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.

29 comments on “Hang On, Chaps, I’ve Just Had An Idea…”

  1. Anne Billson says:

    Operation Mincemeat is a great read. Have you read Agent Zigzag by the same author? Even more bonkers. I think they’ve been trying to develop it as a movie for some time. It’s got everything: a bunch of bungling criminals called The Jelly Gang, lower-class conmen vs upper-class English eccentrics, double agents, sympathetic Germans, complicated marital arrangements, faked bombing damage to fool the enemy…

  2. Jan says:

    Military history is ( dare I say it) quite a fashionable historical topic and has been for the last four or so years…..don’t ask me how/why just seems to be that way.

  3. Anne Billson says:

    I’ve been interested it ever since I saw The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) at the age of 14 and started reading up on the Crimean War. I love Big Battle Movies.

  4. David says:

    if it’s of interest the actual bugle that sounded the charge of the Light Brigade is on display at the Queen’s Royal Lancers Regimental Museum at Thoresby Hall, Nottinghamshire. The Imperial War Museum in London has an installation that includes a recording of it being played. I found it quite awesome to just stand and listen to it.

  5. snowy says:


    I read ‘Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ at the start of the year and it is very good. [Despite the very ho-hum cover.]

    You discover it is not going to be just another Boy’s Own Adventure from the first line:

    “The world was going mad in the spring of 1939, or that’s how it seemed to Joan Bright. A jaunty 29 year old with swept up hair and a button down dress, she had travelled to London in search of secretarial work, having just turned down a job in Germany as governess to the children of Rudolph Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer of the Third Reich.”

    [Joan is very important in the story.]

    The author doesn’t get bogged down in tiresome levels of engineering details either, just enough information to get the idea across, and then propels the story forward [like the 140 ton burrowing tank in Chapter 3].

    The story cuts between what was going on in London and the operations behind enemy lines carried out using the equipment they were making. [Should any of the accounts somehow remind you strangely of a film you once saw; lots of them were turned into screenplays in the 1960s]

    [Personal favourite – ‘The Italian Job’ or How do you steal a very big boat from a heavily guarded harbour?]

    [Giles Milton gave a 45 minute lecture based on the book in 2018, those interested in watching a recording may either click my name above or paste – GoB6cpSDN1M – into the YouTube search box.]

  6. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Well, military history has to be a hell of a lot more interesting than books on crystals and yoga of any kind, doesn’t it? (except for Geoff Dyer’s ‘Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It’ – in a class of its own!)
    I’m reading Otto Friedrich’s ‘Blood and Iron: From Bismarck to Hitler, the Von Moltke Family’s Impact on German History’ following on from the last one of his I read, ‘Before the Deluge’ (Berlin in the Twenties) so the background of the covert build up of German arms after The First World War comes into that as well as everything else, he’s particularly good on the theatre and films of the period. Excellent.
    And back to Churchill – he got a Nobel prize for literature, didn’t he? Rightly so.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I think a lot of males get an interest in military history the day they make their first Airfix kit, or open their first box of ‘OO’ (1/76) scale figures. Happened to me. And when I was a kid, there were shows on TV like ‘All Our Yesterdays’, and, most thrilling of all, the Laurence Olivier narrated epic, ‘The World At War’, which didn’t shy away from the really dark corners of the war, in which real monsters, and nightmares lurked. There were things though, that we still were kept in the dark about, like just how shoddily the Poles and Czechs, who flew in the ‘300’ Squadrons for the RAF in the Battle Of Britain, and the rest of the war, and who, let it be understood, saved our bacon at a time when we were chronically short of pilots, were treated after VJ day. Look it up, and you’ll feel as ashamed as I did.
    Likewise, you will see some of the aircraft the Germans were developing, and you’ll get a thrill of the ingenuity involved, and a chill of fear about what might have been. And it was nothing to do with flying saucers – it was clever men with slide rules. That’s where all the most terrible things in war come from.

  8. Allan Lloyd says:

    I think that I am probably at the age that Chris is talking about, but I don’t read much military fiction. However, I do see the appeal of books set in countries trying to deal with Nazi occupation and of books set in the period of the Cold War. Starting with Deighton and Le Carre, and moving on to Philip Kerr and Alan Furst, these books give a real idea of what it was like to live in a period of terrible repression and danger.

