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.
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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