The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: Churchill’s Mavericks: Plotting Hitler’s Defeat
By Giles Milton 368pp £20
A review by John Gaye (first published in the Sherborne Times)
It is often said that war brings out the best and the worst in people; nowhere is this better illustrated than in the pages of this book. When Britain felt most threatened it brought about great innovation and creativity and if Len Deighton’s horrific vision of SS-GB, recently BBC’s Sunday evening serial, had ever been brought into reality, the invading Germans would have been plagued by a very well-equipped, highly motivated and skilled resistance. Before this book little had been revealed about this guerrilla force of farmers, poachers, gamekeepers, miners and the like as they were never called upon to activate. This was not a Dad’s Army of amateurs but a highly talented bunch of rural workers led by hand-picked leaders.
But this guerrilla force was but only one small element of what today would be called ‘thinking outside of the box’. It was Churchill who created the title of this book when he called upon Hugh Dalton to create such a ministry. Once it was clear that the invasion was no longer an imminent threat this department turned its attention to offensive operations elsewhere. To achieve maximum effect new and totally unconventional weaponry, and techniques for their delivery, had to be developed, often despite the total revulsion and strong resistance of the more conventional elements of the General Staff. Fortunately the department set up to oversee these unconventional developments, and their deployment, had the direct ear of an important supporter – Winston himself, who took a very close interest in all their activities.
The characters involved are as extraordinary as the ideas they created and the many and varied roles they fulfilled. One of the many fascinating descriptions is that of the invention of the limpet mine to attach to the hull of ships. Two somewhat eccentric inventors, when given the task, set about the problem in a garden shed with great creativity, purchasing most of the essential ingredients from the local Woolworths, the high street hardware store, and both the local sweet shop and chemists (for aniseed balls and condoms respectively). They experimented with their new creation, without the explosive, in the local swimming pool after closing time. It worked and the resultant creation went into full production.
We have all heard of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which operated in many theatres of the war with great courage. But rather less well known is the detail of the infrastructure that supported their activities. This book brings out so much of this extraordinary detail and the characters involved. If you think that Q branch in the James Bond films has some weird and innovative ideas then read about the original version that met the demands of a real war.
This is a fascinating, well-researched book about some quite extraordinary characters whose influence on the war has never really been acknowledged fully.