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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Tuesday 6 February 2024

Dudley Clarke - Seven Assignments

 Brigadier Dudley Clarke was one of the lesser-known but fascinating characters of WW2. I wrote about him in my book Chasing the Soft Underbelly because he was the head of 'A Force' in Cairo and was responsible for a wide range of deception operations and intelligence work in Turkey. He is less well-known mainly because he wasn't authorised to write about his work after WW2. The War Office believed that his operations were so successful that they might need to use them against the Soviets.

His work is touched on in other histories, and I read quite a bit in the National Archives. However, no memoir exists. Or so I thought. I was rummaging around in an old-school second-hand bookshop in Glasgow and came across a 1947 book by Clarke, Seven Assignments. I missed it in my research because it covers the early war period just before he arrived in Cairo on Wavell's staff. Coincidentally, catching up on We Have Ways podcasts coming back from York, James Holland discussed Clarke in an interview, and his guest mentioned this book.

The dust cover of my copy is a bit battered, but I got it at a very reasonable price when you look at what they are going for on Abe Books. A pristine copy is on sale for £650!

In his introduction to the book, Wavell hints at his later work when he says, 'I have always believed in doing everything possible in war to mystify and mislead one's opponent, and that I was right in judging that this was work for which Dudley Clarke's originality, ingenuity and somewhat impish sense of humour qualified him admirably.'

His first assignment was a traditional staff officer job in the Middle East, scouting an overland route from Mombasa to Cairo in case the Mediterranean route was blocked. This was a travelogue, so we will skip to his first trip to Norway. I have read about the ill-fated Norwegian campaign but haven't encountered Clarke's not-insignificant role. Somewhat typically, he stretched his liaison role to actually going to Norway with the initial landing force. He got involved with the retreat and worked with the Norwegian Army, meeting General Ruge. His descriptions of journeying around Norway in various vehicles are hair-raising. He was sent back later to help with the evacuation and was one of the last to get away.

The next stop was the France 1940 campaign, with a detour into an unnamed neutral country to meet sympathetic local officials. This was still obviously sensitive in 1947, and I assume it was Ireland. As troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk, he came up with an idea of how to strike back with small-scale raids. He floated the idea with Sir John Dill, who gave him carte blanche to organise them. It was Clarke who came up with the name Commandos. He was born in South Africa and was well acquainted with the Boer War. The name was not well received in the War Office, but Churchill loved it. He went on the very first raid and was nearly killed, only being saved because the bullet deflected off his silver tobacco box. 

When Keyes took over special operations, he favoured large-scale raids like Zebrugge in WW1. Clarke disagreed and so was probably pleased when Wavell asked for him. This service led him to be responsible for naming the SAS as well. 

This is a fascinating tale about an interesting character. The Wiki page has more about his life and times, and if you can get a copy of this book from the library, I highly recommend it.


  1. I heard that episode of We Have Ways. Very enjoyable episode. I can't help but picture Dominic West when the name Dudley Clarke comes up.

  2. Sounds fascinating. Well out of my budget though đŸ˜‰

    1. Mine too, although it has to be said my £10 copy is a little battered!