(A reappraisal of the achievements of Colin Gubbins at SOE)
Primary Books Reviewed:
Foreign Fields, by Peter Wilkinson
Setting Europe Ablaze, by Douglas Dodds-Parker
Gubbins & SOE, by Peter Wilkinson and Joan Astley
Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, by A. D. B. Linderman
SOE’s Mastermind, by Brian Lett
Secondary Books Used:
SOE in France, by M. R. D. Foot
The Secret History of SOE, by William Mackenzie
Secret War, by Nigel West
Special Operations Executive: a new instrument of war, edited by Mark Seaman
Most Secret War, by R. V. Jones
Undercover: The Men and Women of the SOE, by Patrick Howarth
Baker Street Irregular, by Bickham Sweet-Escott
Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks
Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson
A Life in Secrets, by Sarah Helm
Setting the Med Ablaze, by Peter Dixon
Churchill & Secret Service, by David Stafford
Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, by David Stafford
All the King’s Men, by Robert Marshall
When I was an analyst at the Gartner Group in the 1990s, I frequently hosted visits by software companies, both established and embryonic, who were eager to explain their story and gain our attention. For a while, a group of vendors of object-oriented database management systems, all of whom were completely deluded about the market opportunity that awaited them, were regular supplicants. For some reason the boards of these emergent and struggling companies believed that what they needed to turn their fortunes around was seasoned management with experience in technology, and some of them would seek out IBM executives to come in and run the show for them. Apart from introducing a severe culture clash, such persons had, I discovered, little insight into the challenges they faced.
I recall very clearly one such individual, then the recently-appointed CEO, who introduced himself at the meeting by giving a little potted résumé of his career. Hoping to make an impression that he was a regular guy and a good-timer, he explained that IBM had sent him to Japan to set up a systems integration business there, and he described his achievements in the following terms: “I don’t think we got much done, but we had a lot of fun.” I interpreted that to mean that he and his colleagues must have spent a lot of time drinking in Tokyo bars. His bosses back home no doubt ascribed his lack of success to circumstances beyond his control.
I thought of that Big-Bluer when I was reading Peter Wilkinson’s memoir of his days with SOE, Foreign Fields. In one sense there is no comparison. SOE officers frequently demonstrated great bravery in conditions of extreme hardship, and many lost their lives in the cause. Yet I also gained the idea that some of the projects that were undertaken – and Wilkinson’s in particular – were ill-conceived from the start, with no clear objectives, and a haphazard approach to planning them. Meanwhile, wherever Wilkinson landed up, at some embassy or outstation, there always seemed to be an ample supply of liquor and wine available, since including crates of the stuff in the various shipments that went in seemed to be a high priority in keeping up morale, even if the locals were starving.
For example, Wilkinson informs us that, on August 25, 1939 (before SOE was created, of course) he left for Warsaw as a member of the MI(R) component of No.4 Military Mission, under Colin Gubbins. What happened next was that the mission underwent a tortuous journey via Marseille to Alexandria in Egypt, where they managed to gain a flight to Bucharest in Rumania, and eventually crossed over the Polish border. All was mayhem, they couldn’t answer the Poles’ questions about British commitments in the coming war, and then, after some hair-raising adventures, had to beat a hasty retreat as the Russians advanced. They managed to reach Bucharest again, where they took their solace in traipsing round the bars, getting sozzled, and enjoyed the company of some amusing girls. Never does Wilkinson explain whether the mission accomplished anything, although he does note that the War Office was not very impressed with his report on the affair.
Later on in the war, Wilkinson was appointed head of Operation Clowder, the objective of which was to gain an entry into southern Austria by engaging the help of Communist guerrillas in Croatia and Slovenia. This was another ill-advised mission, actually encouraged by the Communist spy in SOE Cairo, James Klugmann, who claimed that the Slovene partisans had links with the Austrian Freedom Front in Carinthia and Styria. Of course, Wilkinson did not know of Klugmann’s loyalties. The Operation turned out to be a disaster: the weather was dreadful; the Austrian prisoners-of-war that SOE recruited were unreliable; the Slovene partisans had territorial war-goals at odds with what the British planned; the Germans became very active, and British agents were very conspicuous; radio communications were difficult; there was a shortage of aircraft and crews to support the mission; delivering arms was hazardous as many of the local population were scared of reprisals; the spirit of resistance did not exist in Austria as it did, say, in France; etc. etc. Moreover, since the Allies took so long to break through the Axis defences in Italy while the Red Army drove on, the confidence of the partisans in Allied competence fell rapidly.
