Giles Milton’s book title almost sounds a spoof. That is most certainly not the case. Chapter headings, too, could read like titles for Boys’ Own adventures, but no, The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare is a serious look at the manner in which a group of English personnel during WW2 went about developing the art of subversive guerrilla warfare. Although a sober work, it is written with great wit and good humour.
Cecil Clarke (“Nobby”, inevitably) could think of no better way to test a new weapon than on visitors’ cars. He developed the tree spigot, a mortar that shot a smokeless 3-lb bomb able to destroy any vehicle. All people arriving at Brickendonbury Manor had to enter through an avenue of trees. As they drove in it was not uncommon for them to trip a bomb which would then slam into the car and drop away, thankfully unarmed. Many a driver had to account for the return of a bent car!
Of aniseed balls and condoms…
Development of a magnetic mine (the limpet as it was to be known) became paradoxically dependent on items as diverse as sweets and prophylactics. To allow the safe escape of a diver once he placed a limpet on the hull of a ship, the development crew attempted to create a soluble pellet that would release the detonator pin after a set time. Quite by accident, they learned that aniseed balls dissolved consistently in 35 minutes. Next, to protect their triggering device from becoming damp while in storage, a condom proved perfect for the purpose. It must have seemed strange for men on such important war work to stroll around the village buying up entire stocks of aniseed balls and condoms!
As well as Clarke, Milton introduces us to a lot of characters, some of whom became household names while others remain virtually unknown to this day. One of the leaders of the group responsible for the creation of unusual objects was a Scot named Colin Gubbins; as I read the book, I smiled often considering the homonym in his name.
But on to more serious matters…
The German battleship Tirpitz needed a repair base on the Atlantic coast. St Nazaire in occupied France had the only dry-dock of sufficient size. It needed to be put out of action but the RAF couldn’t bomb it because high-level casualties would be caused among the French civilians. The ungentlemanly warfare team devised a mission that initially looked improbable but proved successful when an explosives-crammed ship was rammed into the St Nazaire lock gates, putting them out of action for the duration of the war. (Coincidentally, I wrote a two-part blog with a personal side to it just a few weeks ago. SA60 publish it on 19 June and 19 July.)
The book tells many amazing tales, some of which certainly formed the basis for subsequent novels. One team equipped with two old tugboats ‘stole’ an Italian luxury liner and two German warships overnight from Santa Isobel Harbour on the Spanish-held island of Fernando Po (just off the West African coast).
Saboteurs were parachuted into the mountains of Greece to destroy viaducts over deep gorges, bringing down rail lines and stopping the carriage of urgent supplies for Rommel’s North Africa campaign. Another team, in the guise of street cleaners, assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the ‘Butcher of Prague’ responsible for exterminating thousands of Czechs.
One of the most incredible raids devised, and performed to perfection, was the attack on the Norsk Hydro plant in Norway’s Stavanger Fjord. The damage wrought stopped manufacture of deuterium oxide, or heavy water, and ended Hitler’s plans for the development of an atomic bomb.
The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare is great reading, not only due to the wholehearted support – not to say instigation of – Churchill, but because of his not infrequent involvement. On one occasion, so impressed with the potential shown by one weapon, he wanted it demonstrated before Charles de Gaulle and others at Chequers. Ever one for hands-on experience, he fired the device personally, almost taking out de Gaulle in the process! Now, that would have been a story!
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