Book Review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” by Damien LewisAfter becoming prime minister in May 1940, one of Winston Churchill’s first acts was to establish the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was intended to conduct raids, sabotage, reconnaissance, and support resistance movements in Axis-occupied countries. The SOE was not part of the military: it was a branch of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and its very existence was a state secret, camouflaged under the name “Inter-Service Research Bureau”. Its charter was, as Churchill described it, to “set Europe ablaze”.

The SOE consisted, from its chief, Brigadier Colin McVean Gubbins, who went by the designation “M”, to its recruits, of people who did not fit well with the regimentation, hierarchy, and constraints of life in the conventional military branches. They could, in many cases, be easily mistaken for blackguards, desperadoes, and pirates, and that’s precisely what they were in the eyes of the enemy—unconstrained by the rules of warfare, striking by stealth, and sowing chaos, mayhem, and terror among occupation troops who thought they were far from the front.

Leading some of the SOE’s early exploits was Gustavus “Gus” March-Phillipps, founder of the British Army’s Small Scale Raiding Force, and given the SOE designation “Agent W.01”, meaning the first agent assigned to the west Africa territory with the leading zero identifying him as “trained and licensed to use all means to liquidate the enemy”—a license to kill. The SOE’s liaison with the British Navy, tasked with obtaining support for its operations and providing cover stories for them, was a fellow named Ian Fleming.

One of the SOE’s first and most daring exploits was Operation Postmaster, with the goal of seizing German and Italian ships anchored in the port of Santa Isabel on the Spanish island colony of Fernando Po off the coast of west Africa. Given the green light by Churchill over the strenuous objections of the Foreign Office and Admiralty, who were concerned about the repercussions if British involvement in what amounted to an act of piracy in a neutral country were to be disclosed, the operation was mounted under the strictest secrecy and deniability, with a cover story prepared by Ian Fleming. Despite harrowing misadventures along the way, the plan was a brilliant success, capturing three ships and their crews and delivering them to the British-controlled port of Lagos without any casualties. Vindicated by the success, Churchill gave the SOE the green light to raid Nazi occupation forces on the Channel Islands and the coast of France.

On his first mission in Operation Postmaster was Anders Lassen, an aristocratic Dane who enlisted as a private in the British Commandos after his country was occupied by the Nazis. With his silver-blond hair, blue eyes, and accent easily mistaken for German, Lassen was apprehended by the Home Guard on several occasions while on training missions in Britain and held as a suspected German spy until his commanders intervened. Lassen was given a field commission, direct from private to second lieutenant, immediately after Operation Postmaster, and went on to become one of the most successful leaders of special operations raids in the war. As long as Nazis occupied his Danish homeland, he was possessed with a desire to kill as many Nazis as possible, wherever and however he could, and when in combat was animated by a berserker drive and ability to improvise that caused those who served with him to call him the “Danish Viking”.

This book provides a look into the operations of the SOE and its successor organisations, the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, seen through the career of Anders Lassen. So numerous were special operations, conducted in many theatres around the world, that this kind of focus is necessary. Also, attrition in these high-risk raids, often far behind enemy lines, was so high there are few individuals one can follow throughout the war. As the war approached its conclusion, Lassen was the only surviving participant in Operation Postmaster, the SOE’s first raid.

Lassen went on to lead raids against Nazi occupation troops in the Channel Islands, leading Churchill to remark, “There comes from the sea from time to time a hand of steel which plucks the German sentries from their posts with growing efficiency.” While these “butcher-and-bolt” raids could not liberate territory, they yielded prisoners, code books, and radio contact information valuable to military intelligence and, more importantly, forced the Germans to strengthen their garrisons in these previously thought secure posts, tying down forces which could otherwise be sent to active combat fronts. Churchill believed that the enemy should be attacked wherever possible, and SOE was a precision weapon which could be deployed where conventional military forces could not be used.

As the SOE was absorbed into the military Special Air Service, Lassen would go on to fight in North Africa, Crete, the Aegean islands, then occupied by Italian and German troops, and mainland Greece. His raid on a German airbase on occupied Crete took out fighters and bombers which could have opposed the Allied landings in Sicily. Later, his small group of raiders, unsupported by any other force, liberated the Greek city of Salonika, bluffing the German commander into believing Lassen’s forty raiders and two fishing boats were actually a British corps of thirty thousand men, with armour, artillery, and naval support.

After years of raiding in peripheral theatres, Lassen hungered to get into the “big war”, and ended up in Italy, where his irregular form of warfare and disdain for military discipline created friction with his superiors. But he got results, and his unit was tasked with reconnaissance and pathfinding for an Allied crossing of Lake Comacchio (actually, more of a swamp) in Operation Roast in the final days of the war. It was there he was to meet his end, in a fierce engagement against Nazi troops defending the north shore. For this, he posthumously received the Victoria Cross, becoming the only non-Commonwealth citizen so honoured in World War II.

It is a cliché to say that a work of history “reads like a thriller”, but in this case it is completely accurate. The description of the raid on the Kastelli airbase on Crete would, if made into a movie, probably cause many viewers to suspect it to be fictionalised, but that’s what really happened, based upon after action reports by multiple participants and aerial reconnaissance after the fact.

