Review by Leon J. Waszak
Damien Lewis, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops, Quercus, 2015, 402 pages, $24.99. ISBN 978–1623659172
Leon J. Waszak teaches at Cerritos College and is author of Agreement in Principle: The Wartime Partnership of Wladyslaw Sikorski and Winston Churchill (1996).
Winston Churchill’s embrace of irregular warfare in the Second World War is the focus of this fast-paced adventure drama animated by a carefully selected but motley team of secret warriors who could easily find themselves in one of Alistair MacLean’s novels: think The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare. The difference here is that this version is anything but fiction.
We learn, for instance, of a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants team leader named Anders Lassen, who organized havoc behind enemy lines, breaking all the rules of engagement, and seemingly in possession of a “license to kill.” Daring seaborne raids, sabotage, assassinations, blackmail, bribing, bank robbery, and subterfuge are part of the repertoire of activities designed to break the progress of enemy operations in remote regions of the Mediterranean and Aegean. What is all the more remarkable is that this extensive damage to the enemy and their collaborators is the work of a core element consisting of no more than six cunning individuals (although sometimes taking on others when the need arose). Some of the team spoke fluent German and donned German uniforms to get into enemy strongholds, nimbly moving about on a commandeered yacht throughout the region (referred to, somewhat erroneously by the author, as a Q-Ship).
Churchill himself gave the operatives carte blanche to do whatever was necessary to achieve their ends, while retaining his own right to deny “absolutely all knowledge and culpability.” Team members signed an agreement prior to their mission that they would be disavowed by the British government in the event of death or capture. Here we have the origin of what we now describe as “black ops.” Much of this is now coming to light as a result of the release of the last of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) files declassified by the British National Archives in the late 1990s. What is becoming evident is that these shadow warriors contributed substantially to the final victory over the Nazis.
Author Damien Lewis seems the perfect fit to relate these exploits, himself a writer of over a dozen books both of non-fiction and thrillers. His style reveals a flair for story-telling, and fleshes out his subjects in the manner of a great novelist. But, Lewis draws his material mostly from books and academic papers, so one must assume that his research was not from original documents. There is no real evidence that he spent time in any primary archives, but he did interview some surviving members of the operations. Lewis’s reputation as a best-selling author has earned him some lucrative rewards—some of his books have been turned into films. Lewis does include an extensive appendix section showing the citations earned by Lassen as he rose from an obscure second lieutenant to a major within a couple of years, which proves useful to tracking his otherwise clandestine career.
Hitler’s reactions to Lassen and his team of operatives, acknowledging the effectiveness of their disruptive tactics, ultimately represent the best measure of their success. The Führer vowed to expose them to unspeakable torture before hanging them using piano wire to make their deaths “slow and degrading.” Sadly, indeed, very few of the Lassen team survived the war. Churchill, in a quotation cited by the author, sums up their legacy: “There comes out of the sea from time to time a hand of steel, which plucks the German sentries from their posts with growing efficiency.
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