Stranger Than Fiction

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The following tale is a repost from the Sandhurst Trust's Facebook page. They publish a bio of an old officer every Friday and a very entertaining read they are too. This one though, takes the biscuit. The most fertile minds in fiction writing couldn't come up with this story and deliver it in any way that would appear in the least believable. 

The son of a Warrant Officer awarded the MBE for services in the First World War, Douglas Clay was born in 1917. After a short period as a cavalry trooper he married and drifted between jobs until the outbreak of WW2. Initially joining the RAF he failed the aircrew exams, went AWOL, bigamously married his girlfriend, worked in an armaments factory and joined the Home Guard. He also began wearing his father’s old uniform complete with additional pilot’s wings and, after a traffic accident whilst in uniform was mistakenly sent to an officers’ hospital. There, he stole a cheque book before being charged with obtaining money by deception and impersonating an officer. However the charges were dropped as he repaid the money and, in order to cover his tracks, he changed his name to Berneville-Claye.

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Enlisting as a Private in the West Yorkshire Regiment he claimed to have been educated at Charterhouse School and Magdalen College, Oxford and, based on these falsehoods, was selected for officer training. Commissioned from Sandhurst in October 1941, he served with 11th Bn West Yorks in Egypt. Again charged with cheque fraud he managed to convince the authorities he was a barrister, conducted his own defence, and was acquitted. By now having supposedly inherited his father’s title and calling himself ‘Lord Charlesworth’ his regiment was probably glad when he volunteered for, and was accepted for service in L Detachment of the SAS. After taking part in operations behind enemy lines, he was captured and sent to POW camp firstly in Northern Italy and then to Oflag 79 in Germany.

Fellow POWs became aware that there was an informer in their midst and planned to court martial and execute Berneville-Claye so he was moved by the Germans for his own safety. A few weeks later, a POW working party spotted him wearing civilian clothes in Hanover. He next appeared in early 1945 appointed to the staff of III SS Panzer Corps as a Hauptsturmführer (SS Captain). Soon afterwards the Corps Commander, after being told he was a Lord and Captain in the Coldstream Guards, appointed him to head the British Free Corps (BFC). (The BFC was an attempt by the Germans, at the behest of the British Fascist, John Amery, to recruit disaffected Prisoners of War. However, between its inception in 1943 and the end of the war, only 54 men were recruited and its strength never totalled more than 27.)

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Berneville-Claye, however, managed to persuade another member to accompany him and they surrendered to the British. Unbelievably, as the only officer to serve with the BFC, he managed to avoid any repercussions. The prisoners in Oflag 79 had no hard evidence of his informing, he stated that he had, as was his duty, escaped from the camp and stolen the SS uniform in order to blend in. Furthermore, the evidence of the misfit traitors of the BFC was too tainted to be used in a Court Martial.

Returning to England as a Captain and, ironically, Adjutant of a POW camp, he was Court Martialled and demoted for wearing the ribbon of the DSO and again for an inappropriate relationship with a female soldier and thirdly for theft, after which he was cashiered and imprisoned. After yet another bigamous marriage, he achieved a measure of respectability as a manager at Rank Xerox living in the country, riding to hounds and playing the role of a retired Guards officer.

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In the early 1960s he emigrated to Australia becoming a much-respected school teacher in New South Wales. For many years after he died in 1975 the school had a Douglas Berneville-Claye Memorial Trophy.