World War II was a global conflict, and while histories often focus on grand battles such as D-day, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, and the fall of Berlin, there was heroism in obscure places such as the Greek islands which also contributed to the victory, and combatants operating in the shadows behind enemy lines who did their part and often paid the price for the risks they willingly undertook. This is a stirring story of this shadow war, told through the short life of one of its heroes.

Lewis, Damien. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. New York: Quercus, 2015. ISBN 978-1-68144-392-8.

Here is a video review of this book by Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons.


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Today’s Kipling – The Dawn Wind

(The choice was inspired by the 2018 SOTU speech.)

The Dawn Wind

The Fifteenth Century

Rudyard Kipling

At two o’clock in the morning, if you open your window and listen,
You will hear the feet of the Wind that is going to call the sun.
And the trees in the shadow rustle and the trees in the moonlight glisten,
And though it is deep, dark night, you feel that the night is done.

So do the cows in the field. They graze for an hour and lie down,
Dozing and chewing the cud; or a bird in the ivy wakes,
Chirrups one note and is still, and the restless Wind strays on,
Fidgeting far down the road, till, softly, the darkness breaks.

Back comes the Wind full strength with a blow like an angel’s wing,
Gentle but waking the world, as he shouts: “The Sun! The Sun!”
And the light floods over the fields and the birds begin to sing,
And the Wind dies down in the grass. It is day and his work is done.

So when the world is asleep, and there seems no hope of her waking
Out of some long, bad dream that makes her mutter and moan,
Suddenly, all men arise to the noise of fetters breaking,
And every one smiles at his neighbour and tells him his soul is his own!

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TOTD 2018/01/13: Annie Sullivan, Liberatrix

A local public library had not yet, I found, thrown out all its books. Indeed, in the Childrens’ Room someone had turned a book so that the attractive, mysterious cover beckoned from a shelf at kid face height.

Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher is a 2008 large-format Juvenile book published by National Geographic as part of a series. M.F. Delano combines summary biography of Sullivan and Keller with historical photographs highlighted with quotes from the principals and their friends.

Annie Sullivan suffered as a child from trachoma, increasing blindness, paternal beatings, death of her mother, poverty, dirt, no education, and abandonment to years in a poorhouse. But she made it. Delano throws us this quote from Sullivan’s Valedictorian address on her 1886 graduation from the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston:

We . . . have the power of controlling the course of our lives. We can educate ouselves; we can, by thought and perseverance, develop all the powers and capacities entrusted to us.

So Annie Sullivan got help and freed herself. Then she turned around and freed Helen Keller, herself trapped in a poorhouse without brick-and-mortar walls, but walls of blindness, deafness, and isolation. Here is the famous water pump by the Keller home in Alabama. Sullivan pumped away at that handle, making the water flow all over Helen’s hand, while spelling the word “water” into her other hand. She breached the wall; the child was free:

The mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

Radcliffe College dedicated a water fountain to Annie Sullivan. Here is Radcliffe alumna Helen Keller, by then a little old lady, at the ceremony in 1960:


Annie Sullivan, Liberatrix, freed Keller, and consequently others, by enabling her to use the English language when that had seemed impossible.

If hers was an act of liberation, what, then, do we call certain other acts which make it near-impossible for so many of our countrymen to learn the English language, and so free themselves from initial constraints in their lives, to become self-reliant and to live as fully and independently as they can?

What do we call, for example, the invention and promotion “Ebonics” in lieu of Standard American English? I say it is hobbling; or it is harnessing with blinders, as with a draft horse.

What do we call the promotion of gangster culture, and the setting up of gangsters as exemplars for little kids? I say it is ensnaring.

What do we call the preservation of compulsory public schools where the unionized public employees cannot be fired? I say it is a form of kidnapping.

What do we call political opposition to charter schools, and mobbing in the streets to protest and smear Betsy DeVos because she approves of the charters and of parental choice? I say it is slaving, for not all fetters are made of metal.



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Book Review: Freedom Betrayed

“Freedom Betrayed” by Herbert HooverThis book, begun in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, became the primary occupation of former U.S. president Herbert Hoover until his death in 1964. He originally referred to it as the “War Book” and titled subsequent draft manuscripts Lost Statesmanship, The Ordeal of the American People, and Freedom Betrayed, which was adopted for this edition. Over the two decades Hoover worked on the book, he and his staff came to refer to it as the “Magnum Opus”, and it is magnum indeed—more than 950 pages in this massive brick of a hardcover edition.

