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Captain Derek Oakley MBE - First to Land at Suez - 42 CDO Musketeer

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Captain Derek Oakley MBE, born October 27 1926, died September 22 2019

Captain Derek Oakley, who has died aged 92, was an author, thespian and cricketer who in 42 years of service in the Royal Marines saw active service worldwide in Malaya, the Middle East, at Port Said, in Northern Ireland, Brunei and Borneo.

At first light on November 6 1956 – three months after President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal – Oakley was B Troop commander of 42 Commando, Royal Marines in the leading wave of Buffalo LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) as they nosed at five knots towards the beaches of Port Said.

With a roar, the 4.5-guns of the destroyer Decoy, her oversized battle ensign “almost obliterating” (in Oakley's words) her superstructure, rent the Mediterranean stillness. Glancing eastwards Oakley saw the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps proudly guarding the entrance to the Suez Canal but, as he looked around, he realised that his LVT was too far ahead. Ordering his driver to slow down, he was told that the Buffalo was the fastest in the squadron and the driver was determined to be first ashore. With only 400 yards to go, Oakley saw shells exploding on the shore and two naval Sea Hawks swooped overhead.

At 100 yards to go, Oakley felt the LVT’s tracks grip the sand and slowly lift out of the water. Above the din of the engines he heard sniper shots, reminding him that this was no exercise. But the sea and air bombardment had quelled most resistance, Oakley’s troop was first to land, and suffered no casualties.

As the Royal Marines regrouped along the waterfront, some took the chance for a quick brew-up, while Oakley was surprised and pleased to see the Commandant General Royal Marines, General Sir Campbell Hardy, strolling along their ranks.

In the second phase of the landing, during a dash south through the town to secure the Nile cold storage depot and the Port Said power station on the southern outskirts, Oakley was at the front of a flying column of tanks and LVTs.

As Oakley’s LVT advanced the driver (who sat below him) tugged the bottom of his trousers and asked “Sir! Do they drive on the right or left in this country?”. Not satisfied with the response to this joke, a few moments later the man gave Oakley another tug. “What’s wrong now?” Oakley cried over the roar of the engine. The voice from below shouted back “Look, sir, the traffic lights are at red. Do we stop?”

View of the beach area where 40 and 42 Commando made their assault landing on 6 November 1956. Note the De Lesseps statue, in the background, that stood at the entrance to the Suez Canal.© IWM HU 4170

As they lumbered through the streets, an Egyptian threw a grenade from a tower block which landed in the LVT, only for Oakley’s rugby-playing subaltern, Lt David Westwood, to kick it away. Nevertheless, Sgt Maj GC Casey was wounded in the head by splinters. Quickly treated, Casey split the band of his coveted green beret so he could wear it over his bandages.

Halting at his destination “in uncanny silence”, Oakley reported that there appeared to be no enemy to the south and the way was open, only to learn to his dismay that a ceasefire had been ordered by London.

On December 9 1956, 42 Commando was greeted in Plymouth by mist, rain, cold and customs officers. A few families were gathered on the quayside, but there was no heroes’ welcome.

Joining in 1944 he served in the Royal Marines for over 42 years, the last eighteen of which was as Editor of the regimental journal The Globe and Laurel. He also continued to act as Honorary RNCC Secretary during this period.

He has many publications to his name, including a book on Commando Uniforms and numerous military articles.

His coverage of the Falklands Campaign won awards from the United States Marine Corps' Historical Society and the Royal Marines' Historical Society. He was awarded the MBE in 1984 and was a Freeman of the City of London.

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