Excerpt: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton
The unusual tactics of a select band of men attracted scorn, yet they were crucial to victory in the Second World War. Here we join an eccentric cast of characters in 1940, when the focus was on preparing for the apparently inevitable German invasion of Britain.
About the book
The characters in Giles Milton’s rollicking new book are a suitably eccentric bunch.
There is, for example, Cecil Clarke, a caravan maker from Bedford who designed the first limpet mine using a Woolworths tin bowl, a condom and an aniseed ball—which, placed between the striker and the detonator, dissolved at just the right speed. (These mines were soon in such demand that Clarke had to order the aniseed balls direct from Bassett’s rather than buying them at local sweet shops.)
There’s also the group’s leader, Colin Gubbins, a dapper figure with a silver-topped cane who’d learned about guerrilla war fighting Michael Collins in Ireland.
The Special Operations Executive, as they were officially known, had a vital impact on the war. Many officers in the regular army regarded their methods of sabotage and ambush as underhand and therefore un-British. But it was with Churchill’s full support that the SOE carried out the spectacular raids across Occupied Europe and North Africa that Milton describes so vividly.
Within hours of Hitler’s issuing of Directive No.16, Gubbins summoned a meeting of his 12 newly appointed guerrilla commanders, with Peter Fleming the first among equals. Others included the veteran Greenland explorer Andrew Croft, and Donald Hamilton-Hill, whose forebears had fought against Napoleon in Egypt.
His briefing reflected the depressing reality. ‘In clear, concise terms,’ said Hamilton-Hill, ‘he described the situation in Britain as it then stood.’ Gubbins reminded the 12 that they were guerrillas, not regular soldiers, and had been selected because they had ‘a non-military and independent approach to life’.
Peter Fleming was to display a professionalism sorely absent in the regular army. He studied every nook and hollow of the Thanet countryside before deciding to establish his guerrilla headquarters in a half-timbered farmhouse called the Garth in Bilting, a village 15 miles inland from the east coast. It was likely to fall just outside the initial German beachhead, making it the ideal place to mastermind his operations. It also became his principal weapons’ dump, with the big barn next to the house stashed ‘from end to end and from floor to roof with explosives, ammunition and weapons, including half a dozen longbows’.
Fleming had good reason for acquiring the longbows. He intended to teach his men to use them ‘to hurl incendiary charges into German petrol dumps’. Without fuel, Hitler’s tanks and jeeps would be trapped inside their beachhead.
"Even when training for ungentlemanly warfare, Gubbins’s guerrillas remembered to dine as gentlemen."
Fleming was shrewd enough to realise that his men would need underground cells if they were to fight a sustained dirty war against the Nazis. ‘A guerrilla without a base,’ he told them, ‘is no better than a desperate straggler.’ He also knew that cells would need to be well stocked if the guerrillas were to continue their operations over many weeks. Each was to be self-sufficient and stocked with food rations, chemical Elsan toilets, wireless sets and large quantities of explosives.
It was essential that they should remain undiscovered. To this end, the men concealed the entrances and exits with gnarled, ivy-clad roots, while the ventilation funnels and water-supply pipes were interwoven with branches, leaves and man-made camouflage. One of the key cells in the Kent area set the gold standard: anyone wishing to enter had to drop a marble down a mouse-hole. The marble rolled down a 12-foot-long pipe and into a tin can, a signal to the men below ground to open the trapdoor concealed in the roots of a tree.
The planning of the cells was combined with an upper-class savoir-faire about the finer things in life. One group of army officers was invited to a meal in one of these cells and expected to be served powdered rations in an earthen hole. But when they slipped down through the trapdoor, ‘they were faced with a long dining table covered with a crisp damask cloth. The candles were in candelabras and the cutlery on the table gleamed.’ Even when training for ungentlemanly warfare, Gubbins’s guerrillas remembered to dine as gentlemen.