Hang On, Chaps, I’ve Just Had An Idea…
When a man reaches a certain age his thoughts turn to military history.
I’m not sure why this happens. Just as a number of my female friends are venturing into books on crystal healing and Ayurvedic forest yoga, so their husbands are reading about forgotten battles or attending the Biggin Hill Air Show. Maybe it’s an outside-London thing because I don’t know anyone in Zone 1 who indulges in these kinds of leisure activities.
Until recently the bookshop in Luton Airport had one entire wall of military history because it had so many flights taking retired couples to France. I gave the shelves barely a passing glance, but lately some books have been snagging my attention.
It began when I visited my engineer brother, a tinkering inventor who pointed out different vintage planes roaring overhead to Biggin Hill, including the only Lancaster Bomber left in the world and a fleet of Spitfires. It was impossible to watch their formation flying and not have old newsreels running in one’s head. I had watched the film ‘Spitfire’ with only vague interest, and ‘Dunkirk’ with just a little more, but the planes were redolent of a past I had not experienced.
To men of my age, the previous generation holds fascinating clues to family. My scientist father was in a protected industry and became a firewatcher. My mother was in the WAAF. Both had lost their teenage years to the war, and both felt ambivalent toward those years, loving them more than hating them. It is only natural to want to know a little about what their lives were like, and it’s only just coming into focus now.
I had read Churchill’s diaries years ago for the simple reason that he was an engaging and frequently delightful writer. They led me to a number of recent books based on previously unreleased war records, and here’s where I made two discoveries.
1. The covert units and missions set up by Churchill bore a remarkable resemblance to the Peculiar Crimes Unit stories.
2. They are not only jaw-droopingly funny but incredibly English, speaking of a certain time that is now as remote as an alien planet.
Churchill was a lateral thinker and surrounded himself with other such women and men. When he wanted to camouflage a fleet he didn’t ask the navy how to proceed but went to the artists of the Royal Academy, who pointed out that the navy was doing it all wrong. In ‘Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ by Giles Milton it becomes imperative to prevent the German fleet from reaching Britain’s coastline, but we’re short of ships, so a secret unit is formed to conduct ‘ungentlemanly’ warfare.
‘Gentlemanly’ warfare had been epitomised by ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, the extraordinary film which charted the end of chivalry in war. The new campaigns had to be cheap, effective and unexpected, so units filled up with odd types, men and women who were boffins and outsiders. Regular military leaders hated them – they didn’t believe in dirty tricks.
In the search for new weapons, one such ungentlemanly unit collared the former editor of a caravanning magazine, who contacted a caravan inventor about a chassis he had built. At his household full of children, the pair filled Woolworths mixing bowls with magnets and porridge, thus creating the prototype of the limpet mine.
They needed to invent a timer to allow frogmen to escape, and decided on something soluble to delay ignition. Taking the children’s aniseed balls and placing them in glasses of water, they realised that the sweets took exactly 35 minutes to melt. And so the German fleet was blown up with aniseed balls.
These books are filled with such bizarre stories. While my father’s unit was busy developing explosive paint and laser beams, others were building fake villages and false runway lights. One young undercover team ventures to Germany under assumed names, turning up at Waterloo Station is virtual fancy dress with identities like Professor Sandwich and Wilfred ‘Biffy’ Dunderdale.
How could wars involve such bizarre characters? Because they were the least likely minds to be hired by rigid thinkers in the army and navy, and were adept at the art of surprise. Often the only qualification needed for the job was ‘a desire to blow stuff up’. So perhaps I should qualify that interest in military history and admit that it’s more of an interest in free thinking.
All of the above books are eye-opening, highly readable, and often feel like missing Ealing comedies. NB ‘Operation Mincemeat’ was recently turned into a stage musical (!) and was a surprise hit.