My interest in the less-well-known aspects of World War II (or at least less known to me) has been rekindled lately. I leafed through a few texts before settling on Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat. (Though I am enjoying it courtesy of my local library, not Amazon!)
Section D: D, for Destruction.
It was known as Winston Churchill’s Toyshop. (One of the chief designers could have been the role-model for Q from the James Bond series.) It seems to have been fluid in 1940. Some of it remained in the War Department, some became part of the Special Operations Executive. (SOE was how I started down this rabbit hole, with the story of Virginia Hall.) Officially, it came to be known as Military Intelligence (Research) or MI(R).
One of their operatives returned from Poland with the stolen Enigma machine that was provided by Polish Intelligence. They built bombs, mines and other “toys.” They produced manuals – written by engineers – detailing how to place charges to best destroy bridges, and viaducts, how to derail trains and in general how to raise hell.
And they sent teams of operatives into France to wreck power stations, derail supply trains, etc. Fairbairn and Sykes developed their famous knife and taught martial arts techniques – which had been picked up in the Far East – to the first commandos. The British Senior Officers were horrified. When a senior officer sat in on a training session, he threw a tantrum.
‘This is monstrous,’ [Major-General Sir Edward Spears] bawled. ‘Don’t pay attention to this dreadful teaching. Remember, we are British. We do not stoop to thug-element tactics. We do not stab in the back. We fight as men. We do not slash. Now this must cease.’
Winston Churchill, in that same session, pulled Teddy Spears out into the hall, and told the room at large, “Good work.”
The folks in the section were characters, which was to be expected. They were preparing for unconventional war, and they were themselves unconventional. And when they had problems in their personal lives, based on the long hours of work, they had unique ways of solving those problems.
[Millis] Jeffris’s approach to marital discord was the same as his approach to the Nazis: it was to be confronted with every heavy weapon available. When Ruth [Jeffris] and Mary [Macrae] complained about never receiving any flowers, Jeffris launched a floral blitzkrieg. He and [Stuart] Macrae drove to a flower shop in Hendon Central and bought the ladies a bouquet they would never forget. ‘We want to buy the contents of the shop, please,’ said Jeffris to the astonished florist as he pulled out his chequebook, ‘and will you have them delivered to this address.’ At first the lady thought he was joking – it was wartime after all – but Jeffris was most insistent. ‘When we got home that night, we had great difficulty getting into the little house,’ said Macrae. ‘There were flowers everywhere, including a palm tree in the lavatory, which made it impossible to sit down.’ Jeffris’s solution seemed to work, for both Ruth and Mary were completely silenced. ‘Flowers,’ said Macrae, ‘were never mentioned again.’
One of the more fascinating (and saddening) aspects of the whole effort was how, even as Germany was rolling across France, and as Britain prepared to be invaded, the bureaucratic infighting, the red tape (some of which was created specifically for Section D and SOE) and the other insanity prevailed. (“The Bureaucratic Mentality is the ONLY constant in the universe.” Dr. McCoy – Star Trek: The Voyage Home.) Even as war efforts were started to take the war to French soil, RAF officers refused to have their planes fly saboteurs in civilian wardrobe into France. It was “ungentlemanly” and should not be sanctioned. The supply division refused to authorize the production of various devices, like the sticky-bomb for attacking tanks, because they “broke the rules.” (Or because of turf-wars.) Churchill authorized the production of 1 million sticky-bombs, mostly for the home-guard. It’s as if the establishment couldn’t see this giant, German war machine sitting across the Chanel, getting ready to invade. This was after Dunkirk, and still it seems like the British officer corps was preparing to fight Napoleon, not an invasion in the style of the blitzkrieg.
I have to admit that I’m only about ½ way through the book, but I’m enjoying it immensely. It reminds me what history can be, when it’s done right. Compelling narratives, about interesting people doing important work, sometimes under ghastly conditions, and often the people are still able to find humor in life.