    It is a trend that fewer men are reading fiction. I have many friends who say that they don’t read “story books”, a horribly patronizing take on the world’s literature. I try to convince them that well researched piece of fiction gives much more of an idea of what living that way felt like than a sterile history of battles and losses. But to many people, fiction is “for girls”, which is sad and wrong.

  9. Eliz Amber says:

    See, this is why I was so thrilled when I got the British side of the war when I was at school there. The American effort (once we were all in) was all about production, whereas the subterfuge over the pond was sheer genius. (They placed inflatable tanks with record players playing tracks of troop movements in farmers’ fields during the preparation for D-Day to confuse the Germans. You can’t make this stuff up.)

    However, I suppose one need be a bit more inventive when the enemy is 21 miles away. (By the time we were in, the Soviets had turned, so it didn’t matter that Sarah Palin thought they were just outside her window. It’s only 13 miles across the Bering Strait, but really, no one wants to go there.)

  10. Mike says:

    I must have reached ‘that age’ when I was 16.
    Have always read about the war and military history.
    Just finished Normandy 44 by James Holland and am in the middle of The Brigade of Guards in the Crimea.
    There’s still a conviction here that the ‘Yanks’ were late into the war, I try to explain to those I meet that it wasn’t an American war, we were lucky they joined at all. We should remember the huge sacrifices the troops made.
    When I went to Duxford, there’s a walkway with 52 glass panels about 5′ square lining each side. Each panel is etched with aircraft, each aircraft represents a loss. There are 7,031 aircraft depicted. It sent a shiver up my spine when I first saw them.
    Don’t think we would have made it without their help and industries
    I also read fiction, crime and historical.
    Looking forward to the next B&M in October

  11. Mike says:

    Should read
    Don’t think we would have made it without American help and industries

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Mike – That Duxford memorial shook my normally stolid father to the core when we visited in about 1998. We stopped, halfway up the incline. Dad pointed to an image of a B-17.
    “How many crew in one of those?” he asked.
    “Nine or ten” I replied. He looked up and down the path, counting the glass panels. He stopped, and simply said:
    “Christ!”, and turned away to ‘blow his nose’. I could see the track of the tear in the sunlight, and said nothing.

  13. Ken Mann says:

    There is a war memorial near where I grew up recording the crash of a B-24 bomber into a school – death toll 61 of which 38 were children. I read military histories. I don’t think I’ve read one that glorified war. My mother’s brothers were at one point all reported MIA at the same time. All three came home.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    American help and industry. Yup, and when did Britain finish paying off the debt for that help? Less than ten years ago, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a Canadian war, either, in that sense, but we knew if we didn’t fight the Germans in Europe we’d be fighting them in Ontario and the same with Japan. (We had a man on our road who’d been in that Burma Road building horror and was still fighting nightmares in the late fifties. He committed suicide finally.)
    I didn’t want to read “war stories” in my teens but my Dad (my pacifist Dad!) insisted I wanted to read the Guns of Navarone. Well, that led to the movie and then to Tunes of Glory and then Le Carre and then…. Went through a yoga phase in the late sixties and a tai chi phase until my knee gave out. Churchill’s ministry is on hold for me.

  15. Brooke says:

    Thank you, Helen, for your second sentence. I was about to add to the notion of US help during the war–yes, and we charged Britain for it, interest too. . Whenever I see films about England during WW2, I’m humbled by the people’s courage.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    For me, the most astonishing war movie is one with no huge aerial battles, no vast amphibious assault. It’s a quiet movie told in flashback, as if to someone after the war was over, and we had won (as it was made in 1942, and the war still had three years to go, it’s a thrilling conceit), about the day the German Paratroops took over the village. I’m talking about ‘Went The Day Well?’, frighteningly serious movie made by the home of witty comedy movies, Ealing Studios. If you haven’t seen it, then I urge you to rectify that. It shows ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ as it was meant to, and that some people you have known all your life are not to be trusted, and that war can make even the nicest, gentlest person a killer, in the right circumstances. I’ve watched it many times, and it still astonishes me, and moves me deeply. It’s simply magnificent.

