Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler's Defeat
By Giles Milton
Review by David Wineberg
The Second World War was dramatically different from any previous conflagration. Its scale, death and level of violence were record-shattering. Winston Churchill, unlike many, could see that as it was developing, and encouraged new forms of weapons and warfare to deal with it. One such effort was a top secret agency dedicated to sabotage. By the time the Allies invaded France, it had run nearly a hundred missions, destroyed factories and infrastructure and even delayed the arrival of Hitler’s strongest unit to aid Rommel in the defense of Normandy – by 15 whole days.
They did it by the seat of their pants. On nearly no budget, they designed and built world class weapons, trained agents, dropped them into theaters from Norway to southeast Asia and organized local resistance. They airdropped thousands of containers of weapons. They built millions of bombs. They volunteered for suicide missions and came back successful. Without their constant nibbling at German lines and supplies, the war would clearly have turned out differently.
They made it up as they went along. They got no respect and little co-operation from the armed forces and other government departments. They worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and took on hundreds of women to make armaments in requisitioned properties in the countryside. Their exploits were James Bondian in nature and stature, and indeed, Peter Fleming was one of the early recruits. His brother Ian dated the secretary, likely the model for Miss Moneypenny, and possibly for the last time, Britain was at the forefront of saving the world.
The book is divided into adventures, such as the destruction of the world’s largest shipbuilding and drydock at St. Nazaire, France. This caused the Germans’ largest battleship to never leave port as there was no longer anywhere to service it. They took out the heavy water plant in Norway, which prevented Germanany from building an atomic bomb. They destroyed a railway viaduct in Greece that had been supplying the Afrika Corps with numerous trainloads of supplies daily. And they assassinated Heydrich, the brutal overseer of central Europe. So it’s an exciting, adventurous read.
Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is a you-are-there retelling, because so many of the participants lived long lives and wrote about them. They have been celebrated everywhere but government, which almost immediately closed it all down and sent everyone packing. But for four years, it was a thrill to invent, to train to produce and to execute. They succeeded where RAF bombing did not, and aided where help was desperately required. Some of their missions were literally declared impossible. They pulled them off anyway. All behind the scenes and anonymously.
Lord Mountbatten, who followed them closely ever since the St. Nazaire raid, said it was “one of the most thrilling accounts of operations in this war.” It was a different, analog era, where hard work, experiment and risk were everything, and pulling together was a way of life. A world well worth reading about.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.