x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Warrior and peacekeeper

After a daring career behind enemy lines in Winston Churchill's secret army, the Special Operations Executive, Col David de Crespigny Smiley became an important influence for stability in the Gulf.

Col Smiley helped quash a lengthy conflict between the ruler and imam of Oman.
Col Smiley helped quash a lengthy conflict between the ruler and imam of Oman.

Col David de Crespigny Smiley, the British intelligence officer who commanded the Sultan of Oman's armed forces in a highly successful counterinsurgency during the late 1950s, known as one of Britain's "small wars", led a life worthy of James Bond. Over the years, he broke more than 80 bones, all his own; owned a Bentley and a Whitney Straight aircraft; held the record for the most falls in one season on St Moritz's Cresta Run; outwitted various adversaries during and after the Second World War while operating behind enemy lines; and accumulated a host of medals and awards, including the Order of the British Empire in 1946.

Born in 1916 to an adventurer father and aristocratic mother, Col Smiley was educated at Pangbourne Nautical College and Sandhurst. He served in the Royal Horse Guards from 1936 to 1939 and sailed to Palestine with his regiment after the outbreak of the Second World War. Stationed in the ruins of Palmyra, fighting Vichy French forces, he was mentioned in despatches for his nocturnal reconnaissance work.

As a member of prime minister Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive, founded in 1940 to run resistance in occupied countries, Col Smiley trained in all aspects of clandestine warfare, including sabotage and guerrilla operations. After parachuting into Albania's German-occupied northern region in 1943, he organised partisans to fight against the Nazis in his first mission, later recalled in Albanian Assignment (1984), one of his several books.

After a relatively sedate stint as military attaché in Sweden from 1955 to 1958, Col Smiley moved to Oman, where his military expertise was key to averting imminent civil war in the then British protectorate. The historical struggle between the imam, Oman's spiritual leader, and the Sultan of Muscat, the hereditary ruler, had intensified by the 1950s. From his autonomous interior stronghold at Nizwa, the imam Ghalib bin Ali conducted periodic raids against the sultan's coastal territories, challenging the ruler's right to grant oil concessions. By 1957, aided by Saudi Arabia, the imam rebelled openly, inflicting heavy casualties on the Sultan's forces.

Keen to maintain peace in the region, the British sent Col Smiley, who was appointed Commander of the Sultan's Armed Forces. He orchestrated an ambitious offensive against the rebels' stronghold on the 3,000-metre Jebel Akhdar, which never before had been assaulted successfully. With a combination of forces including two SAS squadrons, a herd of donkeys and their energetic handlers, and the invaluable element of surprise, Col Smiley finally routed the opposition on the night of Jan 26, 1959.

Despite being offered the command of the SAS subsequently, Col Smiley retired from the British Army on leaving Oman in 1961. He appeared to prefer the unusual turns in which his career took him to the more conventional aspects of soldiering, and continued to lead an eventful life, acting as military adviser to Imam al Badr, the king of Yemen, during the civil war there during the 1960s. In later years, he farmed almonds and olives in Spain.

Col Smiley was born on April 11 1916. He died on Jan 9, aged 92. He is survived by his wife, Moyra, two sons, a stepson and stepdaughter. * The National