Earlier this month, best-selling author Giles Milton took the podium at the National Churchill Library and Center in Washington, D.C., for a lecture about a widely researched and discussed figure in history, Winston Churchill. Milton’s latest book, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat, focuses on the weapons and tactics of guerrilla warfare used against Hitler during World War II.
Milton emphasized in his talk that by 1940, politicians and military experts in Britain still spoke of observing rules of war and playing a fair hand in attacks against the enemy. Churchill and his team understood quite well that the British Army was not equipped to defeat the “mechanized army of the Nazis.” Instrumental on the team was Colin Gubbins, a military officer who carefully researched guerrilla warfare attacks by groups like the Irish Republican Army and Chicago gangsters. Gubbins observed that these groups were successful because “they struck very suddenly, they arrived in a wave of fire, and then they slunk away before anyone could catch them.”
Initially, Gubbins worked for a secret office called Military Intelligence Research, which then became the Special Operations Executive or SOE. Under Churchill’s time as Prime Minister, Eric “Bill” Sykes and William Fairbairn joined SOE and trained the new would-be saboteurs. Their training camp in Scotland served as a model for the camp in Canada established by the American William Donovan, who ran the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. Canada is an interesting location for an American camp, but Milton reminded the audience, “America was not in the war. It was forbidden by the neutrality act from being directly involved in the war in any way.”
Weapons were developed at a requisitioned property known as The Firs, which was the base of the newly created Ministry of Defense or MD1. “It was if you like [Churchill’s] private sabotage and weapons unit,” Milton characterized it. “He loved to visit the Firs and MD1 and fire off some of the extraordinary inventions that were being made there.”
Another military officer, Millis Jefferis was selected to oversee MD1. Both Jefferis and Gubbins were forward-thinking about the workplace. They “believed that women should play an equal role to men in warfare,” said Milton, showing a photo of a large group of women working at the complex.
Jefferis and another inventor, Cecil Clark, impressed Churchill with their new weapons. Jefferis created the so-called “Sticky Bomb” that could blow up tanks. Clark also had experience with explosives and made a small Limpet mine capable of blowing up battleships. Other new devices included anti-submarine weapons (“the hedgehog”) and an anti-tank gun. The latter was an amazing development because “for the very first time of warfare, it made an infantryman the equal of a tank. You could knock out a tank pretty easily with one of these things,” Milton explained.
Many weapons were used in SOE missions across Europe during WWII. SOE operatives blew up ships, power stations, factories, transportation lines, and other structures in Nazi-occupied territories. Their contribution to the success of the Allies cannot be overstated, particularly in France. “I’ve looked in some detail at the activities of the French saboteurs in the hours just before D-Day happened. Remarkable. They’d all of course, been armed with weapons dropped by SOE from London by parachute,” said Milton.
Putting the book together was quite an undertaking by Milton. The U.K. government has many documents from WWII that have not yet been released. Milton had to rely on Churchill archive papers in the U.K. at other institutions. He also painstakingly tracked down surviving relatives of SOE and MD1 figures to see their family archives. He recalled a telephone conversation with Cecil Clark’s daughter-in-law, who was 92 years old at the time. “Well, I’ve got an entire spare bedroom full of Cecil Clark’s papers,” the woman stated. “I think you should come down as quickly as possible.”
After you pick up and read a copy of Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, be on the lookout for new material coming soon from Giles Milton. He’s working on a new book about D-Day that is likely to be as thrilling and insightful as his other books.