The outcome was that Wilkinson’s close friend Major Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard, who stubbornly insisted on staying on for reasons of honour and ‘saving face’ (and should have been overruled) lost his life – probably killed by the partisans he thought he was helping. Hesketh-Prichard was a brilliant mathematician, a first-class wireless technician, and a brave but sometimes reckless officer. Little has been written about him in the SOE histories: one has to resort to such books as R.V. Jones’s Most Secret War, and Patrick Howarth’s Undercover: The Men and Women of the SOE, to learn more about his accomplishments. Wilkinson tells here how he secured Hesketh-Prichard’s employment as an instructor at one of SOE’s schools in Scotland, and then put him in charge of the Czech Section ‘which at that time consisted of one elderly officer’. He and Wilkinson were responsible for training the assassins of Heydrich, and Wilkinson describes the tests they carried out on percussion grenades at Aston House, near Stevenage, in preparation for the attack in Prague. Wilkinson presents the operation as a success without referring to its grisly aftermath of reprisals. The pair are for some reason not mentioned in Callum McDonald’s The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich or Captain Moravec’s Master of Spies. (The full account of their contribution can be found in HS 4/29 at Kew.) The loss of Hesketh-Prichard was a blot on SOE’s escutcheon.
Elsewhere, Wilkinson does not offer a very positive picture of SOE management. For example, he informs his readers that he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and ‘in addition to the Polish and Czech sections, I was given the Germans and Austrian section to supervise’, adding that ‘I found this embarrassing for I knew very little about Germany and nothing whatever about Austria which I had only once visited as a tourist’. Nor was he temperamentally suited to the job: “By the summer of 1942 I was feeling stale, frustrated, and fed up with Central Europe”. His boss, Colin Gubbins, who normally receives hagiographic treatment, was perhaps not the deep thinker for which he is often presented. “Colin Gubbins gave a good but somewhat superficial lecture on the principles of guerrilla warfare . . .” When Wilkinson returned to London in the spring of 1944, he noted that Gubbins (who had taken over control of SOE from Hambro the previous September) had tried to turn what was essentially a civilian institution into a military one, and Wilkinson did not find the culture changes ‘congenial’. Perhaps that was more a criticism of his own facility for boredom at a desk-job. Yes, surely it was difficult to find the right people – one thinks of the hapless Buckmaster, of whose appointment Gubbins said ‘there was no one else’ – but that constraint should have provoked some careful leadership and guidance, conditioned what exploits were attempted, and how they were executed.
Yet Wilkinson was deputized in that spring of 1944 to work with the Poles in a distinctly shabby affair, where he was pushed by Gubbins to pretend that British forces would soon be undertaking a full-scale invasion of Poland. But no one was prepared to tell the Polish Home Army the truth. Lynne Olson describes Gubbins as not being manful enough to acknowledge the facts, letting his romantic attachment to the Polish cause affect his judgment.
Wilkinson was an odd fish. One of his startling comments, apparently declared without irony is: “Rather in the same spirit of desperation, on my last visit to Naples, I had agreed to get married”, and his wife (Theresa Villiers) had to put up with quite a handful. He admitted that he was ‘the rottenest fiancé imaginable’. He writes engagingly, but loosely. His chronology is imprecise, and he is partial to the meaningless phrase ‘for the foreseeable future’. In an unindexed reference to ‘Jedburghs’ (p 128) he claims credit for coming up with the idea of teams of three inserted behind enemy lines to co-ordinate resistance work, a fact partially confirmed by Will Irwin, who, in his history The Jedburghs (2005), also gives credit to Robin Brook. Other sources indicate that it was a shared SOE/OSS notion, and that Wilkinson was responsible for coming up with the name, with Gubbins’ suggestion of’ ‘Jumpers’ being replaced.
