Derek Oakley MBE (OK 1944) died September 22, 2019
The word “commando” ran through Captain Derek Oakley as “Brighton” does through a stick of rock. He served 42 years with the Royal Marines, man and boy, and even celebrated his 21st birthday while serving with the corps in Hong Kong. It began as a stiff occasion, with senior officers present, and Oakley endeavoured to liven things up a bit. He discreetly handed out thunder flashes to a few trusted companions, directed them to spread out in all directions and, at his signal, light them. Mayhem ensued. “It was a memorable 21st,” Oakley recorded laconically in his diary.
Things took a more serious turn during the Suez Crisis. At first light on November 6, 1956 Oakley led a troop of men from 42 Commando on to a Buffalo landing craft and headed for the beaches at Port Said, Egypt. The aims were for French and British forces to regain control of the Suez Canal and to remove the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had just nationalised the canal.
As Oakley recalled, the invasion began with a roar from the 4.5in guns of the destroyer HMS Decoy. As he looked around, he realised that his driver, who had a reputation for being a wag, had somehow got far ahead of the other landing craft, thereby making them an easier target for any gun batteries on the shore. Shells started exploding in the water around them and then they felt the Buffalo’s tracks grip the sand and slowly lift out of the water. Above the din of the engines, Oakley heard sniper shots, but he soon realised, to his relief, that the HMS Decoy’s guns had quelled most resistance.
The second phase of the landing was a dash south to secure the Port Said power station. As Oakley’s Buffalo advanced, his ever-eager driver seated below him tugged the bottom of his trousers and asked: “Sir! Do they drive on the right or left in this country?” A few minutes later the driver shouted: “Look, sir, the traffic lights are at red. Do we stop?” As they lumbered through the streets, one of the locals chucked a grenade, which landed in the Buffalo, but was kicked away. It was then Oakley was told that a ceasefire had been ordered by London.
Political pressure from America meant that the Suez invasion had to be abandoned. When Oakley and his commandos returned to Plymouth it was to a muted welcome, not so much conquering heroes as humiliated ones.
Prouder moments were to come, especially in 1965 when he was not only made aide-de-camp to Viscount Mountbatten, but also chosen to be part of the guard of honour at Winston Churchill’s funeral at Westminster Abbey in London.
Born in 1926 in Worcester Park, south London, to Kathleen Sybil Lewis and Alick Frank Oakley, Derek Alick Oakley won a scholarship to King’s College School, Wimbledon. His father worked as a draper at Elys department store and his sister, Mary, was born a few years later. At the age of 14, Derek was recording in his diary his experience of sheltering in the Blitz with his mother. A few years later he was serving with the Home Guard, before joining the Royal Marines in 1944, where he became one of their longest serving officers. He was appointed MBE in 1984. In 1946 Oakley met Pamela Bate, who was serving in the WRNS, at a dance in Portsmouth. They married two years later and had five children: Graham, Neil, Malcolm, Jenny and Phil. They all lead private lives, although Malcolm inherited his father’s love for Australia and emigrated there more than 30 years ago. Pamela predeceased him in 1999.
For his last 18 years as a Royal Marine, Oakley spent more time at home as editor of the Globe & Laurel, the corps’s magazine, in Portsmouth. Here he developed a keen interest in the corps’s history and, as an accomplished sportsman, was also able to keep his hand in at cricket.
He was the honorary secretary to the Royal Navy Cricket Club since 1959, when he received his first cap, played hockey for Devon and tennis for the corps. However, it is as a cricketer that he is remembered best, said Rear Admiral Roger Moylan-Jones, who also won his first cap in 1959 and particularly admired Oakley’s ability to manage his “fairly general working hours” at the magazine around important cricket club fixtures.
“He was known never to go anywhere without his whites and cricket bat in the back of his car, and when he went on business, it always seemed to coincide with a cricket match somewhere,” said Moylan-Jones. “He played so much club cricket, we used to joke that by early June, he’d scored 1,000 runs.”
When Oakley retired aged 60, his family worried briefly that he would be bored. Far from it. Almost immediately he set to work as an author and became a highly respected historian, with his books including A Short History of the Royal Marines, which is given to all new officers; Fiddler on the March, a biography of the musician Lt Col Vivian Dunn; and The Falklands Military Machine, for which he received awards from the United States Marine Corps Historical Division and the Royal Marines Historical Society.
In between giving lectures and historical research, Oakley threw any spare moment into the Hayling Island Amateur Dramatic Society. While he had acted in plays as a Royal Marine, his interest became obsessive in retirement, when he either acted in, directed, stage-managed or co-ordinated the publicity for more than 100 plays and musicals.
His children remember him rehearsing his parts with a cassette player sitting on the car seat next to him as he journeyed between appointments.
Captain Derek Oakley, MBE, Royal Marine, was born on October 27, 1926. He died September 22, 2019, aged 92.
The Times (United Kingdom), Oct 31, 2019, p60, 1p