present during the troubles in the Congo that led to its independence as Zaire; he fought intermittently in Vietnam; he visited and reported on revolutions in Central and in South America; he could even bear to revisit Albania, where he predicted further racial clashes between Albanians and Serbs. He was always ready to advise a friend; and in The Forms of Memory (1990) produced a notable autobiography. He bore his last illness with his usual fortitude.

1 thought on “Obituary: Peter Kemp MC DSO

  1. Christopher Othen

    An excellent account of a fascinating man. Kemp’s final book was actually ‘Thorns of Memory’ – essentially a compilation of his previous books, much shortened, rather than an autobiography, but still a great read.

    Anyone interested in Kemp’s Spanish Civil War service might want to check out my book ‘Franco’s International Brigades’, about foreign volunteers in the Nationalist army. It includes the adventures of Kemp and other, equally colourful personalities.


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