  17. Jan says:

    I think this relatively recent resurgence in interest in military history comes from aspects of the study being rooted in a sort of solidity an almost mathematical type of certainty to do with planning and precision. In a sense this is an illusion anyone whose ever taken part in any sort of preplanned large scale operation realises that there are thousands( perhaps tens of thousands) of little trip wires that can turn the most meticulously planned raids into a full scale clusterfuck within minutes certainly within hours. But because so much of military history seems to be quantifiable in terms of numbers of troops, tanks (or longbows!). Locations can be specified in more recent times weather can be predicted or at least recorded accurately. Theres a sort of presumption that everything can be weighed up, known for sure and of course winnners and losers are easily identified! In much the same way goodies and baddies can get to wear their labels with some form of certainty – generally having much to do with who the winners and losers were in the first place.

    In these times of revisionist history, women’s history, black history, working class history…..when what is changed is basically the perspective point from which the rolling of the dice of past times is viewed military history seems to offer a sort of stability perhaps. Or I might be completely wrong in this.

  18. Brian Evans says:

    Helen and Brooke I couldn’t agree more with your comments on the war “Loan” from the USA. They bled us white and will do it again now we are desperate due to the Brexit fiasco. That is our “Special Relationship” with the US.

    Mike-re US loan- “Don’t think we would have made it without American help and industries” interesting, as your next sentence is “I also read fiction, crime and historical” You also write it as your statement is pure fiction.

    As to modern Hollywood war films. the Americans give the impression they won the war single-handed, and go as far now to cast Brit actors playing the “Baddies”. More fool the actors. Even if as an actor my mortgage depended on being cast in one of those roles, I would tell them were they could stick their wage packet-right up their arse, or as they would say-ass.

  19. Brian Evans says:

    Ian- “Went the Day Well” is my fave film. It is a brilliant piece of cinema, and as you point out it shows how usually nice people can become killers in the right circumstances. My partner and I refer to it as the axe killer film due to the jaw-dropping scene were the postmistress hacks a German soldier to pieces with an axe with absolute relish. This is played by the wonderfully cuddly actress Muriel George which makes it even more shocking. Also, you can’t help liking a film were Thora Hird plays a land girl. It was her first film and according to her autobiog it was the only one where she spoke with a Rada accent.

    If you haven’t got the BFI Film Classic book about the film by Penelope Houston, I could highly recommend it. Beware, though, it is very badly bound and the pages fall out.

    I watched again a few weeks ago another of your faves, “Night of the Demon” and it is as good as ever.

  20. Eliz Amber says:

    In reference to Brooke’s comment, ‘Whenever I see films about England during WW2, I’m humbled by the people’s courage.’ Seconding that. The Germans would bomb a factory, and within days, they’d have it back on line. The ‘stiff upper lip’ might be a myth, but myths can be powerful when people believe them.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – Your comment about US movies being biased is correct. If they were to be believed, they won the Battle Of Britain, solved the acquisition of an ENIGMA machine, won the war in the Western Desert, yadda, yadda, yadda. History, written by both sides, proves this to be incorrect. The Americans’ huge losses on the beaches on D-Day were terrible, but could have been avoidable. The British and Canadians had suffered huge loss of life in 1942, on an attempted assault on the French port of Dieppe. Their tanks had got stuck in shingle, and were sitting targets for the German guns. So, learning from this, the British Army developed special tanks. Ones that dropped bridges. Laid canvas roadways over soft ground. Destroyed minefields. Carried flamethrowers to destroy beach defences. Drove into craters to actually become roadway. Tanks with special guns to destroy bunkers, and dozens more. We offered them to the Americans for the invasion. They laughed at these weird things, and said ‘No’. They did have some of our ‘swimming’ tanks, the ‘Duplex Drive’ Sherman, but ignored the British (who used them quite successfully) instructions, and launched them too far out. They sank. Go figure.

