Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Suggested by Brad Nelson • In the spring of 1939, a top-secret organization was founded in London to plot the destruction of Hitler’s war machine through spectacular acts of sabotage. The guerrilla campaign that followed was every bit as extraordinary as the six men who directed it.
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13 Responses to Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m only 22% into this, but it’s good enough in that first 22% to be worth the Kindle purchase price of $14.99. However, I happened to find this at my local library and I borrowed an electronic version of it using my Libby app for my tablet (available for Android or iOS). This app functions fairly well so far.

    I’m going to assume that the book covers the history of sabotage, particularly in France. But the story begins in England where a small cadre of geniuses was cobbling together the means to resist Hitler behind enemy lines. They were coming up with all sorts of gadgets. And the organizing theme of this special operations branch was definitely “ungentlemanly” warfare — a notion disdained by many in the British hierarchy even as Hitler was rolling over Poland, Norway, and the Low Countries.

    In fact, if not for the intervention of the Lord of the Admiralty (soon to be Prime Ministry), this special operations section would likely have died or been delayed in forming as an effective fighting force. It’s not hard to believe because in our day and age many would rather an entire city get nuked than to “torture” an Islamist with water-boarding.

    Suffice it to say, Churchill understood the kind of war his country was drawn into. It was interesting reading the rush to install an effective guerrilla force throughout the southern part of England with special emphasis on Kent which is where the landing was expected to take place. Ian Fleming’s brother had charge of this most important area.

    As we know, and as the book tells, the Nazi invasion of England was predicated on air superiority and an effective navy. Germany had lost a good chunk of its navy (10 destroyers) during the invasion of Norway. And we all know how the Battle of Britain in the air turned out. But no lessons were lost. This is as far as I’ve gotten in the book, but presumably the tale will continue in regards to setting up and assisting guerrilla warfare in France and other Nazi-occupied countries.

    I don’t know how the rest of the book will read, but I found the first 1/4 to be very interesting…basically a page-turner.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    After the war, Peter Fleming wrote a book on Operation Sea Lion, no doubt made some use of his wartime work. The Germans got hold of many of the British limpet bombs for the sabotage campaign (probably most through the Dutch resistance movement, which for a couple of years was actually run by an Abwehr agent named Giskes), and used them for at least a couple of the attempts to kill Hitler (including the 7/20/44 plot) due to their silence.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    the Nazi invasion of England was predicated on air superiority and an effective navy. Germany had lost a good chunk of its navy (10 destroyers) during the invasion of Norway. And we all know how the Battle of Britain in the air turned out.

    It is clear from the interrogations of Goering, Speer and other high-ranking Nazis that they believed the Western Allies’ air superiority was a major (perhaps the major) contributing factor to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      That and a cold Russian winter. But, really, had they been able to take England out of the war, where do the Americans beachhead? Would North Africa still have been viable? And would they? Wouldn’t the odds seem overwhelming? The Suez might have quickly fallen. We would have had to throw in behind the Russians. But is this the war anyone would have really been interested in fighting?

      And with Churchill out of the war (his influence for hitting back hard surely was influential), and with Americans already involved in the Pacific, where would the gumption come from? Wouldn’t we have been content at that point to sit back and watch the National Socialists and the International Socialists kill each other?

      • Timothy Lane says:

        A good look at the alternative future without Britain continuing the struggle can be found in Walton’s Farthing, which I believe has been brought up here before. There really was a faction in British aristocracy who would have done this. Actual conquest was obviously much harder, but undoubtedly would have led to a collapse of the British empire. Japan under those circumstances might even have been sane enough to avoid attacking America.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Again, according to the interrogations of various Nazi leaders, Hitler had no desire to go to war with the British Empire. He even was willing to give the Brits German troops to guarantee the integrity of the Empire if the Brits would let him pursue his plans for Lebensraum in the East.

