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  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.

9 comments on “The Men And Women From The Ministry”

  1. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I have also just finished reading the book, and enjoyed it – so definitely not just for MAM.
    I see that Joan Bright wrote a biography of Gubbins, albeit with help from a man 😉 and another book about the events she witnessed – added to my reading queue.

  2. Brooke says:

    ” After the war, it became the CIA.” Now DARPA, complete with website, social media presence, and a 3B (USD) budget. .

  3. Ian Luck says:

    I wonder if Mr Gubbins lived long enough to see his name make it’s way into general speech as a term for bits and pieces, the name of which, one is uncertain, eg.: “On opening the box, I found a new brass tap, and in a little bag, all the gubbins to fit it.’
    I love words for odds and sods, but my favourite was invented by George Lucas (yes, THAT George Lucas), as a term for all the tiny model kit parts used to give detail and texture to special effects models. The word he used was ‘Greeblies’. It has since become a film industry standard term, and as real model effects seem to be being used in movies again, it’s back in use.

  4. Ian Mason says:

    In a similar vein, may I also recommend Leo Marks’ “Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s Story 1941-1945” about his work with the SOE teaching codes and ciphers to the agents who had to use them in the field, including to Violette Szabo of “Carve Her Name with Pride” fame. Marks is also notable for writing the screenplay for Michael Powell’s film “Peeping Tom”.

  5. Jan says:

    In the little square next to Marylebone station( East toward Baker street) on the W side of this square theres another house which was used as a base for SOE personnel during WW2. Think the Montgolfier bros did a balloon ride to this square and it was also the site of first Lord’s cricket ground I think. Not at home to check facts – off line at home am pretending to drink coffee at Costas have pinched somebody’s dirty cup to sit behind. Been here ages.

    I could never get over that poem by Violet Szabo, you know the one with “and yours, and yours and yours” To my admittedly not much educated mind that was one of the best things I ever read. How did someone with a mind and imagination like that go out and do what she did? Its not like she didn’t have the imagination not o anticipate what was coming her way. I might have said that wrong but you know what I mean. How did someone like that do what she did? Hats off to her.

  6. snowy says:

    I lieu of the usual long unfocused comment, here it is reduced to one line.

    The man who organised the Peugeot operation went on to appear in a film, playing a character based on himself, and you can watch it if you click here.

    [For those that can’t open links, the code string to find it on YouTube is “dlZ15_KoKQc”: no region restrictions.]

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, thank you for sending me on a quick search for information on MS Szabo. That poem was written by Leo Marks for Violette to use as a base for code building. I agree that it is a wonderful poem. I now know that there was a child Tania who lived (lives?) in Wales where her house burned down, leaving her in need of housing. She put her Mother’s George Cross and Croix de Guerre up for auction, rather reluctantly, she said, but since she had no children she hoped it would be available for people to see. It was bought for the Imperial War Museum where it is apparently viewable.
    I got the Ungentlemanly war book and a book of stories of the “children of WWII”

  8. Jan says:

    H I had convinced me self that the lady wrote the poem herself! In fact I could swear I can hear a voice off the telly telling me that. Perhaps more worryingly its just a voice in my head…..

    Tis good though isn’t it?

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Yes it is, and one of the places where it was talked about gave you the instructions for the code. You couldn’t use it now, though because it would be a first test in order to break it.

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