Book Review: Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

The Black Swan, Going Postal

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat by Giles Milton

Published by John Murray (Publishers) 2016

ISBN 978-1-444-79898-2

Giles Milton is one of those writers and historians with a wonderful story-telling ability. His historical books manage to convey real events with in a flowing manner with the verve of the most exciting page-turner novels. They are no less packed with facts and informative detail for that, but he is one of the few historians with such a knack for writing books that are, in that notable if clumsy and slightly tongue-in-cheek word, ‘unputdownable’. Perhaps the fact that he also writes fictional works plays a part in his style of writing but whatever the case, he can tell a cracking story. His previous historical works include: Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, a tale of the spice wars between the English and Dutch where they competed to control the trade in nutmeg in particular; Big Chief Elizabeth, charting the early attempts by Elizabethan explorers to colonise North America; and White Gold, chronicling the slave trade in North Africa where nearly one million Europeans were enslaved between 1600 and 1800, a chapter in history that has received curiously little attention in the mainstream media – one can but speculate why…

In Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Milton begins by telling us how, in the months leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, a number of diverse characters began to be recruited into a secretive War Office organisation, some of them without any real idea of what they were getting involved with, such was the nature of the need for confidentiality that was involved.

A few pages in, one of the main characters we begin to learn about is Cecil Clarke, a caravan enthusiast and seemingly oddball inventor who had developed an interest in explosives during the First World War and had continued to conduct all sorts of experiments. Clarke had his talents spotted by Stuart Macrae, an aviation engineer who had fallen into the world of journalism, when the former wrote an advertisement for a new type of caravan. The advert had been submitted to a caravan magazine and led the magazine’s editor, Macrae, to write an enthusiastic article which mentioned a powerful magnet that Clarke had developed. Macrae was later contacted by an initially secretive character who turned out to be Millis Jefferis, a War Office man and an engineer by training who was no slouch when it came to inventions himself but had been struggling to develop a mine with a magnet that would work underwater and a suitable time-delay detonator. Clarke was assisted by Macrae and the men found a unique solution to the detonator problem , courtesy of Clarke’s children having left their sweets lying around, that the use of an aniseed ball, which they were able to determine would take a relatively specific amount of time to dissolve. This idea was enhanced by the realisation that a condom pulled over the striking mechanism provided an even waterproof sleeve. Creating more of these devices meant the spectacle of Clarke and Macrae traipsing around Bedford’s chemists, buying up all the condoms available, which must have raised some eyebrows, although as Milton notes, “Macrae neglected to record whether, nine months later, Bedford experienced any short-term spike in its birth rate”. The mine, nicknamed ‘the limpet’, was remarkably efficient and very economically produced, soon to be rolled out en masse.

These humble beginnings, unforeseen by the men at the time, would soon have them recruited into a secret organisation that would specialise in sabotage, not only through science and unique inventions but also through the tactics of guerrilla warfare. Colin Gubbins, a Scot, born in Hong Kong but raised on the Isle of Mull, had fought on the Western Front and then in Murmansk against Lenin’s Bolsheviks, followed by Ireland, against Sinn Fein. This would be an important experience for him as he would see the effectiveness and havoc that could be wreaked by small numbers of men using homemade weapons and unorthodox techniques. After a tour of India Gubbins joined the War Office and ended up writing two manuals on guerrilla warfare, using his experience against Sinn Fein as well as drawing upon information about techniques used by the likes of Al Capone and other Chicago gangsters. Gubbins would be recruited into a secret intelligence department known as Section D, that would work alongside another group called MI(R), relating to military intelligence ‘research’ and later Jefferis own adjunct MI(R)(c), tasked with “designing and producing special weapons for irregular warfare”. 

Jefferis had gained a reputation on the North West Frontier for his abilities in designing bridges and viaducts, gaining attention in military circles.  A man who Milton says his own subaltern “confessed to never having met anyone so driven by the will to succeed”. His work in the bloody Waziristan campaign of 1922 resulted in him hacking out a road through seemingly impassable mountains. Gubbins noticed quickly that Jeffris had a brilliant brain. Jeffris believed that all problems could be solved by algebra and his mathematical mind would be put to good use in the work of the new organisation.

Gubbins’s work was assisted and documented by Joan Bright, a secretary who had no idea of what she was letting herself in for when she applied for a job with the organisation but soon became a vital part of the organisation. She would later work for General Ismay and would briefly date Ian Fleming – the rumour was that she inspired the character of Moneypenny in his James Bond novels. Many other capable and no-nonsense women later joined the ranks.

Little could these men and women know the part they would play in the winning of the Second World War. Their services would be called upon heavily, sometimes to the detriment of their personal lives, but to the undoubted benefit of the Allied War effort, with Clarke’s brilliant mind inventing such oddities as tree spigots, rocket-fired bridges and even the explosive (and possibly poisonous) grenades that would be used in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Millis Jefferis too was no slouch when it came to inventions and his technical mind and mathematical abilities led him to create new types of detonator switches, sticky bombs and the Hedgehog anti-U-boat mortar.

The fact that the work of people like Jefferis, Clarke and Macrae was initially carried out along cottage industry lines and yet would prove so important in the wider War is quite incredible. Although the scope of their work expanded in terms of personnel, hours put in and properties acquired from less-than-willing owners, even then things were still on a relatively small scale – testament to the dedication and ingenuity of those involved. Secrecy meant discretion, so no big factories could be expected to produce such items. A number of the devices created would end up being produced into the millions, with Americans becoming keen adopters of the new and highly effective technology.

