Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: Hitler's Defeat by Giles Milton (John Murray, 2017)
There are many different ways to win a war, and this book chronicles some of the most unlikely strategies employed by Allied forces in their fight against the Nazis.
In World War Two, Churchill gave orders for British assaults on German forces and resources to include the use of sabotage and guerilla warfare. This took the Germans, who were pretty much used to the idea of a 'gentleman's war' and assumed their enemies would play by the rules during this conflict too, completely by surprise.
In the early stages of the war, we needed any advantage we could get and this was also true later in the run up to the Normandy landings, when Allied forces faced the challenge of establishing a beachhead in mainland Europe from which to push forward to retake the continent.
Each chapter of Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is arranged to describe a specific campaign or related set of engagements, from planning, arrangement and execution. Some activities involved large-scale deceptions, whereas others required only a few men and women with real inventiveness of thinking using limited resources to great effect to achieve their aims.
The book opens with a pretty unlikely tale, but it is representative of the personal nature of each story told. That is something I liked immensely about Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: it was always about people, and their personalities shone through vividly in the writing.
Not every World War II analysis of operations and tactics can say the same. 'The Third Man' describes how Cecil Clarke, caravan enthusiast, was recruited to work with Millis Jefferis (who worked for a highly secret branch of the War Office) to build a magnetic mine equipped with a time-delay detonator to explode against the hulls of ships after being secretly placed their by saboteurs.
Other chapters are devoted to slightly better known individuals such as Colonel Colin Gubbins, who developed a strike force that could sail across the Channel, conduct coastal raids and engage in acts of sabotage using amphibious craft. Their inaugural mission, however, was to West Africa where they harassed Admiral Dönitz's U-boats.
While these expeditions were a success, Gubbins was a controversial figure. Not everyone within government and the military warmed to such unusual tactics. His authorship of a booklet called Art of Guerilla Warfare in 1939 made many in the establishment wary of the skills he possessed and advocated others to employ.
As the war dragged on, however, ungentlemanly tactics earned their keep and became more widely accepted. By 1944, Gubbins had 1,200 agents in France alone, ready to engage in acts of sabotage behind enemy lines as soon as the assault phase for Allied troops to land in northern France on D-Day began. Gubbins' name reappears in this book time and again, proving over and over the value of his department's work.
Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare was informative but never dull. It mixed up personal stories, including the death of Gubbins' son Michael on active service, with lots of detail about the precise use of sabotage and guerilla tactics and how these advanced the war. It was chatty and relaxed, and in that sense far more accessible and entertaining to the non-historian than some books on the same topics.
I've read quite a few books that were more technical but far less accessible to the general reader. They were often published in series about different aspects of World War II and were written to appeal to the military history buff. I've no doubt their target audience was delighted. This book was aimed at the general reader, however, and it got its pitch just right.
Thank you for reading my review of Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton. I'll be back on Friday. In the meantime, the comments section is open.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Lost Fortune of the Tsars by William Clarke here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Tales from the Green Valley here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Cobra Kai here.