The Men And Women From The Ministry
Further to a recent post about middle-aged men becoming obsessed with military books, I finally finished Giles Milton’s ‘Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ with, it must be said, a tear in my eye.
This is partly because I connected with the subject matter via my parents, but also because of the bravura storytelling that brought to life a story about which I knew nothing. To this day I don’t know quite what my father did in his experimental unit, although I know part of it was involved with explosives.
It would be a shame if Milton’s book was only read by the aforesaid MAM, because it also tells the story of the brave women who kept the secrets of the nondescript building in Baker Street full of unsung heroes. This is the unit HQ as it appears today.
The Special Operations Executive, a unit permanently broke and working insane hours, picked not just the brightest and best but the oddest. It was hated by most of the old school military, who felt that saboteurs and disrupters had no place in a ‘civilised war’. They blithely ignored the fact that bombing raids hit less than 10% of their targets and very often killed civilians, while the saboteurs rehearsed and planned in order to conduct clean strikes, hurting few, crippling supplies and conducting raids that allowed them to appear and vanish without harm.
To be chucked out of a plane in pitch darkness into a Norwegian mountain pine forest in below-zero temperatures with no idea of where you are going or how to get there must have been terrifying. Often the adventures play out like clips of classic movies.
But it’s also the story of Joan Bright, 29 years old and amazed to find herself surrounded by chaps blowing up their gardens with experimental bombs. After years of keeping track of Â these free-thinking lunatics she dated Ian Fleming and is most likely the original Miss Moneypenny.
The secret unit was eventually copied in America with more resources and a lot more money. After the war it became the CIA. In England, the original unit was simply disbanded and everyone packed off to civilian jobs, never able to discuss what had passed between them.
Giles Milton’s book is not just for boffins – it’s a highly atmospheric study of a government prepared to harness the abilities of people who simply thought differently. In a time when the young are obsessed with the idea of having super-powers (which are instant, unearned fantasy-abilities) it’s fascinating to see how open-minded leaders could set up training schools for abnormal thinkers and give them purpose.
They were engineers (and in one case a caravan-maker) who became bombers and assassins, who ironically developed ideas for winning a war with far lower risk to civilians. In one extraordinary story, they persuaded the maker of Peugeot cars to blow up his own factory rather than jeopardise his workers’ lives from allied bombers.
Now that the documents are no longer redacted there are several other books telling this story, including one identically titled (although now retitled) by Damien Lewis, which is rather pulpier. Milton’s has a dryness of wit which makes it more delightful and at times feels like an Ealing comedy.