The work began as an attempt to document how, in Hoover’s view, a series of diplomatic and strategic blunders committed during the Franklin Roosevelt administration had needlessly prompted Hitler’s attack upon the Western democracies, forged a disastrous alliance with Stalin, and deliberately provoked Japan into attacking the U.S. and Britain in the Pacific. This was summarised by Hoover as “12 theses” in a 1946 memorandum to his research assistant (p. 830):

  1. War between Russia and Germany was inevitable.
  2. Hitler’s attack on Western Democracies was only to brush them out of his way.
  3. There would have been no involvement of Western Democracies had they not gotten in his (Hitler’s) way by guaranteeing Poland (March, 1939).
  4. Without prior agreement with Stalin this constituted the greatest blunder of British diplomatic history.
  5. There was no sincerity on either side of the Stalin-Hitler alliance of August, 1939.
  6. The United States or the Western Hemisphere were never in danger by Hitler.
  7. [This entry is missing in Hoover’s typescript—ed.]
  8. This was even less so when Hitler determined to attack Stalin.
  9. Roosevelt, knowing this about November, 1940, had no remote warranty for putting the United States in war to “save Britain” and/or saving the United States from invasion.
  10. The use of the Navy for undeclared war on Germany was unconstitutional.
  11. There were secret military agreements with Britain probably as early of January, 1940.
  12. The Japanese war was deliberately provoked. …

…all right—eleven theses. As the years passed, Hoover expanded the scope of the project to include what he saw as the cynical selling-out of hundreds of millions of people in nations liberated from Axis occupation into Communist slavery, making a mockery of the principles espoused in the Atlantic Charter and reaffirmed on numerous occasions and endorsed by other members of the Allies, including the Soviet Union. Hoover puts the blame for this betrayal squarely at the feet of Roosevelt and Churchill, and documents how Soviet penetration of the senior levels of the Roosevelt administration promoted Stalin’s agenda and led directly to the loss of China to Mao’s forces and the Korean War.

As such, this is a massive work of historical revisionism which flies in the face of the mainstream narrative of the origins of World War II and the postwar period. But, far from the rantings of a crank, this is the work of a former President of the United States, who, in his career as an engineer and humanitarian work after World War I lived in or travelled extensively through all of the countries involved in the subsequent conflict and had high-level meetings with their governments. (Hoover was the only U.S. president to meet with Hitler; the contemporary notes from his 1938 meeting appear here starting on p. 837.) Further, it is a scholarly examination of the period, with extensive citations and excerpts of original sources. Hoover’s work in food relief in the aftermath of World War II provided additional entrée to governments in that period and an on-the-ground view of the situation as communism tightened its grip on Eastern Europe and sought to expand into Asia.

The amount of folly chronicled here is astonishing, and the extent of the human suffering it engendered is difficult to comprehend. Indeed, Hoover’s “just the facts” academic style may leave you wishing he expressed more visceral anger at all the horrible things that happened which did not have to. But then Hoover was an engineer, and we engineers don’t do visceral all that well. Now, Hoover was far from immune from blunders: his predecessor in the Oval Office called him “wonder boy” for his enthusiasm for grand progressive schemes, and Hoover’s mis-handling of the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash turned what might have been a short and deep recession into the First Great Depression and set the stage for the New Deal. Yet here, I think Hoover the historian pretty much gets it right, and when reading these words, last revised in 1963, one gets the sense that the verdict of history has reinforced the evidence Hoover presents here, even though his view remains anathema in an academy almost entirely in the thrall of slavers.

In the last months of his life, Hoover worked furiously to ready the manuscript for publication; he viewed it as a large part of his life’s work and his final contribution to the history of the epoch. After his death, the Hoover Foundation did not proceed to publish the document for reasons which are now impossible to determine, since none of the people involved are now alive. One can speculate that they did not wish to embroil the just-deceased founder of their institution in what was sure to be a firestorm of controversy as he contradicted the smug consensus view of progressive historians of the time, but nobody really knows (and the editor, recruited by the successor of that foundation to prepare the work for publication, either did not have access to that aspect of the story or opted not to pursue it). In any case, the editor’s work was massive: sorting through thousands of documents and dozens of drafts of the work, trying to discern the author’s intent from pencilled-in marginal notes, tracking down citations and verifying quoted material, and writing an introduction of more than a hundred pages explaining the origins of the work, its historical context, and the methodology used to prepare this edition; the editing is a serious work of scholarship in its own right.

If you’re acquainted with the period, you’re unlikely to learn any new facts here, although Hoover’s first-hand impressions of countries and leaders are often insightful. In the decades after Hoover’s death, many documents which were under seal of official secrecy have become available, and very few of them contradict the picture presented here. (As a former president with many military and diplomatic contacts, Hoover doubtless had access to some of this material on a private basis, but he never violated these confidences in this work.) What you will learn from reading this book is that a set of facts can be interpreted in more than one way, and that if one looks at the events from 1932 through 1962 through the eyes of an observer who was, like Hoover, fundamentally a pacifist, humanitarian, and champion of liberty, you may end up with a very different impression than that in the mainstream history books. What the conventional wisdom deems a noble battle against evil can, from a different perspective, be seen as a preventable tragedy which not only consigned entire nations to slavery for decades, but sowed the seeds of tyranny in the U.S. as the welfare/warfare state consolidated itself upon the ashes of limited government and individual liberty.

Hoover, Herbert. Freedom Betrayed. Edited by George H. Nash. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8179-1234-5.

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