Commentary Magazine


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A Hero from a Lost Age

The sun long ago set on the British Empire. In Iraq, Britain even revealed its inability to do the kind of counterinsurgency operations which were the hallmarks of British soldiers for decades. But if you want a taste of how Britain became “great” read this obit of Colonel David Smiley, a swashbuckling hero of World War II and beyond whose exploits sound too fantastic to be true–but true they are. The first few paragraphs from the Daily Telegraph account only give you a small flavor of this extraordinary Brit:

Colonel David Smiley, who died on January 9 aged 92, was one of the most celebrated cloak-and-dagger agents of the Second World War, serving behind enemy lines in Albania, Greece, Abyssinia and Japanese-controlled eastern Thailand.

After the war he organised secret operations against the Russians and their allies in Albania and Poland, among other places. Later, as Britain’s era of domination in the Arabian peninsula drew to a close, he commanded the Sultan of Oman’s armed forces in a highly successful counter-insurgency.

After his assignment in Oman, he organised – with the British intelligence service, MI6 – royalist guerrilla resistance against a Soviet-backed Nasserite regime in Yemen. Smiley’s efforts helped force the eventual withdrawal of the Egyptians and their Soviet mentors, paved the way for the emergence of a less anti-Western Yemeni government, and confirmed his reputation as one of Britain’s leading post-war military Arabists.

The whole article is richly worth reading. And while reading it contemplate: Where did Britain find such men? And where have they gone?