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How an enigmatic, cross-dressing British spy became London’s emissary to Dublin in WW2

Dudley Clarke was the British army’s greatest deception expert during the second World War, hoodwinking Erwin Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein and laying the foundations for even greater triumphs during D-Day.

The spy is best known as the British intelligence chief in the Middle East who conceived the idea of the Special Air Service, or SAS, as a ghost regiment or propaganda tool to scare the Germans and Italians into fearing the British had a crack parachute unit that could destroy its aircraft. The unit was later established for real using Clarke’s now-infamous name.

His deception on his spying missions would extend to wearing flamboyant disguises. He was once embarrassingly arrested for cross-dressing while working undercover in Madrid in 1941.

Less famous – until now – was Clarke’s role as London’s key emissary to Éamon de Valera’s government when it sought British help to fend off a feared German invasion the previous year in 1940.

The life of Clarke, who was played by actor Dominic West in the ITV series SAS: Rogue Heroes, is told by British journalist Robert Hutton in a new book, The Illusionist: The True Story of the Man Who Fooled Hitler.

Researching Clarke’s life, Hutton found Clarke’s own memoirs where he writes about being ordered to Dublin to meet senior Irish politicians, officials and soldiers following the fall of Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands in the summer of 1940, before the fall of France.

Clarke’s first Irish contacts were Joe Walshe, the top official in the Department of External Affairs – the forerunner of the Department of Foreign Affairs – and Col Liam Archer, the Irish Army’s military intelligence chief during a hastily-called meeting in Downing Street.

Dublin had “no interest” in a military alliance with anyone, Walshe told him, but “he himself and a few of his friends were painfully aware of the helplessness of their country should the Germans choose to treat it as a pawn in the game of war”.

Some in Dublin, Walshe coyly declared, believed that that was on the point of happening and realised “that for once their interests ran parallel to those of Britain”, Clarke wrote in an unpublished chapter of his memoirs, Seven Assignments.

“There was no time left to try and convince the country of the sense of this,” Walshe wrote, “and they had therefore come to London in secret in order to see how far it could be arranged to have some undercover plan of mutual aid if the worst happened.”

The chapter was never published since he was refused permission to do so by his superiors in London.

“They didn’t want to embarrass the Irish side. That, and the fact that secrecy is the default of the British state,” Hutton told The Irish Times.

Walshe said he and Archer had come with “the knowledge, but no more” of De Valera and the Irish army’s chief of staff, Gen Daniel McKenna, but only a “few of their other colleagues” knew of the mission.

Clarke, however, was “rather horrified” by the slow pace of the senior British officials.

“I could see that it was by no means to the taste of the visitors who had rushed to London overnight obsessed with the imminent danger,” he wrote.

Warning that the Germans would be in Ireland “before we have decided anything” unless action was taken immediately, Clarke was ordered to Ireland with Walshe and Archer, though he heeded their calls to get out of uniform, lest they be seen with a British officer.

They were flown to Belfast, not Dublin, where they parted. There, Clarke was briefed by Gen Hubert Huddleston “on whom would fall the task of implementing the plans of co-operation with the Army of Eire”, if an agreement with Dublin was reached.

A day later, Clarke arrived in Dublin, and sat for hours “in the dismal precincts of the lounge” of the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Greens while he waited for an Irish contact to turn up. In the end, Walshe showed up at dusk.

Another man went through Clarke’s luggage, removing anything that identified him as British.

“I found I was experiencing real security at the hands of those who had learned to depend on it for their lives since the days of the Troubles,” he said.

Presently, the man, one he dubbed “The Shadow”, returned with a small parcel of items taken from his luggage that would be returned to him when he left Ireland.

“No single detail, even down to laundry marks, had been overlooked,” he said.

Later, he met a dozen senior army officers, where he briefed that “a well-equipped mobile force” of British soldiers was ready to move southwards from Northern Ireland “if Eire were to ask for it”.

Fighter aircraft were available, too, on invitation; though anti-aircraft guns and other weapons could be supplied to Dublin at once, the Irish officers were told, who, in turn, gave a frank report on their lack of materiel.

Clarke pushed for early decisions, but the Irish side’s temper cooled overnight.

“The principle of British intervention after an invasion had started was accepted, but it would inevitably have to wait until the Government of Eire judged the time to be ripe for them to ask for it,” he wrote.

“They alone would be able to decide the moment at which the country was aroused sufficiently to justify a call for ‘foreign’ troops. In no case could this be accepted until after the Germans had actually landed.”

Told that this could be too late, Gen McKenna “stood firm”, telling him stiffly: “A premature move would provoke certain hostility. Where we haven’t the weapons the people will fight them in the fields with spades and pitchforks.”

“I felt a wave of despair,” Clarke wrote, “for others had talked like this, Norwegians and Belgians and Dutch. “But how,” I asked, how can you fight with pitchforks against machine-guns.”

In end, however, he bowed to the Irish condition that aid would follow an invasion, not before.

Later, he met Fianna Fáil’s minister of defence, Frank Aiken, though he was warned that Aiken was “the most enthusiastic of amateur inventors” and that it would be best “to enlist his sympathy” by paying “due respect to his personal notions”.

Aiken duly indulged his “notions”, offering thoughts on magnetic mines, balloons and tanks, doodling diagrams on the tablecloth: “When the time came to leave, I had a dozen new ideas for the mechanical improvement of the war, but few, alas, for the better defence of Eire”.

During a meeting with ministers the following day, “full information” on the Free State’s resources was shared, while orders were placed for equipment: “The atmosphere could hardly have been more cordial,” he wrote.

However, the Irish side insisted that no direct British help would be accepted before an invasion. Preparing to leave, he was asked to inspect Phoenix Park because of fears that it could be used by German parachute troops.

Clarke admits that he had been prepared to exaggerate the threat, “but on seeing the park itself, it was plain that no such stratagem was needed. It would be difficult to find a more convenient site for an airborne invasion, and there was no defence of any kind.”

Walshe was “touchingly grateful” for Clarke’s suggestions that “stakes [be] driven in here, a machine-gun, or two there, derelict vehicles spread across a treeless space”, he wrote.

“The next day I was flattered to see strong posts and obstacles starting to appear.”

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