Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Somewhere, I read that anyone with a passing interest in World War II knows of Colin Gubbins. I consider myself someone with more than a passing interest, and yet I had never heard of this gentleman. That is perhaps not surprising, because he was the leader of a top-secret British agency back in the late 1930s and 1940s. I am exceedingly glad, though, that I now know quite a bit about him, because he was quite a remarkable person.

Gubbins was the head of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and together with 5 other guys, he led a group of people who worked hard to sabotage Hitler’s war machine. They began with rather small operations: the ambush of 60 Nazis on bicycles, during their invasion of Norway and the sinking of German boats with a bunch of floating bombs that were sent down German rivers. The operations grew in scale and audacity once Churchill took over in Great Britain, since he, unlike his predecessor and other high-ranking members in government and military, had no qualms about using guerilla warfare to defeat Hitler. There was the destruction of an important dry dock in France, which put the Nazis’ biggest war ship out of commission; there was the bombing of two railway bridges in Greece, which interrupted the supply line of Rommel’s forces in North Africa for 6 crucial weeks; and there was the bombing of a power station in Norway that the Germans used to produce heavy water, which is essential in building an atomic bomb. Finally, the SOE’s efforts focused on preventing German troops as much as possible from reaching Normandy right before and during the Allied landing there—which was done not only by blowing up bridges and highways, but also by blocking roads with felled trees and stopping tanks with axle grease that was mixed with corrosives. Giles Milton is an enthusiastic author and narrator who is able to bring all of these operations to life, and more than once I felt very tempted to put the book aside and look up the outcome of a planned sabotage mission, because I could hardly wait to find out what was going to happen.

A picture of the HMS Campbeltown after its attack on the dry docks in St. Nazaire, France. It rendered the shipyard unusable for the remainder of the war. Picture taken from Wikipedia.

Still, with Miles’ palpable fascination for each of these operations, his focus always returns to the people who made these missions possible. Above all, this book is a celebration of the ingenuity and out-of-the box thinking of the men (and some women) who built and led the SOE. While they all seemed to have had a fondness for blowing things up, what they enjoyed even more was the challenge to invent new weapons and ways to stop Hitler’s advance in Europe. Some of the things they came up with were quite extraordinary, and I can’t help but think that if high school students were taught that one of the first acts of sabotage involved bombs made with Alka-Seltzer and condoms, history class might suddenly become much more interesting to them.

The only photograph SOE operatives had of the Gorgonpotamos viaduct in Greece that they planned to blow up was this postcard. Picture taken from http://www.historytoday.com.

 

While the SOE and its operatives faded into anonymity after the war, its clandestine actions during the war were widely praised by people in the know. General Eisenhower admitted that the work of Gubbins and his men and women in France ahead of the Allied landing had been invaluable, and Bill Donovan modeled the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, after Gubbins’ Special Operations Executive. Even British military leaders who disliked both the thought of ungentlemanly warfare and the fact that SOE leaders could pretty much do whatever they wanted, had to admit that their actions were usually highly effective.

After reading this book, you might add your own praise to theirs. I was certainly impressed by everything I learned about the people involved, and Miles’ obvious enthusiasm for them made the book highly entertaining—even for people who might not have a great interest in the war.

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16 comments

  1. I didn’t know about him either. Why isn’t Gubbins more known after the fact? Still top secret?! You have me intrigued, thx for the review.

  2. Great review! This sounds utterly fab and just my kind of thing! I’d never heard of Gubbins or this unit either. I am rushing off to add it to my list immediately – thanks for highlighting it! 😀

  3. You’re on a roll with the nonfiction these days. This one sounds like another winner! I have never heard of Colin Gubbins either… this is exactly what I mean when I say how amazed I always am by all the stuff there still is to learn.
    I’ve heard of the author before, though – my mom has Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which I’ve had my eye on for a long while now, mostly because I like the title.

    Have you ever thought about switching careers to become a history teacher? 😉

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