In late October 1940, Wavell was in Khartoum with Sir Anthony Eden, the British Secretary of State for War, and other generals, coordinating his attack on the Italian Empire in East Africa, Africa Orientale Italiana. The British were keeping close tabs on the Italian forces in Libya by deciphering their Air Force communications, reading captured documents and mail, questioning prisoners of war, doing photographic air reconnaissance and above all sending armoured Rolls-Royce patrols to probe the gaps between the scattered outposts and minefields that made up the Italian front line. From November 1940, Wavell initiated a deception operation encouraging the Italians to think that he was really preparing an Expeditionary Force to Greece rather than an attack on them; Wavell’s Middle East Intelligence Centre set in motion a paper trail to this effect, spreading rumours and planting false information on a Japanese source in Egypt. (Japan had joined the Axis with Germany and Italy in late 1937.) Compared to later deception operations it was fairly basic, but it prepared the ground. Wavell had further deception operations in mind, but he needed a really good man to oversee them. It was now that he summoned Dudley Clarke to Cairo.
On 18 December 1940, Tony Simonds of British military intelligence was instructed to go in plain clothes to meet an old friend off a civil aeroplane landing just before midday at Cairo airport, and to greet him without surprise. This became a challenge when Clarke arrived looking like a golfer from Chicago, wearing loud black and white plus-fours, a check cap and dark glasses, claiming to be an American journalist called Wrangel. This seems more like showing off than disguise, a trait which would later get Clarke into trouble. He had been travelling for ten days, his journey from England to Egypt made complex by the need to avoid enemy territory.
At 9 a.m. on 9 December 1940, just as Clarke was leaving Lisbon for West Africa, the seven or eight British war correspondents in Cairo were summoned to General Wavell’s office at the end of an upstairs corridor at ‘Grey Pillars’ which housed GHQ Middle East in Garden City. As ever, the commander-in-chief’s desk in front of the ten-foot high map on the wall was bare of papers. ‘The Chief’ was smiling slightly that morning. He announced ‘an important raid’, code-named compass, by the British, Indian and Anzac soldiers of General Richard O’Connor’s Western Desert Force on the Italian Tenth Army. Taciturn Wavell, described by Alan Moorehead of the Daily Express as ‘an island in a sea of garrulousness’, asked the journalists if they had known an operation was imminent; none had heard a thing.
The little band of reporters, honorary officers dressed in khaki with a shoulder flash that read ‘British War Correspondent’ in gold letters on green, scrambled to get to the front a day and a half away to the west. No travel arrangements had been made by the Public Relations Unit, so when their cars broke down, they hitch-hiked; they ate what they scrounged and slept when they could. It took them days to catch up to the front because the British Empire troops were going too fast for them, with the infantry division acting as the assault force and the tanks of the armoured division slipping round behind, a method that Richard Dimbleby of the BBC likened to hauling a man up with one hand and punching him in the jaw with the other, again and again. On 16 December they took Sollum and Halfaya Pass and the Libyan escarpment, where British troops could put aside briny tea, biscuit and bully beef to gorge on luxurious Italian rations – ham, cheese, bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, washed down with wine and sweet bottled water. They were amazed to find that every Italian soldier was issued with his own little espresso coffee pot. Their 38,000 prisoners included five Italian generals.
When Dudley Clarke presented himself, in uniform, to his old chief on the morning of Thursday, 19 December 1940, Graziani’s army was being bundled out of Egypt, and for the first time in more than a year of war the British were not retreating, as they had from France, Norway and Somaliland, but driving forward. Clarke’s life as a ‘freelance’ roving staff officer was ended, as Wavell gave him the secret and ‘most gratifying’ eighth assignment that would last the next five years. Clarke camouflages his role as just ‘being a working part in the smooth-running engine of a General Headquarters at war’, because he was obviously not allowed to talk about it. In fact Wavell put Clarke in charge of all bluffs, cover plans and deceptions for his military operations. He remained chief deceiver for all the Mediterranean commanders – Wavell, Auchinleck, Alexander, Wilson – throughout the North African advances and retreats of 1941–2, and did the same job at Eisenhower’s Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers from 1943 onwards, ending his war service in northern Italy. Clarke’s ideas about strategic and tactical deception would help drive the Axis out of Africa and aid the seaborne landings that led the Allies back into southern and then north-western Europe. Few men of his rank wielded such influence behind the scenes in Cairo, Algiers, London, Washington DC and New Delhi, and whenWW2 ended in 1945, Field Marshal Harold Alexander reckoned that Dudley Clarke had done as much as any single officer to win it.
Wavell and Clarke stood before the map on the wall in Cairo. Wavell’s 4th Indian Infantry Division had just retaken Sidi Barrani in Egypt. Wavell now planned to pull them back southward and ship them, together with the 5th Indian Division, to Gedaref and Port Sudan for an attack on Italian East Africa. Wavell’s other plans included the use of Orde Wingate to lead the Ethiopian Patriot guerrillas of Gideon Force back into Ethiopia from exile in the Sudan. Wavell’s forces were outnumbered by the Italians on paper, but he knew attack was the best form of defence. Clarke’s new mission was continually and systematically hoodwinking the enemy about British aims, intentions and capabilities. As ‘Personal Intelligence Officer (Special Duties) to the Commander-in-Chief’ he reported directly to Wavell and got clerical help from his private secretary, but he had no staff and no ‘establishment’. The work was ‘Most Secret’, so his official cover story and additional duty from 5 January 1941 was a role in MI9, Escape and Evasion by Allied servicemen. He was taken to his office: the door opened on a very small converted bathroom. Action This Day.