11 April 2012

Backwaters of History: From disrepute to trophy (and back again)

I had never heard of Campbelltown until a couple of days ago. Located 30 odd miles from te centre of Sydhey, it is the home to St Gregory's College.

For over 30 years the college awarded a cup for public speaking called the  Douglas Berneville-Claye Trophy in memory of a well loved teacher and local public figure of renown.

According to an article in the  MacArthur Advertiser  Berneville-Claye had been the secretary of Campbelltown Show Society, a member of Fisher’s Ghost Festival committee, a pioneer of Harlequins rugby union club, a candidate in the 1971 council election and an English teacher at St Gregory’s. College

When he died of cancer in 1975, the community mourned and the Advertiser dedicated a page of local tributes to the man, noting his public speaking skills, humour and dedication to good causes. The mayor at the time, Bob Barton, called him ‘‘a gifted man with education and experience.’’

But Berneville Claye (as he was born) had not always been the sort of man to warrant such tributes. I first came across his name in the 90s in Adrian Weales excellent work Renegades: Hitler's Englishmen, perhaps the definitive work on the Britische Freikorps (aka the British Free Corps or just the BFC). Weale's research shows that in his younger days he was an utterly disreputable character (Sadly I can't put my hands on my copy of the book).

Douglas Berneville Claye was born in 1917 son of Douglas Berneville-Claye was born in Plumstead, the son of a Staff Sergeant in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was educated in local schools before enrollment in 1932 at the Army Technical School in Chepstow. In 1934 he joined army but left when he was still just 17to work as an instructor at a riding school near Thames Ditton. After a shrot lived marriage which resulted in a daughter, he move to Leeds where he worked as a freelance journalist for the local press.

On the outbreak of World War II he volunteered for the Royal Air Force and was accepted as an aircrew trainee but did not pass his final exams. In April 1940 he went AWOL to enter into a bigamous marriage with his current girlfriend.

Berneville-Claye borrowed his father's old uniform and began wearing it in public, with a set of RAF pilot's wings attached. While doing so he was involved in a traffic accident, and after hospital treatment was sent to a convalescent home for officers. While there, he stole another officer's cheque book and after a police investigation was discovered to have obtained the sum of £5 10s by deception. He appeared before magistrates and was additionally fined £7 for impersonating an officer. Although he was remanded for trial, the charges were eventually dropped because he had repaid the money he had stolen and agreed to be bound over for two years.

Berneville Claye changed his name to the Honourable Douglas St Aubyn Webster Berneville-Claye and enlisted as a private soldier in the West Yorkshire Regiment. At enlistment, he claimed to have been educated at Charterhouse School, Magdalen College, Oxford and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and as a result was selected for officer training. The officer training was carried out at Pwllheli and Sandhurst, where he was granted his commission as a Second Lieutenant in October 1941. He spent 6 months with the 11th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, then in June 1942 was posted to Egypt.

Around this time he supposedly inherited his father's title and became "Lord Charlesworth" (although he had no claim whatsoever to the title) and volunteered for L detachment of the Special Air Service. In December 1942, he was captured during a penetration operation in Tunisia. He was sent to an Italian Prisoner of War camp in northern Italy. After the Italian Armistice in September 1943, Claye and his POWs were evacuated to Germany where he ended up in Oflag 79 at Waggum, near Braunschweig.

During 1944, the prisoners in Oflag 79 began to suspect that one of their number was an informer, and they eventually decided that it was Berneville-Claye. In December 1944the Senior British Officer informed the camp's German Commandant that the prisoners planned to court-martial and execute an informer and Claye was transferred by the Germans for his own safety.

Claye's subsequent movements are unclear until early March 1945 when he was appointed to the staff of the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps at Templin, dressed as a SS Hauptsturmf├╝hrer. At that time, the remains of the British Free Corps were in the same area, and Steiner decided to appoint Claye to take charge of them. However, Claye instead took one of the Free Corps soldiers as a driver, and headed west in a stolen vehicle. He discarded his German uniform and surrendered to a British airborne unit somewhere west of Schwerin.

Claye managed to evade any repercussions for his collaboration with the Germans; the former inmates of Oflag 79 had no concrete evidence that Claye had been the informer they had sought, and no evidence could be found that Claye had actually volunteered for the Waffen-SS. Claye's story was that he had escaped from Oflag 79 by his own efforts and had acquired a uniform from a German woman with whom he had hid. Evidence from British Free Corps soldiers was deemed too tainted to use in court.

Claye was sent back to the UK and given the acting rank of Captain, where he became the adjutant of a POW camp in Yorkshire. He was court-martialled again for wearing the ribbon of the Distinguished Service Order which he claimed he had been awarded, and as a result was demoted to Second Lieutenant and lost his seniority. He was also court-martialled for having an "improper relationship" with an ATS driver and was finally court-martialled for the theft of army property for which he was cashiered and imprisoned. Around this time he decided to remarry, when his bigamy also came to light.

After his release from prison Claye dropped out of sight. In the late 1950s surfaced near Hemel Hempstead where he secured a managerial position with Rank Xerox. He subsequently emigrated, moving to Campbelltown

It was not until about 2008 that the people of Campbelltown discovered his shady past. Geoff and Margaret Hicks were such close friends: ‘‘This is very disappointing/ It’s an incredible story – stranger than fiction.‘I feel particularly sorry for his family. I knew his wife and children really well and they were decent people.’’

Tony Fitzgerald, who became deuty headmaster of St Gregory's remembered being a student at St Gregory’s College when the revered English teacher’s funeral was held in 1975. "The college was only made aware last year that Mr Berneville-Claye was perhaps not the character he presented to be at the time,’’ He said. ‘‘Immediately, the college had Mr Berneville-Claye’s name removed from the senior debating and public speaking trophy that is presented annually at the year 12 graduation ceremony.’’

Perhaps by the time that Douglas Berneville Clay reached Australia he was a changed man but the revelations of his past must have come as  major shock to thhose who knew him there. There is no doubt that in his younger days he was at the best an utterly disgraceful character; at worst he was a traitor. While it is highly unlikely that he would have been hanged for his crimes (no member of the Britische Freikorps was executed after WWII, although two: Thomas Cooper and Walter Purdy were initially sentenced to death for treason but theyr sentences were commuted to life imprisonment) it is likely, being an officer, that he would have received a long sentence of imprisonment.

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