Book Review – “Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”

Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton.

A book published in 2017 makes for some interesting reading about the history of British special operations in World War II. In Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat the author Giles Milton provides an account of a secret commando unit of the United Kingdom. This unit formed up and evolved to provide Britain with the weapons and men needed to conduct sabotage, subversion, and guerrilla operations in Nazi-occupied Europe.

In 1939 a secret organization – Section D – was established in London that would aid in the fight against Hitler and the Germans through special operations and sabotage. The War Office’s MI(R) (a research office on guerrilla warfare), and the Foreign Office’s Department EH (a propaganda organization) had also been established with similar goals and objectives in mind – the defeat of Nazi Germany.

In 1940 Section D and the other organizations would merge together to form the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The Special Operations Executive was given the mission by Winston Churchill to “. . . set Europe ablaze”.

This book profiles the lives and activities of several men and women involved in the formation of these early special operations organizations, the training of the personnel sent to conduct operations in Nazi-held Europe, and the conduct of activities to support the brave men and women who parachuted into enemy territory.

The book begins as the Germans are starting their conquest of Europe. We learn about the recruitment of various individuals who provided the leadership for the newly formed organizations. It then provides a fascinating account of the various weapons developed for the special operations campaign and the training programs for the special commandos. Along the way the book recounts various operations that took place not only in France . . . but also in other countries of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Not the Gentleman’s Way of War. The title of the book alludes to the debate that occurred during the war about what was appropriate as a strategy and tactic and what was not. Many members of the British defense establishment were not in favor of this new type of warfare – considering it not the way of gentlemen but of thugs and bandits. The chapter entitled “Thinking Dirty” explains the resistance the UK military had to unconventional warfare – the use of guerrillas, partisans, saboteurs, and assassins.

Red Tape and Bureaucracy. Milton also provides an understanding of the bureaucracy and red tape that these special operations warriors faced from the ‘established’ defense structures. The SOE also faced opposition from the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) who saw them as rivals and a threat to their operational security.

Winston Churchill was a staunch supporter of special operations during the war. He actively supported these activities with moral and financial support and beat back the opposition mounted by the military establishment and bureaucrats. The War Office would have liked to abolish the organization in its infancy but Churchill came to its rescue more than a few times.

Recruitment. The book is illustrative of the out-of-the-box thinkers and doers required of special operations organizations. Amateur scientists, eccentrics, and others combined their talents to provide the weapons and training needed for the many types of operations conducted in Europe and around the world by operatives during World War II.

The elite schools of Britain were fertile recruitment bases for the organization as well. Many of the recruits would also come from specialized military units of the UK. Some from as far away as India. The organization needed “. . . rule-breakers, mavericks, and eccentrics with a talent for lateral thinking and a fondness for making mischief.”

Special Weapons. Milton’s book pays attention to the development of special weapons and munitions developed by ad hoc laboratories and workshops for use by resistance groups and saboteurs. There were numerous roadblocks established by the Ministry of Supply and the Royal Ordnance Supply Factory. As as result the organization and associated entities embarked on their own weapons development and production program.

Some of these weapons developed for the commandos found their way into the conventional forces during WWII. One important development was the ‘limpet mine’ – a prototype magnetic mine that a combat swimmer would place on an enemy warship. Another was the ‘hedgehog’ used in anti-submarine warfare. Other special weapons included the ‘Sticky Bomb”, “Beehive”, “W-bomb”, “PIAT”, and “Time Pencil”. The author traces the development of explosives used for the demolition of bridges, railways, turbines, and other important targets.

Early Publications on Special Warfare. Milton’s book also informs us of the early writings that would be used as instructional manuals for special warfare. These include The Art of Guerrilla Warfare, The Partisan Leader’s Handbook, and How to Use High Explosives. Many of these tracts were provided to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to be used as training manuals at ‘Camp X’ and other training locations. The book on explosives by Millis Jefferis “. . . contained highly accurate advice for anyone who wanted to blow a bridge, building, railway or road.” This was the first manual in the history of the British Army to teach men how to destroy civilian targets with a small explosives kit.

Training Centers Established. Experts from within the UK’s military and from around the world were recruited to train up the new commandos, saboteurs, and ‘Jedburghs’. A training center was established in Scotland as well as other locations. The commandos were taught on the use of silent killing, explosives, communications, parachuting, weapons, and other skills necessary for the saboteur and guerrilla fighter.

Operations Conducted. Several historical vignettes are provided that give the reader an appreciation of the wide variety of operations conducted around the world by the SOE. Descriptions of several operations conducted by these specialists in guerrilla warfare provide for some very interesting reading.

The author’s account of the Jedburgh’s hindering the movement of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich from countering the Normandy beach landings following D-Day was especially informative. A movement by rail that should have taken 72 hours was stymied due to the use of carborundum inserted into the axles of tank rail car transports. The division then had to move by road – hindered by ambushes, blown bridges, lack of spare parts, and broken down tanks traveling beyond their range. A movement that took 17 days – arriving too late to stop the allied breakout from the beaches on the coast.

Many other examples of guerrilla warfare, espionage, sabotage, and secret operations are provided in the book. This historical account of special warfare by the United Kingdom during World War II is a good read for the special operations practitioner, WWII historian, and intelligence professional.

Available for purchase in hardcover or paperback.
Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
By Giles Milton, Picador, USA: 2017, 368 pages.

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Image: from book cover.


About John Friberg 148 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.