In Churchill’s Shadow Raiders, author Damien Lewis chronicles events around a daring raid – Operation Biting – which seized the top-secret German technology and changed the course of the WWII.Today, radar plays an integral role in our civilization. In 1941, however, mystery and secrecy surrounded this then cutting-edge technology.
In the winter of that year, British pilots photographed an unusual object on the cliffs of Normandy. Scientists concluded that if the parabolic dish in the photo indicated the AXIS possessed a new, sophisticated radar, it could mean victory for Hitler.
Something had to be done.
Lewis, who had spent a decade as a war correspondent for the BBC and other news organizations, drew upon his experiences and the people he met, to produce a series of firsthand accounts of people in war zones. This also inspired him to write novels. For this book, the challenge was different.
The raid, the second, and the first successful, airborne raid of WWII, never had been widely publicized. Many of the people involved had passed on. Lewis had to dig deep into historical records and hunt down remaining eyewitness survivors to document this pivotal moment in world history.
In college I was a history major specializing in modern Europe. So, I am no stranger to books about WWII, but I was not prepared for Lewis’ style. He combines the deep, enchanting storytelling of the novelist, with detailed scientific touches of your favorite professor.
Within one series of paragraphs, for instance, we learn about both Churchill’s parental problems with his daughter and England’s dependency on photographic intelligence. He weaves disparate elements into an entertaining and enlightening tale.
Neither is Lewis afraid of waxing poetic in his descriptions, such as, “Malta – a hunk of sun-blasted rock surrounded by azure seas.” His description of one of the key players in the saga, deserves a reading:
Tag Pritchard was square-faced, with prominent eyebrows and a solid, level gaze. There was a no-nonsense look about him. An Army heavyweight boxing champion, those who had tried to go twelve rounds in the ring with him had learned to their cost that he didn’t take prisoners. In uniform, he was known as a quiet, somewhat gruff leader; a man of few words, but when he spoke others tended to listen
Of course, he is British, so as you glide through his prose, you may need to stop and look up Britishisms such as Boffins, apposite, recce [ rek-ee ], “the Speck” and “some sneaky-beaky outfit”. I found the book such a fun read, I forgive him for all of these.
Rather than immediately jumping into the details of the raid on the radar, Lewis explains the origins and creation of the commandos.
To understand this approach to modern combat, he explores the psyches of both Winston Churchill and the man Churchill chose to create England’s new breed of soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clarke.
Both Churchill and Clarke had experienced the exploits of the Boer Commandos during the Boer War in South Africa. This influenced their thinking about what they needed to fight behind German lines. Lewis says that Clarke sought to go a step further with his commandos than those he observed in his youth.
Clarke said, “We looked for the dash of the Elizabethan pirate, the Chicago gangster, and the Frontier tribesman.”
The thinking by these two extraordinary military minds led to the creation of the Special Air Service or SAS. Lewis then goes on to relate the first major operation taken on by these soldiers whom Churchill authorized to conduct “ungentlemanly warfare.”
Within the covers of Churchill’s Shadow Raiders, previously published in England under the title SAS Shadow Raiders, you will meet not only the soldiers of England’s commandos. Lewis also tells us about scientists, German battleship commanders, Luftwaffe pilots, French generals, political influences on military decisions and spies.
You will come away with an understanding of how a war impacts an entire society, and how a society unites to survive.
Following the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book Lewis included a gallery of photos from the period. You might want to check these out first, to help you get a visual feel for the story.