  22. Peter Tromans says:

    You cannot escape the fact that the Spitfire is one of the greatest pieces of art of the 20th century. And it’s probably the most outstanding fighter plane of all time as well. The Mosquito and Lancaster are awe inspiring as well. They may be killing machines, but if the Venus de Milo statue fell on you … . Apart from the aesthetic aspects of the machines, war is also in some sense a giant board game and everyone loves those. The art of war is often the art of knowing how to win a game and the art of management and Horatio Nelson was (until someone corrects me) was the first modern manager.

    Getting back to WWII, I think the British mainland was fairly secure after winning the naval part of the Battle of Norway and very secure after the Battle of Britain. US manufacturing certainly provided a lot. Great Britain was the workshop of the world, but we always were and still are much better at workshop than mass production. It took months for US manufacturers to get Merlin aero-engines into production. They had to re-make all the drawings as matching components with large tolerances was too much for American mechanical fitters – to this day ‘cut to fit’ is very British. But afterwards, the US produced a better performing engine in huge numbers.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    I have the feeling that discussion of WWII often involves a lot of gritted teeth on both sides of the Pond. Everyone likes to think that their approach to problem solving is the correct one and it makes it difficult for disparate groups to work together; hence that problem with merlin engines. We all seem to forget the Polish input into Enigma solving and Dieppe has always been paired with the phrase cannon fodder in Canadian minds, forgetting that there was a considerable number of Brits involved in that horrendous little operation. No matter how much was learned, did it have to be that bad?

  24. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I think that the total number of Canadians and British killed or wounded at Dieppe was staggering: over three thousand. To ensure that the beaches could take heavy equipment on D-Day, one of the more curious secret operations was carried out in the months prior to the invasion. Small teams of men were landed on the Normandy coast from submarines. Some of these men were civilian geologists, and they went ashore on moonless nights, and, unseen to the shore batteries, took samples of sand, mud, and shingle, and took core samples, and took them back to the submarines in their rubber boats, to be analysed in laboratories back home, to get an idea of the state of the beaches. They were often working for an hour or so in the shallows, and almost up to the high tide line, if it could be safely reached – and the Germans never knew they were there.

  25. eggsy says:

    Back to the books: is it not that, in the current fashion/stereotypy of “men not reading fiction” that these “untold history” books take over the shelves that were formerly devoted to highly detailed espionage/action thrillers? The readership is getting much the same, but now as re-told facts rather than fiction?
    Bit vague on this but I seem to remember the revealing of the real identity of “The Man Who Never Was” (Glyndwr Michael) as being at the front of this changeover.
    Of course, that’s another excellent non-action war film.

    The fascination the Second World War still has on people is indicated by the volume of comments here. At first, it seems a straightforward narrative, the baddies are unquestionably bad and the stakes are about as high as possible, but closer study shows great complexity and the dreadful compromises the “western” allies made to ensure victory: it is the founding mythos of our modern world, returned to again and again, and rather overshadowing other major events in our collective consciousness.

  26. Peter Tromans says:

    Ian – there’s an interesting aside to the examination of the beach sand. There was a great need for someone who had studied the capacity of sand to support a a wheel rolling over it. Of course, the British had one in Malcolm Campbell. Land speed record breaking is not a waste of time. More information in JD Bernal: The Sage of Science (an otherwise not very exciting biography).

  27. Helen Martin says:

    Part of the problem with many military operations is that the “reason why” can’t be released at the time. They weren’t about to explain Dieppe or those peculiar sand gathering men on the beach if they had been caught.
    An interesting note is that since women have entered the front line positions and gays have also been allowed (don’t get me started) the military is becoming considerably more open to public criticism. Operational rationale is still not going to be explained but the hidden viciousness is surfacing and being thrown out as inhuman and unnecessary. It will take another generation but there is a limit to what a person should have to endure from their “mates” and/or officers.

  28. Wayne Mook says:

    To be honest I’ve always been more interested in the 1st World War, and the navel battles of WW2, as a kid I loved the film, ‘Sink the Bismark.’

    Having said that The World at War is an amazing series, been watching it again on Yesterday.


  29. Helen Martin says:

    Do those navel battles take place in the bath, Wayne? (Sorry.)

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