Eric ‘Bill’ Sykes and William Fairburn, two men who looked deceivingly like churchmen and were close to retirement age when they came to volunteer their expertise at the War Office. But despite appearances, these men were masters in the art of silent killing. Sykes had been a representative for the American firearm companies Colt and Remington in Shanghai. Milton notes that Sykes was “a crack shot, arguably the finest in the world” and had the dexterity to spin around and fire through his legs at a target behind his back, hitting the bullseye.  Fairburn was a former Marine who had been headhunted for employment by the Shanghai Municipal Police in a city infamous for gangsters and violence. He was skilled in all manner of fighting techniques and put them to good use during his time in the Far East. The two men got to know each other when Sykes was drafted into Fairburn’s Riot Squad and made quite an impression. The two wrote a number of books together on shooting and other fighting techniques. Gubbins hired them immediately and sent them to the Highlands where they would become key members of his inner circle and set up “the finest guerrilla training camp in existence” at Arisaig. Fairburn and Sykes also designed their own commando knife and accordingly taught their recruits precisely how to use it, along with many other deadly weapons and techniques.

Reinhard Heydrich’s assassins later received their training at the hands of SOE personnel, with Eric Sykes taking the lead in a training programme which, Milton notes, was exacting even by the standards of normal commando training. American Colonel William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan got to know Gubbins and was very impressed with the work being carried out.  As a young man Donovan had used similar techniques against Mexican bandit Pancho Villa to those used by Gubbins against Michael Collins’s Sinn Fein. Donovan quickly recognised the potential of what was being taught in Arisaig and Fairburn when he was appointed as head of the new Office of Strategic Services, William Fairburn was, with Gubbins’s permission, transferred to the United States to help set up the American equivalent.

The book recounts how the tendency amongst these saboteurs to use dirty techniques did not go down well with the top brass in the military and certain high-ranking government personnel. Their view was the warfare should be conducted in a gentlemanly way and that such underhand efforts had no place in proper military planning. Milton highlights a number of issues that they encountered as well as efforts to undermine their work. They had a very important backer in the form of none other than Winston Churchill himself, with his support and encouragement sometimes directly intervening on their side against naysayers in the government and upper ranks of the military. His influence proved vital to their ongoing existence on a number of occasions: Churchill didn’t take any convincing when it came to the need to get ones hands dirty and relished the fight.

The people of Section D and MI(R) (though not MI(R)(c), which continued as an independent body) were later amalgamated into what became the SOE or Special Operations Executive. Readers familiar with the history of the SOE will know about some of the people in the book and some might also know about a number of the operations undertaken but certain details will be unknown to those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Milton’s book. It is also a thoroughly entertaining read. The book is particularly notable in its detail regarding the personalities involved and how this focus allows us to see the perspective of these astonishing people.

Notable episodes include a series of thrilling operations like those involving St Nazaire harbour, the Norsk Hydro plant at Rjukan in Norway, the Gorgopotamos viaduct in Greece and the the Peugeot factory in Sochaux, France. The latter operation highlighted some of the differences that arose between the more conventional military chiefs and the guerrilla saboteurs. Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff and Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, head of Bomber Command, believed that their efforts provided the answer to stopping production at the Peugeot factory and viewed the work of Gubbins and his men as a ‘gamble’, something that Gubbins fiercely denied. An air raid on the factory produced no significant damage to the operational capacity of the factory and killed and wounded hundreds of civilians. Although initially reluctant to even supply Gubbins and his team with the planes they needed, the air chiefs, in view of their own failure, acquiesced to Gubbins’s plan on the condition they were kept updated regarding its progress. The plan involved a guerrilla sabotage effort and even received the reluctant blessing of the factory owner, Rodolphe Peugeot himself – the destruction of his own factory was presumably not an easy thing to agree to but he was no doubt swayed by the indication that it would eventually happen one way or another. The operation proved to be a vindication of Gubbins’s approach and silenced criticism. Some of the other high-ranking military critics of his section would also, albeit reluctantly, embrace their work and even offer assistance in view of its success. The importance of such operations would continue towards the end of the War and they would play an important part in the preparations for D-Day, ensuring that the Germans faced as many obstacles as possible when it came to reinforcing their troops near Normandy.

Milton provides a fascinating insight into an incredible story and a group of people whose underrated contribution to the defeat of the Germans and their allies deserves to be highlighted. The various talents of these unique individuals were brought to bear in an effort to defeat tyranny. Efforts of the SOE have become more widely known in recent years but the unique perspective of the saboteurs and their work discussed in this book have been largely shrouded in secrecy or simply haven’t received the recognition they deserve. Milton not only does a wonderful job of showing how important these operations, innovations and the people behind them were to the Allied success during the War but their own stories are brought to life. There is a sad note in terms of how these people and were treated and how their amazing work was treated as the War ended, with the rather unceremonious disbanding of much of their organisation by the authorities. Milton states that “Gubbins hoped his greatest legacy would be the devotion to expertise: he wanted British Special Forces to be the best in the world” but his most enduring legacy was to be found in the United States, where Donovan had turned the OSS into a lavish organisation that would a short time later become the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA.

This book serves as a timely reminder of the historic capability of the people of our Isles to rise to the occasion in times of great adversity and highlights the ingenuity, determination, spirit and endeavour that have made our country truly great. It’s very easy to look at such people and be awestruck, feeling that such glories are things of the past but perhaps we should also be reminded, not just of the pride we can feel, but the sense that these examples ought to inspire us onwards to great things too.

© The Black Swan 2018

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