He must have been an agreeable companion (‘someone to go tiger-shooting with’, as they used to say in the old Daily Telegraph obituaries). He makes one or two outlandish comments that he contradicts in his biography of Gubbins. All in all, he was a typical product of the inter-war public school (in his case, Rugby) – intrepid, amusing, entrepreneurial, carefree, reckless, an independent spirit, along the lines of the Fleming brothers and Fitzroy Maclean. Whether SOE should have been in the hands of such fellows is another testing question – but then so is that of whether ‘Setting Europe Ablaze’ was what most citizens of occupied Europe wanted during the long years when they were under the Nazi yoke.
Douglas Dodds-Parker was a few years older than Wilkinson, and had been educated at Winchester. For a while he followed in the footsteps of Wilkinson, who displays a certain smugness in describing his dealings with the older officer. Maybe Wilkinson had some regrets at not being sent to Winchester. He had been a pupil at Scaitliffe, considered a preparatory institution for Eton and Winchester, and its headmaster, Ronald Vickers, expressed disappointment when Wilkinson’s mother ‘on the advice of her Edinburgh physician who considered Winchester unhealthy, decided to send me to Rugby instead.’ Thus, after voicing his delight at being promoted to acting major at the age of twenty-five, Wilkinson boasts how he spent ‘three most agreeable months of the war’ in Paris, since, ‘on my major’s pay, I could live extravagantly well in Paris while keeping on my rooms in Clarges Street for my visits to London’. Dodds-Parker replaced him as GSO3 in MI(R), but Wilkinson soon sent him urgent instructions to move to the Middle East to set up a supply base in Egypt. Some time later (the dates are annoyingly vague), Wilkinson was promising Dodds-Parker, who had spent time working with Abyssinian guerrillas, that he would arrange for him to be sent back to London. I found the continual competitive race for medals and promotions between such persons rather unseemly.
In his own memoir, Setting Europe Ablaze, Dodds-Parker turns out to be a more reflective and mature judge of the military situation, and of SOE in particular. He records Wilkinson’s introduction to him, how they discussed matters at Wilkinson’s club, and the rather brusque orders that Wilkinson gave him. Yet he gives the impression that in May 1941 it was Gubbins who summoned Peter Fleming from Greece, Wilkinson from Crete, and himself from Ethiopia, with Dodds-Parker chartered with the difficult task of organizing SOE’s air and sea transport into and out of enemy-occupied Western Europe. Thereafter, Dodds-Parker, for the remainder of the war, served under another Wykehamist, Colonel Dick Barry. Thus, while Wilkinson was struggling in his role trying to direct the Central European sections, Dodds-Parker had a chance to observe multiple aspects of SOE operations at close quarters, and engage in very sensitive negotiations with the RAF, before he was posted in late 1942 to Operations Officer for the ‘Massingham’ SOE unit in Algeria.
While recollections in tranquility, from 1983, might appear wiser than contemporaneous opinions, Dodds-Parker presents some insightful conclusions from his time at Baker Street in 1941 and 1942. He admitted how the opportunities for sabotage and subversion were soon realized as being more useful than the creation of ‘secret armies’. He explained how Communists who had engaged in the Spanish Civil War contributed considerably to the SOE handbook on guerrilla warfare. He pointed out the precariousness of the position of Gubbins, being considered too political by the military professionals, and too amateurish by the diplomats. He made the shrewd observation that the communist groups with whom SOE had been co-operating became much more aggressive in their plans for post-war political control after the Soviets expelled the Germans from Stalingrad in October 1942, and even claimed that his Polish contacts had convinced him at this time of Stalin’s imperialist ambitions for Eastern Europe after the war.
Dodds-Parker’s regard for Gubbins was exuberant: ‘a born leader of men – and women’; ‘his energy, physical and mental, was boundless’; ‘an inspiring leader, as brave as Wingate, and endowed with the additional ability to maintain an atmosphere of friendly respect and loyalty with his subordinates and superiors’; ‘among the many Allied leaders I had been privileged to observe, I came to regard him in his way, for imagination, courage and energy, as being in the highest class.’ Gubbins loyally supported him in all he did, and promoted him to full Colonel at the young age of 35. They both had strong affiliations for and links with the Poles, which may have affected their priorities with SOE. (Gubbins drew many of his conclusions about planning for guerrilla warfare in Europe from the pre-war preparations of the Poles, but they were not representative of other countries in Europe under German occupation.) Dodd-Parker’s summary of SOE’s track record in the war thus comes across as rather excessive, with the notable success of the arming of French resistance in 1944 masking the disasters in the Netherlands and France in 1943.