          Hitler did not think the Brits would go to war over Poland. Had he believed they would, he would not have attacked it. I have long believed he was a victim of his own success. The audacity which helped bring him to the apex of power is what finally brought him down. He didn’t know when to stop. This is not an uncommon occurrence in history, but Hitler’s case is rather spectacular in the extremes of both directions.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I found that book here. And there is a Kindle edition.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished this book tonight. It is outstanding, a breeze to read. The author’s no-frills presentation and straightforward sense of storytelling make this a book you don’t have to struggle through. This may not be your favorite type of non-fiction (some like much more detail, others like more “human interest” points), but this one is right in my wheelhouse.

    And because the “ungentlemanly” branches were so quickly dismantled after the war (unlike the O.S.S. which became the C.I.A.), many don’t know the impact these people had. A few movies here and there tell some of their outstanding stories, such as the raid to destroy the heavy water at Norsk Hyrdo in Norway. But an argument can be made that these operations were more effective than Bomber Command. Certainly that is true in terms of bang-for-buck.

    One of the best stories comes late in the book. It was about how Das Reich panzer division’s trip to the Normandy beachhead was delayed from the expected two-day trip to seventeen days. By then the beachhead had been secured. It started with the sabotaging of the special rail cars which were filled with a special kind of abrasive grease that caused the wheels to seize up. Thus the tanks had to then be run on the road, which I didn’t particularly know was a very bad thing. Not only did this tear the road up but this put six out of ten tanks in need of severe repairs to remain operational. And spare parts were already hard to come by because of train traffic almost coming to a standstill due to sabotage.

    As Das Reich made its way to Normandy, it was further harassed and slow by huge trees being felled in its path.

    There’s also the almost comical episodes of the sabotaging of the Peugeot factory. Bomber Command (especially Harris) had little regard for the special operations branches. So a fleet of 125 aircraft set off to bomb the factory. From all reports, they demolished it. But air reconnoissance later revealed that the pathfinder bombs had been off target. They had very successfully flattened a French village and left the Peugeot factory all but untouched.

    Thus the green light was finally given to special operations. And with the cooperation of the Peugeot family, the saboteurs received inside information on the factory. They were able to creep in one night and plant bombs on all the vital equipment and in such a way as to make it useless. And while the SS was hunting the saboteurs, instead of going into complete hiding, they did the completely unexpected and hit some other targets.

    Meanwhile, at the Peugeot plant a giant compressor had been delivered to replace the one lost in the last raid. The saboteurs crept over the fence and blew it up inside its packing crate.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Well, Bomber Command did have some major successes other than mass slaughter via area bombing, such as the Dam Busters raid by 617 Squadron.

      Max Hastings wrote a book on Das Reich and its march to Normandy. There were also French resistance attacks that did some damage, and killed a few officers — until the division wiped out the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. It was a major atrocity — but after that, the Resistance stopped attacking. They didn’t want to risk another Oradour.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, the damn-busters raid was a good one. And one can understand the need — the requirement, really — to strike back at Hitler in any way possible at the time. I get it.

        Still, the commando branches made a great case that they could do the job better. And whose to say it wouldn’t have gone better if all those resources put into generally non-accurate aerial bombing went into ever-better commando raids? Certainly, in a very real sense, the success of the Dam Busters was as a targeted commando-type raid using specialized weapons and very specific and protracted training.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          An interesting and apt comparison. Bomber Harris certainly wasn’t impressed with such efforts, any more than he was by commando raids. Of course, commando operations usually only took place close to the sea so that they could get out quickly. They would never have been sent to the Möhne and Eder Dams.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            According to this book, they would have been sent anywhere. But certainly some tasks are going to require perhaps heavier equipment and bombs than any ground team can carry.

            But after a year or two, Baker Street was supporting somewhat vast guerrilla armies all over the world, supplying them with weapons, supplies, and training. They went everywhere, particularly when Bomber Command finally loosened its grip and started supporting these guys with airplanes.

            This books stays somewhat on the lighter side, if you will. It doesn’t go into much detail on the heavy costs paid by the guerrillas. But it does mention that cyanide capsules were standard issue.

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