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“I was offered the opportunity either to go to Australia or to go with the partisans in Northern Italy. I thought that going to the partisans would keep me nearer to my girlfriend now, my wife” (Bob Clark – IWM interview 2004) A son’s journey to uncover the story of his parents in special forces – war and love in Italy

Sir Robert (Bob) Clark was a war hero of the old school.

He never talked about his experiences in the Special Operations Executive – often referred to as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ – or boasted of his successes in the City that followed.

When he died, all his family knew of his time in the Second World War was written down on six pages of handwritten notes - and embodied, symbolically, in a Distinguished Service Cross awarded for an action about which they knew next to nothing.

‘Monopoli Blues’ recounts the story of a son’s mission to uncover the top-secret careers of his father and mother during the Second World War. Both of them had worked for SOE in Italy.

With journalist Nick Cook, Tim Clark sets out on a journey that takes him from former SOE bases in Scotland and Cornwall to the battlefields of Italy and Germany, where Bob’s war in Europe ended.

Bob Clark was barely 19-years old when he joined SOE. For almost a year, he ran gunboats along the Italian coast, blew up railways, trained partisans, surveyed secret landing sites and smuggled agents behind enemy lines. And everywhere he went, ‘Falla’ (pronounced ‘fire’) – his diminutive teddy bear – came too.

The book describes his intense bond with the partisans – one of whom tracked him down fifty years later – and his betrayal, capture and imprisonment in 1944. It was during his captivity, in Turin’s infamous Le Nuove prison that the Italian fascists proved themselves to be even more brutal than the Gestapo and the SS.

As well as recounting the story of a little-known campaign, Monopoli Blues remains at heart, the tale of two young people whose lives were forged in, and forever changed by, a secret and merciless war. Bob met Marjorie, Tim’s mother - a girl from South Wales who was recruited into SOE in 1943 - at SOE’s HQ in Monopoli, in the south of Italy. She became his radio operator.

But Marjorie knew, as their relationship blossomed, that the day was coming when Bob would be deployed behind enemy lines. That day arrived in November 1944, when Bob parachuted into northern Italy. But his secret ‘Clarion’ mission went wrong from the start, and when Marjorie received a coded message from Bob letting her know he had survived the jump, she had no way of knowing it would be the last she would hear of him until war’s end.

Monopoli Blues traces what happened during the ill-fated mission and Bob’s long and hazardous journey across war-torn Italy and Germany, as the Germans moved him from one prison camp to the next, at times subjecting him to unspeakable brutality.

As they set out on their journey, the authors had hoped to fill in a few gaps in the secret, wartime career of a quiet, reserved hero.

What they discovered was an extraordinary tale of courage and stoicism – and a love story that survived the horrors of capture by the enemy.

Tim Clark

Tim was born in London and grew up in the South of England. After leaving school shortly after his 17th birthday, he lived for a year in the United States - in New York and Seattle - before spending 4 months on the road travelling across 48 states in a Greyhound bus.

Tim returned to the UK to take up a place at Cambridge University where he studied Modern European and nineteenth century US history. One of his tutors was Professor Norman Stone.

Tim originally planned to remain in Cambridge after graduating to take up the offer of studying for a PHD in European history but decided to take a break from academic life in favour of further travels and some “work experience” – a break which lasted for the rest of his life. 

Having travelled in Italy, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Japan, he returned to qualify as a lawyer in one of the leading law firms in the world. He spent a large part of his career working at the firm specialising in M+A and corporate work in the UK and internationally. He became a partner at the age of 32 and, ultimately, Senior Partner of the firm.

Since retiring as a lawyer, Tim has taken on various roles including board positions on a number of corporate, arts and charitable organisations (including the National Theatre and WaterAid) and senior advisory roles at a number of international think tanks (including Chatham House) and a business intelligence company. He also co-founded an innovative organisation which supports lawyers who are seeking charitable and other board roles.

Tim grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War when there were many people whose lives had been changed by the experience of war. It formed the basis of Tim’s interest in the history of the first half of the 20th Century. He has read a wide range of books about World War II including many personal memoirs - as part of a general focus on history which has remained as an interest since university.

Tim is a qualified pilot and has flown over 2,000 hours – some of which were spent on research for the book.  He flies both single and twin engine aircraft in Europe and was, until recently, the Chairman of the Royal Air Squadron. He speaks (reasonable) Italian.

Tim decided to co-author this book in order to learn more about, and tell the extraordinary story of, his parents meeting in wartime at the age of 19 and their period in special forces. It was a story which was almost completely unknown - not least because his father consistently refused to talk about it.

The story has taken 3 years to piece together covering UK, Italy and Germany - involving extensive research, a number of hugely rewarding and often emotional meetings and some extraordinary bits of luck.

Nick Cook

Nick Cook’s career as an author, journalist, broadcaster and entrepreneur is underpinned by a passion for history, technology and aviation. In 1986, Nick joined the world-renowned Jane’s Defence Weekly, initially as a reporter, rising quickly to become Aviation Editor, a position he held until 2005. It was during his first years at Jane’s that Nick started to write books, his first novel, Angel, Archangel, being published in 1989 in the UK by Pan MacMillan and in the US by St. Martin’s Press to critical acclaim.

In 1991, Nick followed up with his second novel, Aggressor, which was set in the turbulent world of the contemporary Middle East. With the post-Cold War 1990s a period of high demand at Jane’s, Nick throttled back on his book-writing career, ghost-writing a number of Sunday Times bestsellers whilst simultaneously delivering a series of exclusives for Jane’s. Several of these – a second, secret hostage rescue mission in Iran and the first-ever pictures of the near-mythical Soviet ‘Caspian Sea Monster’ - made headlines all over the world.