The precise role that Dodds-Parker played as Operations Officer for ‘Massingham’ is indistinct. As he wrote, he had ‘wide but undefined duties’, Massingham being chartered with establishing ‘a base for later operations northwards, into France and Corsica and possibly into Italy, whose secret police, the OVRA, were the most effective of any in Europe’. I am not sure what the NKVD – or even the Gestapo – would have thought of that assessment, but it pointed to the challenges that Dodds-Parker faced as the Allied armies made their crablike approach to Italy. He was appointed number 2 to the American Colonel Eddy of OSS, but the terms of reference that Gubbins read out to him on that occasion are not explained. Dodds-Parker turned out to be an excellent negotiator, however, which was a useful experience for his career as a Conservative politician after the war.
His final assessment of Gubbins, when SOE was dismantled after the war, and its chief ‘retired’ with no job offer, since his military career had effectively been suspended in Norway in 1940, was ambiguous, and maybe ill-judged: “Gubbins held a unique personal position, respected in private by many political and military leaders as secondary only to Churchill and Eden in helpful understanding of their difficulties. This did not endear him to some of his military colleagues, nor did politicians and diplomats always welcome his, and thus my lesser, interventions in political decisions and diplomatic exchanges.” Elevating to such a podium the vain and ineffectual Eden, whose continuous emphasis on ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union exasperated many military men, was a strange stance to take. (In fact, as Wilkinson wrote in his Introduction to his and Ashley’s biography of Gubbins – see below – Gubbins took a dislike to Eden because of his condescending manner and antipathy to SOE.) Moreover, why were such regards held ‘in private’, and how did Dodds-Parker learn about them if they were not public? Such judgments cry out for more detail, to help explain the peculiar insights that Gubbins was able to impart, but that is not Dodds-Parker’s forte.
I have three biographical books on Gubbins on one of my tables (the shelves in my library having been filled long ago.) In chronological order they are Gubbins & SOE by Peter Wilkinson and Joan Astley (1993), an American volume, Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (2016) by A. D. B. Linderman, and SOE’s Mastermind by Brian Lett (2016). Unfortunately none of them performs a thorough job of analyzing Gubbins’ career and achievements, all authors being too much in awe of their subject.
Peter Wilkinson was joined by Joan Bright Astley in putting the biography together. She was a woman with whom I was not familiar, but I have learned that she was a personal assistant to Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s staff adviser, and also arranged something called the Secret Information Centre, which was apparently a necessary repository of intelligence for senior officers. She was another Gubbins enthusiast (like Ismay), and rather romantically was recorded as saying: “He had just enough of the buccaneer in him to make lesser men underrate his gifts of leadership, courage and integrity . . . He was a man-at-arms, a campaigner, the fires banked up inside him as glowing as those round which his Celtic ancestors had gathered between forays from glen and brae.” Utter tosh, of course.
In the Acknowledgements, the authors explain disarmingly, and somewhat alarmingly, that their book ‘has no academic pretensions’, and any claims to scholarship are instantly undermined when they write, after paying homage to Michael Foot and David Stafford: “Special thanks are also owed to Christopher Woods, until recently the Foreign Office Adviser on SOE. At the time of writing the authors had no access to SOE’s secret papers; and it was only thanks to Mr Woods’ tireless research that it proved possible to recreate events which happened half a century ago.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. We all know now what those tireless endeavours by Foreign Office advisers tended to come up with.
Thus an eminently readable, but obviously sanitized, account of Gubbins’s career has been put together. You will find no entry for ‘Dericourt’ or ‘Suttill’ in the Index (although the ‘PROSPER’ circuit receives two brief mentions), since discussions of those two individuals would inevitably detract from the positive aura the authors wish to promote. Inevitably, the events of 1942 and 1943 are represented in much of a muddle, with erroneous dates, and dubious claims made. Gubbins is presented, at the time Mockler-Ferryman (‘still relatively inexperienced in clandestine techniques’) was introduced to set up ‘a new directorate responsible for operations in Western Europe, and for liaison with COSSAC’, as not having confidence in the professionalism of some of the individual country officers.
