The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
John Murray 368pp £20
Soon after arriving behind enemy lines, in France in 1943, special agent Harry Ree heard the engines of 165 RAF Halifax bombers overhead. Their target was the local Peugeot factory, requisitioned by the Nazis to produce tank and aircraft parts. Unfortunately, the pathfinders’ flares fell short and 700 shells fell on the surrounding villages, killing more than 100 civilians. Ree, a former conscientious objector, was appalled by the tragedy. He confronted an incredulous Rodolphe Peugeot, demanding that he support the targeted sabotage of his factory in order to avoid a repeat raid. On the evening of the operation, Ree’s team of saboteurs was rounded up by German guards – for a game of football. When a limpet mine fell from someone’s pocket mid-match, they were cautioned about dropping stuff. The next night the factory was sabotaged, with no casualties.
Ree’s story is typical of the lateral thinking, courage and drama of the operations recounted in this compelling history. It is also the perfect tale to illustrate just how decent many agents of the ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ or the Special Operations Executive (SOE) were. Fighting a secret war behind enemy lines and using the guerrilla tactics of sabotage, ambush, murder and subversion, agents killed when necessary and took prisoners when possible, in the belief that their methods would hasten the end of the war.
It is hard not to get caught up in Giles Milton’s stories of the destruction of factories, power stations and docks in France; the disappearance of Nazi ships in a Spanish – officially neutral – port in Equatorial Guinea; or the sabotage of the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant in Norway. With limited resources, the SOE was the underdog, outwitting its powerful enemy.
The book is carried by its wonderful cast of characters, whose hard work behind the scenes enabled the SOE to function. The organisation’s inspirational CD (Chief of Destruction) Colin Gubbins appears as an ageing James Bond. The brilliant weapons pioneer Cecil Clarke, ‘half boffin, half buffoon’, was an eccentric caravan designer who developed crucial weapons, from limpet mines pre-tested in Bedford public baths to the grenade that assassinated Reinhard Heydrich. In his workaholic team of maths and engineering geniuses, one wore a monocle, another a moustache clipped in the fashion of Terry- Thomas. Milton cannot resist a reference to the cartoons of Heath Robinson in his descriptions of explosive prototypes held together with sticky tape and underwater time-delay fuses built around dissolving aniseed balls and, later, Alka-Seltzer tablets – a storeroom staple thanks to the quantities of whisky consumed.
It was ‘a man’s world of sweat, dirt and … nicotine’. Although the 39 female agents SOE sent to France are mentioned collectively, individual women appear only as efficient secretaries or frustrated wives. When a Norwegian recruit believed the FANYs had been hired to entertain him’, Milton notes that ‘the girls did little to persuade him otherwise’. It is a funny line, but more balance would be welcome since the SOE was a gender leveller, recruiting, training and deploying women in the field.
SOE’s actions were ‘proof that the spirit of Elizabethan times is still alive in all its brilliant daring’, one minister wrote after the war. The selective and pacey storytelling here celebrates this spirit, suggesting that the ‘Ungentlemanly Ministry’ was staffed by gentlemen after all. Yet one understated line in the epilogue offers a counterbalance. In August 1945, one of the team’s designs was tweaked for the triggering device for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki: ‘An extraordinary postscript.’ Yet many in the organisation, such as Clarke who later joined CND, and Ree, would have been appalled by the SOE’s contribution to the bomb. Whatever the case for and against nuclear weapons, the point (not discussed here) is that ethical and ungentlemanly are not interchangeable terms.
In 1945, following Labour’s election victory, with a few strokes of a pen the SOE was quietly disbanded. To Milton this seems a ‘curiously bland end to the most swashbuckling organisation’, but even Churchill concurred that the part the SOE had played in war, ‘in peace cannot at all be considered’. With its raison d’être over, what could be more appropriate than for the organisation to disappear as secretly as it had once emerged. Though an enjoyable read, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is not an attempt to address the complex ethical issues at the heart of British wartime special operations.
Clare Mulley is the author of several books including The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville (Pan Books, 2013).