Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. By Giles Milton. New York: Picador, 2017. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 306. $28.00 ISBN: 978-1-250-11902-5
Giles Milton writes an accessible and lighthearted history of what became the World War II British Special Operations Executive (though always referred to by a number of benign-sounding aliases), with a distinctly anti-establishment point of view. The key player in its independence (and, according to Milton, its success) is Winston Churchill. Fascinated with unconventional schemes, activities, and weapons, Churchill provides "top cover" to an unlikely group of inventors, assassins, spies, and saboteurs.
Not surprisingly, the British military establishment had little use for this group. Milton recounts various bureaucratic squabbles as the establishment attempted to reign in the non-traditional upstarts. Much of this is described as typical organizational behavior; although some senior officers, especially early in the war, had significant questions over the morality of the SOE's aims and methods.
Two of the more surprising antagonists were Air Chief Marshals Sir Charles Portal and Sir Arthur Harris. Both were vigorous proponents of strategic bombing; and both saw the SOE--especially its call on RAF resources to supply unconventional forces--as a diversion from their more important missions. While many readers know of the daring flights into occupied Europe using the Westland Lysander, larger resistance and sabotage efforts did require large aircraft; and the bomber commanders complained long and loud to the Prime Minister about the "amateurs" diverting critical resources.
The book highlights four missions and a recurring Resistance campaign. SOE planned, trained, and supplied the assassination of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia. In Greece, SOE-led partisans destroyed railroad viaducts, cutting off supplies to Field Marshal Rommel's Afrika Korps. The destruction of the Norsk Hydro plant, where German heavy-water production was conducted, may be...