The fact that many circuits were believed to have been penetrated by the Germans, required, according to the authors, ‘Gubbins’ personal attention and decision’. But what the Chief of SOE Operations did about it is not stated: the record suggests he either did nothing, or was complicit in woeful mismanagement. Leo Marks recounted how Gubbins, on learning about the dire problems in the Netherlands, promised an investigation, but then stalled, and demanded that Marks say nothing to other country section heads, with the result that the Prosper disaster followed. Marks was horrified, and believed that Gubbins engaged in the cover-up since he was terrified of Dansey and MI6 learning about the security breaches and German penetration.
Moreover, the record is shockingly erratic. I pointed out earlier that Wilkinson contradicted himself across his writings. Here, he writes: “It was no secret in Baker Street that the British planners had tacitly accepted as long ago as October, 1942, that there was no prospect of undertaking a major cross-Channel invasion in 1943. Consequently SOE’s French sections were counting on at least twelve months in which to lay their plans.” Yet in his personal memoir, which appeared just four years later, he wrote: “In the autumn of 1942, our plans were based on the assumption that an invasion of the Continent would take place in the summer of 1943 and would trigger a wave of spontaneous insurgency in occupied Europe.” That is presumably what is meant by ‘lack of academic pretensions’. At this stage, the careful reader might opt to give up on the work as a serious study, and classify it as an item of Foreign Office propaganda.
Since these examples are typical of the lack of scholarship applied, it is difficult to know which are the true assessments of the authors, and what is the spin imparted by the SOE Adviser. Several muddled judgments are made, in a background of erratic chronology, and the passive voice is used too frequently. Critical paragraphs (such as on the SOE mission to Moscow) are presented with questionable logic, but without any sources given. Thus the appointment of Captain Richard Truskowski to the 1941 SOE mission is explained as reflecting Gubbins’ hope that the Soviets would allow RAF flights to Poland to refuel on Soviet territory before returning, but why Gubbins’ opinions in this matter were dominant, or in what way anyone felt the reactionary Truskowski might help the cause by his presence in Moscow, is left unexamined. It is all very unsatisfactory.
Yet what is noteworthy is that a more sceptical undercurrent, expressing some doubts about SOE’s overall mission, and Gubbins’ ability to execute it, can be detected in the text. Thus we learn that: Gubbins’ decision to move to SOE was surprising because he had little confidence in sabotage and subversion (p 76); his arrival (as a regular soldier) was regarded with disdain by the country heads (p 78); Dalton’s belief that Occupied Europe was ‘smouldering with resistance’ was false, as most people wanted to be left in peace (p 79); Gubbins aggressively promoted the use of patriot armies at a time that was premature (p 100); Gubbins was ignorant of the problems with agents in the Netherlands in early 1942, and even expressed his satisfaction with affairs (p 105); Gubbins’ sense that his organization in France was unprepared for invasion in 1942 led him to approve several ill-considered operations (p 109); the assassination of Darlan was severely mismanaged, and Gubbins had to spend too much time on the clean-up (p 118); Gubbins deemed German penetration of his networks in 1943 ‘ an acceptable risk’, but such situations required his personal involvement and decisions (without any declaration of what they were) (p 123); Gubbins found the guerrilla adventures in the Balkans more interesting than the clandestine activities in North-west Europe for which he was directly responsible, with the implicit neglect of the latter (p 133); when challenged over the Netherlands fiasco, Gubbins did not become directly involved, but sent Sporborg to sort it out (p 154); Gubbins was lax in communicating the decisions of the Chiefs of Staff to his country heads (p 203); and Gubbins spent a disproportionate amount of time on Polish and Czech affairs (p 226).
Whichever way you look at it, this was not a stellar performance.
