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Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly…

Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted…

by Giles Milton

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The story of a special projects bureau, operated by some very British characters (despite the objections of military officers who thought that guerrilla tactics were Not Done) and protected by Churchill. Women and men both played significant roles; one woman, Joan Bright, was supposedly the inspiration for Miss Moneypenny.

It takes a while to get going—the book and the bureau both—but there are some fascinating stories. I didn’t know that blowing up pylons should be done by planting charges under 3 of 4 corners, so it tips over instead of just going down. They also invented new bombs and new timers, which were made with Alka Seltzer because they could be trusted to dissolve with perfect regularity. There was a raid on a Spanish harbor that stole three ships out from under their captains’ noses—but it was nearly derailed by the fact that they didn’t correct for time zones, which somehow makes the story better. A later, better raid destroyed a key sub harbor—it involved ramming a boat packed with explosives into the dock—while another cut Rommel’s supply lines for six weeks by destroying a remote bridge in Italy. They delayed the arrival of a key division to Normandy by sabotaging the flatcars that were to take the tanks to the front (tanks being too slow, gas-guzzling, and heavy to make it on their own) by replacing the axle oil on the transports with axle grease laced with abrasive. With this and other traps, a 72-hour journey took seventeen days, and the Allied beachhead was secure.

They made bombs that could be attached to German planes on the ground, but which would only explode at a certain height when the pressure changed enough to force two wires to connect and detonate. They developed shaped charges that could punch through the strongest German tanks and concrete pillboxes, as required for D-Day—and inspired a solution to the problem of detonating the first nuclear bombs through implosion. They made sub-killing bomb groups called the Hedgehog, which sank six subs in a row—“a record unbeaten in the history of naval warfare.” The largest triumph was the destruction first of the only significant source of heavy water for the Germans, in Norway, and then of the remaining stockpile, both with brilliant and gutsy raids. The first was carried out after an initial failure, which had increased security, but the commandos scaled a sheer rock gorge that the Germans thought was impassible.

I also liked the emphasis on training—if you want to do something right, train to do it in as realistic a manner as possible; that’s why they built mock facilities based on plans smuggled out of Norway at great risk. Similarly, later saboteurs trained on models of the Peugeot machines they intended to sabotage to shut down the German production of aircraft parts in France—which they did by convincing Rodolphe Peugeot to assist them by telling him that his factory would either be destroyed by sabotage or by large-scale bombing, and that sabotage would be easier to rebuild from after the war ended. That story also has its funny/scary moments, as when the German guards were kicking a football around and demanded that the saboteurs, dressed as ordinary workers, have a German/French match. One of the saboteurs kicked the ball and a limpet mine fell out of his pocket. A German guard handed it back to him—and the game continued. Later, the same group sabotaged the new compressor that had just been delivered to replace the one destroyed in the first attack. ( )
  rivkat | Dec 13, 2017 |
A stirring account of Allied special operations during WW2 and the characters behind them, plus their crucial special equipment and designers and workshops which produced it. ( )
  ManipledMutineer | Jun 13, 2017 |
Government Swashbucklers

The Second World War was dramatically different from any previous conflagration. Its scale, death and level of violence were record-shattering. Winston Churchill, unlike many, could see that as it was developing, and encouraged new forms of weapons and warfare to deal with it. One such effort was a top secret agency dedicated to sabotage. By the time the Allies invaded France, it had run nearly a hundred missions, destroyed factories and infrastructure and even delayed the arrival of Hitler’s strongest unit to aid Rommel in the defense of Normandy – by 15 whole days.

They did it by the seat of their pants. On nearly no budget, they designed and built world class weapons, trained agents, dropped them into theaters from Norway to southeast Asia and organized local resistance. They airdropped thousands of containers of weapons. They built millions of bombs. They volunteered for suicide missions and came back successful. Without their constant nibbling at German lines and supplies, the war would clearly have turned out differently.

They made it up as they went along. They got no respect and little co-operation from the armed forces and other government departments. They worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and took on hundreds of women to make armaments in requisitioned properties in the countryside. Their exploits were James Bondian in nature and stature, and indeed, Peter Fleming was one of the early recruits. His brother Ian dated the secretary, likely the model for Miss Moneypenny, and possibly for the last time, Britain was at the forefront of saving the world.

The book is divided into adventures, such as the destruction of the world’s largest shipbuilding and drydock at St. Nazaire, France. This caused the Germans’ largest battleship to never leave port as there was no longer anywhere to service it. They took out the heavy water plant in Norway, which prevented the Germans from building an atomic bomb. They destroyed a railway viaduct in Greece that had been supplying the Afrika Corps with numerous trainloads of supplies daily. And they assassinated Heydrich, the brutal overseer of central Europe. So it’s an exciting, adventurous read.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is a you-are-there retelling, because so many of the participants lived long lives and wrote about them. They have been celebrated everywhere but government, which almost immediately closed it all down and sent everyone packing. But for four years, it was a thrill to invent, to train to produce and to execute. They succeeded where RAF bombing did not, and aided where help was desperately required. Some of their missions were literally declared impossible. They pulled them off anyway. All behind the scenes and anonymously.

Lord Mountbatten, who followed them closely ever since the St. Nazaire raid, said it was “one of the most thrilling accounts of operations in this war.” It was a different, analog era, where hard work, experiment and risk were everything, and pulling together was a way of life. A world well worth reading about.

David Wineberg ( )
2 vote DavidWineberg | Jan 30, 2017 |
If caught this eclectic group of researchers and intelligence spies, a slow painful death was would be their last assignment. There was no book written on the best way to kill, incapacitate, or maim the maximum number of people. Every tactic listed not only had to be practical, but able to implement with minimal materials, knowledge, and time. This fast-paced book highlights people, places, and mission where this super-secret group designed weapons, planned mission, and continued striking at the Nazi regime until the last German soldier surrendered. The secrecy continued even after the war since actions taken did not fit a proper British military operation image. Supported with numerous endnotes, this book reads like a James Bond spy novel, only it really happened. Notes and sources, bibliography, and index are included. ( )
  bemislibrary | Dec 25, 2016 |
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"Six gentlemen, one goal: the destruction of Hitler's war machine. In the spring of 1939, a top-secret organization was founded in London: its purpose was to plot the destruction of Hitler's war machine through spectacular acts of sabotage. The guerrilla campaign that followed was every bit as extraordinary as the six men who directed it. One of them, Cecil Clarke, was a maverick engineer who had spent the 1930s inventing futuristic caravans. Now, his talents were put to more devious use: he built the dirty bomb used to assassinate Hitler's favorite, Reinhard Heydrich. Another, William Fairbairn, was a portly pensioner with an unusual passion: he was the world's leading expert in silent killing, hired to train the guerrillas being parachuted behind enemy lines. Led by dapper Scotsman Colin Gubbins, these men--along with three others--formed a secret inner circle that, aided by a group of formidable ladies, single-handedly changed the course Second World War: a cohort hand-picked by Winston Churchill, whom he called his Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is a gripping and vivid narrative of adventure and derring-do that is also, perhaps, the last great untold story of the Second World War"--… (more)

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