Some people say they don’t like history because it’s boring. Giles Milton has written a true-life thriller about one of the darkest periods in history. Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is a fascinating account of the exploits of a band of colorful characters. Men and women with particular experience and skills were recruited by the British military to fight a dirty, clandestine war against Nazi Germany. World War II buffs will soak up every page, but even readers who aren’t as familiar with this period will likely appreciate the page-turning details of brave agents executing impossible missions behind enemy lines.
The Special Operations Executive was set up on the orders of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to help partisan cells in Europe resist Nazi occupation in places like Poland, France, and Norway. Milton describes how the organization was staffed with colorful characters with disparate backgrounds and skills to match. He also points out that many British officials and military officers in the group had to be willing to bend the rules. Their attitudes seem strange, given that many of them would have had keen memories of the horrors of the World War 1. Milton argues effectively that the unorthodox nature of the SOE was both necessary and effective in fighting the Nazis. A secretary in the SEO named Joan addresses the British sense of fair play and her experiences outside Britain: “the experience of living abroad had taught her an important fact: the British alone played by the rules” (page 29). She had lived in Latin America for a time and experienced the endemic public corruption and the cynicism it bred.
An agent named Pendergast was adamant that ruthlessness was a key to successful operations. This approach was tested when they assassinated an important Nazi official in Czechoslovakia, and the Gestapo retaliated by murdering thousands of innocent people. The SOE leadership argued that that Nazi official would have been responsible for even more deaths if he’d been allowed to live. It is difficult to imagine military leaders today, with the climate of leaks and an unsympathetic press, making such a frank and cold-blooded assessment.
Even though some in the British government continued to object to the SOE throughout the war, the book explains that it was generally spared much of the usual bureaucratic interference that hampered other parts of the government. This was because the group had the active support of Churchill who, among other things, helped them fast-track the development of weapons such as explosives, custom designed for particular sabotage missions. The author makes it clear that even when a mission was a success, there were often costs such as civilian casualties and the capture or death of agents. He was able to strike a balance between the romantic heroism of the agents and the bloody horrors of war.
Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is an impressive achievement that students of military history will thoroughly enjoy, but the exciting narrative should keep general readers interested as well. Some readers might be disappointed that Churchill is left mostly in the background, appearing occasionally to provide a pithy line or throw his support behind a controversial weapon. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating tale filled with heroic characters, and Milton’s writing reflects the liveliness of his subjects. He describes a dramatic scene where a group of agents tries to make contact with partisans in the middle of a winter storm:
“Nature certainly proved dominant in the bluish-grey hour before dawn. Snow pellets scoured horizontal in the winter gale as the mercury plummeted. The men urgently needed to make contact with the Grouse party who had been living out on the Hardanger for four months” (page 231).
This vivid description could have come from one of Alistair MacLean’s novels, but Milton’s work reminds us that truth is often even more captivating than fiction.
Mike Phelps is a freelance writer residing in Huntington Beach, CA.