If a reader expected at the close of the book a balanced assessment of Gubbins’ overall contribution, however, he or she would be disappointed. The authors describe how, when SOE was disbanded and handed over to MI6, Gubbins prepared a paper that tabulated SOE’s string of successes – not just in sabotage, but also in political operations, which was a dubious claim to make – and outlined a completely unrealistic set of proposals for maintaining a dormant SOE organization ‘ready to spring into action on the outbreak of the third world war’, an event that Gubbins clearly expected. Predictably enough, the new Labour government, and a more cool-headed Sir Alexander Cadogan, quickly dampened any such plans, and Gubbins was forced to retire. What final assessment of Gubbins’ contribution that was prepared had to wait for his eulogy in 1976, when Wilkinson addressed the gathering at St. Martin-in-the-Fields as follows:
. . . Of the decisive importance of Colin Gubbins’ personal contribution to the allied victory, there can be no question. His name is honoured officially in many lands. For in the dark hours it was his duty to fan the spark and keep alive the flame of freedom. It was his exertions that gave hope to thousands of patriots in occupied countries all over the world. These men and women are unlikely to forget him.
This was arguably a suitably positive encomium at his death, but surely over-the-top. Almost all those ‘patriots’ seeking freedom could never have known his name, and not all had undivided admiration for what SOE had done. A more balanced accounting was certainly called for.
A. D. B. Linderman’s Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive is not that book. Based on his doctoral thesis at Texas A & M University, and published in 2016, Linderman’s work provides a useful integration of the history of guerrilla activity in the twentieth century, but greatly overstates Gubbins’ contribution to its theory and practice, and fails to address the multiple contradictions and paradoxes in his prosecution of subversive activities. The thesis was originally titled ‘Reclaiming the ungentlemanly arts: the global origins of SOE and OSS’, but either the author or his editors must have concluded that a tighter focus on Gubbins, and the personalization of the story, were more appropriate.
And, indeed, the credits do redound heavily on Gubbins. I was not encouraged when, after reading Linderman’s list of academics who had given him expert advice (are drafts of doctoral theses really passed around to members of other universities before being reviewed by the candidate’s committee?), I read that ‘this work relies heavily on the pioneering research of M. R. D. Foot and the impressive work of Peter Wilkinson and Joan Bright Astley’. This was a surprising admission, given the very exhaustive primary and secondary sources that the author lists in his Bibliography. His overall thesis is that Gubbins deployed his considerable experience in Russia (during the Revolution), in India, and in Ireland to develop a solid blueprint for how guerrilla warfare should be undertaken.
One might ask how relevant these experiences were. Foot wrote that Gubbins’ service ‘on the losing side’ in the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21, as well as his few months’ time in Russia in 1919 caused him to be ‘impressed by the weakness of formed bodies of troops faced by a hostile population that was stiffened by a few resolute gunmen, and determined to exploit these impressions against the next enemy’. But leading an alien and probably weakly motivated expeditionary force to support the Whites against fierce Communist forces in a civil war in the expanses of northern Russia can hardly be compared with being part of a brigade trying to maintain order in a tight colonial territory, and being attacked by civilians, as was the case in County Kildare. Moreover, when it set its mind to it, the Wehrmacht, as ‘formed bodies of troops’ was occasionally able to wreak horrible destruction on a hostile population stiffened by many resolute gunmen in central France in 1944.
Yet SOE rarely engaged in managing guerrilla warfare – or when it did, it executed it disastrously, as in the ploy to encourage uprisings in France in 1943. The main role for SOE was sabotage, an activity in which Gubbins was clearly not so interested as he was in the possibility of patriot armies supporting regular troops, which phenomenon did not become realizable until the Normandy assaults in June 1944. Moreover, other sources indicate that much of the guerrilla army playbook was derived from practitioners with experience in the Spanish Civil War, where Gubbins was not a witness. Linderman highlights Gubbins’ creation, in response to a call by J.C. F. Holland of MI(R) in May of 1939, of two short pamphlets titled ‘The Art of Guerrilla Warfare’ and the ‘Partisan Leader’s Handbook’. Linderman makes the elevated claim that these two brief items are ‘the essential links in the intellectual history of SOE’s doctrine’.
Yet he goes on to write:
For unknown reasons, Gubbins’ works are general guides and not country-specific; as a result, they are some of the broadest doctrinal statements of the war, focused not on a particular aspect or location but irregular warfare writ large.