In 2001, Cook’s first non-fiction title, The Hunt For Zero Point, was published by Century Random House, reaching number 3 in the Amazon General List and Number 1 in Amazon’s Non-Fiction charts. ‘THFZP’ was the culmination of a decades’ old investigation into a heretical notion – the idea that top secret anti-gravity technology had been buried in a decades-old US defence effort. THFZP allowed Nick to give readers, via a mass-market publication, a behind-the-scenes tour of the world of classified military development – a world that he had got to know via his research and writing for Jane’s.

After writing, hosting and producing two documentaries about the classified world of aerospace and defence – Billion Dollar Secret and an Alien History of Planet Earth, for the Discovery/C5 and History/C4 channels respectively – Nick continued to work for Jane’s as its Senior Aerospace Consultant. He also penned a number of other top-selling ghost-written works.

In 2008, he used his knowledge of the global aerospace and defence industry’s science and technology base to set up Dynamixx, a consultancy dedicated to the implementation of strategies that transition defence technologies to global challenges ‘beyond defence’, such as natural disaster prevention and response and humanitarian relief.

In 2015, Nick returned to writing and is currently working on a number of books to be published shortly. He lives and works with his wife and two children in London.

The following extract details the moment Tim Clark arrives on the beach at the mouths of the Chienti and Tenna rivers, 60 km south of Ancona. This had been scene of a mission in which ‘Pop’ – Tim’s father - and his colleague Eddie Cauvain had carried out a beach reconnaissance for an ill-fated attempt by ‘Popski’s Private Army’ to land behind German lines in June 1944. ‘Mop’ refers to Tim’s mother, Marjorie …


It wasn’t raining, at least, but the wind was blowing hard, driving the slate-grey clouds inland. The only other person on the beach was a woman sifting the shoreline for driftwood. In contrast to the previous night, I struggled to see Pop here – this, despite the fact that I had followed the railway line most of the way from Civitanova; the railway line where Robin and his team of demolition experts had planted their charges, while Pop and Roy Taylor had guarded the Doreys they’d pulled up on to the beach. The line was exactly where the archive accounts had said it was: set back between 50 and 200 metres from the beach and running parallel to it; a highly exposed target.

Porto San Giorgio, this part of it, at any rate, had changed beyond all recognition since the war. This wasn’t the case, however, with the place I drove to next. From an account I’d read in the definitive story of Popski’s Private Army – the autobiography of the man himself, Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff – I had managed to pinpoint what I felt confident was the exact location of the beach landing, ‘a point on the coast one thousand yards south of the Tenna River’. Choosing a spot overlooking another shingle beach, distinguished by a set of posts on which several cormorants were drying their wings, I parked the car, pulled out my laptop and opened up my notes.

 ‘No.1 Demolition Squadron PPA’ – as Popski’s Private Army was more formally known - was an 80-strong group of British special forces that had distinguished itself during the North African campaign in a series of operations behind the lines, its primary task being the destruction of General Rommel’s fuel supplies. It was led by the colourful Major – later Lieutenant Colonel - Vladimir Peniakoff DSO, MC, who had been born in Belgium to Russian-Jewish parents in 1897. After studying at Cambridge and becoming an ardent Anglophile, Peniakoff served with the French Army in World War One. He then joined the British Army in World War Two, taking on the role of an Arabic translator in a unit called the Libyan Arab Force Commando. Learning tactics from the legendary Long Range Desert Group, he developed an aptitude for special operations and transformed the LAFC into a highly effective fighting force. When the LAFC was disbanded, Peniakoff formed No.1 Demolition Squadron. It earned the nickname ‘Popski’s Private Army’ due to a British inability, or perhaps a bloody-minded refusal, to pronounce ‘Peniakoff’.

The PPA was amongst the first British military units to arrive in Italy. Soon after landing at Taranto, it was given the job of intelligence-gathering and partisan support. It consisted of three fighting patrols, each comprised of eighteen men in six heavily armed jeeps and a mobile tactical HQ. The PPA quickly added parachute missions, mountain warfare and amphibious operations to its roles and capabilities – and it was in the latter capacity that it was to cross paths with Pop. Sometime in late April or early May, Pop was briefed on a mission codenamed ‘Anon’ that required him and Robin to pilot a pair of two-man canoes to a spot close to the mouth of the Tenna. The mission differed from earlier ones in that it was designed to pave the way for an amphibious landing by the PPA. A beach reconnaissance was altogether different from the agent drops and sabotage ops Pop had undertaken before.

As before, it had started with a departure in an MS/MAS boat from a forward operations harbour – Termoli, I learned, this time – with the boat approaching the target area as close as its crew dared before deploying the canoes. These were two-man canoes that would allow Pop and Cauvain in one, and Robin and Taylor in the other, to take shore samples and depth soundings that would feed into Popski’s plans for the beach landing itself.

As with most of the missions handed to No.1 Special Force, it all happened very quickly. Pop had written to Mop the night before departure to say that he had ‘done all the things he ought to have done’ and that the only thing he had forgotten – and this was meant as a joke - was his ‘last will and testament’. He also loaned her his watch for safekeeping, ostensibly because hers was being repaired, but the jollity, I could see, hid a deep anxiety on his part. At one point, he apologized that his writing in bed was worse than usual, blaming his nerves. The next night, he set sail in the Eduardo for Termoli, arriving there on the 13th May. There, he wrote to Mop again. ‘Roy (Taylor) is opposite me, writing on deck. Robin arrived at Termoli an hour before us.’


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