Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton
Giles Milton recounts the history of a little known group of irregulars who developed unconventional weapons and warriors, and ran sabotage and guerilla operations in occupied Europe. We all know about British commandos, the SOE and the SAS, and all that. Those are the “official unofficials”. But Churchill set up and funded this group totally outside the armed forces and even the SOE. Indeed, this unnamed group preceded and inspired the creation of the British special forces and the US OSS.
Facing a desperate all-in war against Hitler, Churchill wanted to deploy sneaky and nasty weapons and people to win at all costs. To do this, he called on an amazing assortment of extremely eccentric geniuses, with a flair for deadly gadgets, lethal fighting, and brilliant scheming.
When you say “the most eccentric boffins from all of the British Empire”, you are talking about eccentric eccentrics!
This group pioneered limpet mines, shaped explosives, hedgehog anti-submarine mortars, and a variety of pre-digital timers, detonators, and fuses. They not only invented them, they created assembly lines, and also equipped and deployed teams through out Europe and other theaters. They also collected experts in the destruction of every kind of machinery and infrastructure known to the industrial age, as well as terribly efficient methods of killing. A vertically integrated war machine, outside the regular chain of command, reporting directly to Churchill.
I found the book interesting because I already I had read of many of the incidents and missions (the delivery of Enigma from Polish intelligence, the Norsk Hydro heavy water raid, the commando assault on St. Nazaire, the Jedburghs on D-day). But I had never heard of this off-the-books group who played such a key role in these and other operations.
This omission is not due to official secrecy (after all, we know a lot about the secret war), it is surely due to the fact that they were a creature of Winston Churchill. These guys were heartily disliked by many of the regular forces and the bureaucracy. At the end of the war, Churchill was voted out, and his boffins were promptly closed down and erased from official history.
Of course, their ethos and achievements have lived on in real life (the CIA and US DOD picked up the mantle of irregular warfare), and in fiction and popular culture. There is little doubt that the James Bond stories were influenced by what Ian Fleming knew of this operation and its characters. These latter day pirates are surely a source for agent 007, and the mad scientists are obviously one of the models for Q. Milton tells use that Joan Bright, one of the original staff, and who dated Ian Fleming (among others), is one of the inspirations for Miss Moneypenny.
As I read this book, I kept thinking of the old Avengers TV show, too. In these episodes, Steed and Mrs. Peel would often fetch up at some old country house which turned out to full of mad old birds (often with beautiful upper class accents), who were blowing stuff up in very exotic ways. The real life labs at The Firs and elsewhere were surely a model for this popular trope.
One limitation of this book is that Milton gives fairly facile and shallow psychological sketches of these very, very odd people. In some cases, he is working from official files, and other cases from biographical recollections, which are probably blinkered by policy and filtered by the cultural biases of the writers.
I can’t help but have a lot of questions and some speculative theories about these people. Outside of a total war, many of these guys and gals would be considered clinically insane. Some of them seem to be dangerously depressed and many are clearly manic. Several might be diagnosed on the autism spectrum today. Some had clear issues with substance abuse. There are at least a few folks who were probably gay, but Milton’s sources could not or would not say so. And so on.
Overall, I found this to be a pretty good read, though it certainly helped that I have read quite a little about the war and the clandestine services. Much of this would be really hard to follow from the book alone.
- Giles Milton, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat, New York, Picador, 2016.
Sunday Book Reviews