In the spring of 1940, as World War II embroiled Continental Europe, the British government merged three top-secret services to create an organization dedicated to derailing Adolf Hitler’s onrushing war machine via sabotage, propaganda and other means of irregular warfare. British writer Giles Milton, the best-selling author of nine nonfiction books, chronicles the exploits of the resulting Special Operations Executive (SOE) in his latest work, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, the title a reference to one of SOE’s nicknames. Milton recently spoke with Military History about Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s effective guerrilla campaign against the Axis and the half-dozen men who engineered it.
Do any of SOE’s operatives merit special mention?
My favorite character in the book is Cecil Clarke, who was completely eccentric—very “British,” but he had a wildly creative mind. Once a trailer builder and engineer, Clarke was able to apply his wild imagination to producing sabotage weaponry. That’s what Churchill recognized in these people. He believed Britain had one advantage over the Nazis—creativity.
The principal character in the book is Colin Gubbins, who became head of the SOE. His task was to invent a whole new form of warfare. In Britain there was this idea that you fought war like a gentleman. Gubbins’ role was to tear up the rule book and say, “Well, in this type of warfare we’re going to do anything we want.”
Britain couldn’t compete head-on with the Nazi war machine, but a highly mechanized army was vulnerable in certain areas. So you can essentially paralyze an army by taking out the bridge, the viaduct, etc. It’s a very clever, cheap and efficient way of doing it. It just required a bit of out-of-the-box thinking.
Were the British able to exploit the Germans’ “German-ness”?
Well, that was key to it all. A great Churchill quote that is not in the book but sums it up: “It isn’t only the good boys who help to win wars; it is the sneaks and the stinkers as well.” He was completely prepared to break all the rules. That’s something the Germans didn’t do and couldn’t do, because the structure of the army was so hierarchical. They couldn’t have a bunch of guys just wandering around with explosives, blowing things up—it didn’t fit into the structure.
In what sorts of ungentlemanly warfare did the SOE engage?
Most operations were quite small. The whole idea was to drop in a few men and let them unleash as much damage as they possibly could. For example, the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich was only two men who had parachuted in. The brilliant operation to take out the heavy water plant in Vemork, Norway, needed for the Germans to build an atomic bomb, was six men.
Was SOE focused on guerrilla warfare or the Allies’ overall strategy?
To answer that question, it’s worth looking at what Eisenhower said. He said the saboteurs and guerrillas played a critical role at the time of the D-Day landings. One of the great acts of sabotage kept the 2nd SS Panzer Division [Das Reich] from getting from central France to Normandy. It would have met the American troops who were having a nightmare getting ashore on Omaha Beach. The German division had 15,000 men and 200 tanks. What the SOE teams did was blow up every bridge in the way, bring down every tree they could and booby-trap the trees. As the Germans were pushing the trees out of the way, the trees blew up and then members of the French Resistance shot at them.
The division should have gotten there within about 24 hours; it took 17 days. Eisenhower singled out that operation [for its] significant effect on the success of the landings.
What were some of the SOE’s other successes?
There were so many. I am often asked, “What did it all add up to?” and it’s difficult to quantify, because it was sort of haphazard. There’s a story in the book of a bridge in Greece that allowed the transport of all munitions and weaponry for German forces in North Africa. The SOE blew it up, stopping, for two months, 50 enemy trains a day. That’s enormous. And it was at a critical time in the battle for North Africa. They played an enormous role in shortening the course of the war.
Churchill seems unassailable, yet was notorious for bad decisions. Which is it?
Churchill deserves a bit more criticism than he gets. Giving support to Bomber Command in the way he did—[allowing] the blanket bombing of civilian targets in Germany—was a mistake. That really came close to war crimes, and it proved completely ineffective. What Gubbins argued vociferously to Churchill was, if you send in one man with a bag full of explosives, he can do far more targeted damage. But what Churchill did was hedge his bets. He’d support Gubbins and the SOE, but he’d also support Bomber Command. I’m not sure that was the right thing to do.
If you could ask Churchill one question, what would it be?
If he really did drink that much. This comes up again and again. I mean, Churchill is invariably portrayed as this kind of drunkard, and I simply can’t believe it, because I don’t think you can run a war if you’re so intoxicated.
A more serious one would be why did he sanction Bomber Command to do its destruction? I can’t see any strategic benefit to it. So there you go–one lighthearted, one more serious.
What’s next for you?
My next book is on D-Day—midnight to midnight on the 6th of June. It’s really a story of the young conscripts, teenagers basically, in the front line of battle. I also draw on material about French civilians, because no one ever talks about them. They may well have had the highest death toll on D-Day. That allows me to bring in women and children, who are never mentioned. It’s the antidote to a sort of military command history book. It’s the story of the guys on the ground. Everything had been planned to the last second. Everything went wrong. From the minute they landed, everything went wrong. But, of course, when you’re on the beach, it becomes the actions of individuals and what they do that determines how D-Day is going to pan out. So I tell their story. MH