- - Tuesday, January 19, 2016



By Damien Lewis

Quercus, $24.99, 402 pages

The British commando operation was so audacious that it could be rightly termed harebrained. With an assault team aboard, a sailing vessel disguised as a Swedish pleasure boat, the Maid Honour, traveled some 3,000 miles from England to the minuscule island of Fernando Po, a Spanish colonial territory off the west coast of Africa.

The island’s Santa Isabel Harbor was suspected of being a clandestine German U-boat refueling and rearming station. Three enemy vessels seemed permanently berthed there, one flying the German swastika. An 8,000-ton Italian passenger liner, the Duchessa d’Aosta, was believed to carry spare parts for submarines. Also present was a German tugboat, “the perfect kind of vessel for going to a crippled U-boat’s aid” and towing it to shelter.

Although Spain was formally neutral, its Franco government was neo-Fascist and a secretive supporter of the Axis powers. Any military action traceable to the British could cause Spain to shed its neutrality and seize the vital Allied base of Gibraltar. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his war Cabinet decided that eliminating a submarine danger warranted the risk of riling Spain.

Thus ensued one of the more complex secret operations of the war, British guile at its best: The blackmailing of the town’s mayor through photographs of him cavorting with a prostitute-girlfriend. A boozy party on shore to lure German officers off their ships. An influx of well-muscled civil servants from adjacent British territories who overwhelmed German and Italian crew members. A bribe that darkened dockside lights. All of which added up to — well, the piratical theft of the German flotilla, which was ushered out of the harbor.

Perhaps best of all: The British claimed that mutinous crew members fled on the ships, and “just happened” to encounter a Royal Navy destroyer, which took them into custody. The Germans and Italians howled, but neither they nor the Spaniards could find a single British handprint on the operation.

Such is just one of the operations detailed by English military writer Damien Lewis in his sprightly account of selected capers of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The story began in 1940, as battered remnants of the British army fled Dunkirk. Realizing that his forces were incapable of battlefield combat with the Germans without rebuilding, Churchill sent an order to his military chiefs-of-staff: “Prepare hunter troops for a butcher-and-bolt reign of terror.” The operating agency, SOE, was a branch of the Secret Intelligence Service.

But this name was never mentioned. SOE was disguised as the innocuous-sounding “Inter-Service Research Bureau,” housed in nondescript quarters on Baker Street in London, referred to by insiders as “The Firm,” “The Org,” or “The Racket.”

SOE units enjoyed an unprecedented freedom of action that, in effect, suspended the rules of warfare. Its units had carte blanche to kill. What they did was decided on the spot, by officers, without consultation with superiors. Their acts were fully deniable by the British government. One ruse in Santa Isabel was scattering distinctive Free French naval caps in the waters from which the German ships had been stolen. As Lewis writes, “As the Free French were in effect stateless persons fighting to retake their homeland, what reprisals could the Spanish possibly take against them?”

Mr. Lewis’ account focuses on a dashing Danish-born soldier, Anders Lassen, whose units preyed on German installations on the fringes of continental Europe. One particularly dangerous raid targeted Kastelli Airbase, a German installation on Crete. Lassen and a Greek resistance fighter posed as goat herdsmen to scout the defensive perimeter and find a means to infiltrate the base. Team members crept onto the field in the dark hours and planted bombs on planes and hangers; a photo in the book shows the resultant wreckage.

In preparing for the invasion of Greece, the raiders focused on outlying garrisons, waging a “war of nerves.” Under this plan “every garrison was to suffer the terror of a night raid complete with sabotage and kidnapping.” The intent was to shatter German nerves, causing “desertion and mass surrender.”

Hints of such activities leaked to the British Parliament, to the dismay of parliamentarian Simon Wingfield-Digby, “who apparently thought that war in the twentieth century could still be a gentlemanly affair.” He sought to upbraid Churchill.

“Is it true, Mr. Prime Minister,” he demanded, “that there is a body of men out in the Aegean Islands, fighting under the Union flag, that are nothing short of being a band of murderous, renegade cutthroats?”

Churchill, rarely at a loss for words, stared the fellow down, then rejoined, “If you do not take your seat and keep quiet, I will send you out to join them.”

In the grand scheme of war, perhaps, SOE was an irritating sideshow, one that kept the Germans on guard and strained their resources in defending isolated outposts. But in a time of the national peril faced by the country, Mr. Lewis’ conclusion seems valid: “Few countries in Europe have ever been won with such a light force overcoming such mighty odds.”

A valuable addition to World War II history, and a harbinger of the sort of war that the United States and other countries are learning to wage in the 21st century.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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