After 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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