'Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare' unveils Churchill's commando units

These small, fast bands of deadly World War II operatives worked outside standard War Office protocols to wreak a maximum of damage behind German lines.

Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler's Defeat By Giles Milton Picador 368 pp.

Giles Milton, author of half a dozen works of history including the bestselling "Nathaniel's Nutmeg," strikes storyteller's gold in his latest book, Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler's Defeat, which is about the origins and sketchy, valorous deeds of the secret commando units created by the British government in the spring of 1939 – units, as Milton writes, “tasked with a wholly new form of warfare.”

These were the men of Section D (for “destruction”), recruited largely from the ranks of “rugby-hardened alumni from schools such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester … school-leavers who had gone on to become polar explorers, mountaineers and oil prospectors, men who knew how to survive in a tough environment.” At the behest of Winston Churchill (“no stranger to dirty warfare,” as Milton reminds his readers), these toughened roustabouts were recruited by Colonel Colin Gubbins, the trim and hyper-energetic Scotsman who was the chief strategist for Section D.

Gubbins envisioned small, fast bands of deadly operatives working outside standard War Office protocols to wreak a maximum of damage behind German lines – with a maximum of deniability in case of detection. He patterned their tactics, Milton tells us, on freedom fighters like Michael Collins in Ireland and gangsters like Al Capone in America, and through careful instruction these operatives were fashioned into a disruptive force like nothing the British military had ever seen. Section D trainers boasted that they could kill a man with a folded newspaper, and they would “teach each recruit a dozen edge-of-the-hand blows that break a wrist, an arm or a man's neck; twists that wrench and tear; holds that choke and strangle; throws that break a leg or a back; kicks that crush ribs, shins, and feet bones.”

It sat poorly with the old pros in the War Office, one of whom thundered, “Remember, we are British. We do not stoop to thug-element tactics. We do not stab in the back. We fight as men. We do not slash. Now this must cease.”

But it didn't cease. Over the next few years, armed with thoroughly ungentlemanly training and a wide array of ingenious ordnance (the things Section D could do with explosives need to be read to be believed), these guerrillas did a large amount of damage to the enemy: ninety key Nazi-run war factories crippled, the demolition of bridges and railways, the running of thousands of successful air-sorties into enemy territory, and clandestine operations in Greece and the Balkans that, as Milton points out, "tied down fifty enemy divisions in a critical phase of the war.”

There was never any fanfare to these achievements, no headlines – but neither was there any mercy, nor any politics at play. In Milton's riveting telling, these adventures sound like the stuff of fictional thrillers: “They would have to find their way to the transformer station, scale the perimeter fence, dodge or kill the sentries and then force an entry into the main building,” where they would then try to stay alive long enough to plant explosives and race for safety … and the next mission.

It all takes place against the stark backdrop of World War II's most desperate days, and Milton doesn't shy away from the brutalities involved on both sides. But it's tough to resist the sheer headlong enthusiasm with which he tells the story of Gubbins and the other members of these elite guerrilla squads, these men “bold in action and cool in council, of great mental and physical endurance, and of strong personality.”

Success brought expansion. Gubbins had begun his organization with four men, a secretary, and an improvised headquarters. But by the peak of the war, he was overseeing hundreds of workers and multiple teams of operatives conducting missions in nearly a dozen countries. All of those missions were highly dangerous, and all of them were conducted under a cloak of classified secrecy so thick that details were known only to Churchill (who rejoiced in every tale of illicit heroics that crossed his desk) and select members of the Imperial Staff.

As the war drew to a close, as Americans forces were spreading across more and more of Western Europe and the Nazi power was crumbling, it became clear to everybody involved that Section D was coming to the end of its lifespan. In the end, as Milton writes with a palpable note of sadness, “it was to be abolished with the same secrecy as it had been established,” signed out of existence as a mere matter of paperwork, its agents scattered back into normal military and civilian lives, “a curiously bland end to the most swashbuckling organization ever to be sponsored by a British government.”

It would be decades before these off-the-books guerrillas received any kind of official recognition for the role they played in the Allied victory. And they now have a book that any one of them would have loved.

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