This is, to me, a fairly withering criticism. I recall Wilkinson’s statement that Gubbins’ lectures were ‘superficial’. And the failure to create country-specific policies for sabotage and guerrilla action was probably the biggest failing of SOE, since the characteristics of each territory under the Nazis (area, terrain, distance from the UK, accommodation with the Nazis, strength of communist groups, temperament of the populace, stance of government-in-exile, etc. etc.) demanded a highly-tailored approach. The struggles with defining such would have made a far more provocative and interesting thesis, since the country heads resisted interference from their superiors, but were not necessarily adept in forging the appropriate policies. Those ‘unknown reasons’ would have been a suitable case for treatment.
In his 1965 memoir, Baker Street Irregular, Bickham Sweet-Escott (who held a variety of jobs with SOE) pointed directly at this dilemma. “Colin Gubbins’s appointment to us was primarily to take over liaison with the secret armies which the Poles and Czechs had been preparing . . .”, he wrote, indicating that SOE’s long-term objective had to be ‘to assist or create in western Europe – in France, Belgium, Holland and Norway, and if possible elsewhere – organizations similar to the secret armies which we believed [my italics] to exist in Poland and Czechoslovakia’. So maybe these secret armies did not exist, and Poland and Czechoslovakia were out of reach by the allotted aircraft, anyway. Thus, like the drunkard looking for his keys under the lamppost, SOE switched attention to France and the Low Countries, because they were accessible, and convinced themselves of the policy that, given that the allied forces would not be returning to the continent soon, such secret armies could in the meantime ‘be used to sabotage the war effort and thereby to improve the morale of the local population’. But this was in early 1941 – over three years to hold out until D-Day.
(Incidentally, Sweet-Escott also held Gubbins’ leadership in high regard, writing:
. . . he was man of immense energy and vitality with a quick wit, and an imagination and grasp of principle are in a professional soldier. He enjoyed life to the full; he never forgot a face or a name, and he had a gift for inspiring confidence in those working under him. He was in fact a born leader of men.
That suggest that he also came under Gubbins’ spell, and was perhaps willing to overlook his boss’s failings. Ironically, Sweet-Escott discovered that his estimation of Gubbins had been stolen from his manuscript, word for word, by Hugh Dalton in his memoir The Fateful Years.)
Thus, in his quest to apotheosize, Linderman bypasses some of the more controversial aspects of Gubbins’ leadership. He skips over the events of France in 1943 completely: no mention of PROSPER and Dericourt appears in his work. Nor does he explore Gubbins’ extraordinary wooing of the NKVD, and the PICKAXE projects, where SOE helped land Communist agents in Allied countries. The objectives of these persons were to foment Communist takeovers after the war, an activity that would have shocked the relevant governments-in-exile. Fortunately the outcomes of these exploits were normally disastrous, but the operation displayed extraordinarily bad judgment by Gubbins, who was notoriously opposed to Communism, and (as I showed earlier), was earnestly preparing for World War III when SOE was disbanded.
Some quotations support the idea that Gubbins had not developed a subtle enough perspective on how subversive elements should be managed. From his SOE Handbook:
In every community will be found certain individuals so debased that for greed or gain they will sell even their own countrymen. Against this contingency close watch must be set, and wherever proof is obtained of such perfidy, the traitor must be killed without hesitation or delay. By such justifiably ruthless actions others who might be tempted to follow suit will be finally deterred.
And Linderman adds: “To further heighten such deterrence, Gubbins advised that the local population should be convinced that the enemy would soon be expelled, at which time support for the resistance would be rewarded, but collaboration with the occupiers ‘ruthlessly punished’.” It was easy for him to impose such lofty – or heartless – conditions on a subdued populace, but the local inhabitants had to deal with the threats of reprisals and torture, and the promises that ‘the enemy would soon be expelled’ turned out to be a tragic deception in France in 1943.
Gubbins had to amend his ideas, certainly over the topic of reprisals, which became an awkward reminder of Nazi terror. He had to revise his 1939 opinion that ‘guerilla warfare was something that a regular army has most to dread’. Linderman cites W. J. M. Mackenzie’s view that ‘General Gubbins’s recollection is that this [the question of reprisals] was deliberately omitted, as a point passed by in silence’. But it was then that he countered the paradox that bedevilled the supply to secret armies: if he recognized the dangers of reprisals and premature activity (as Linderman states) how could SOE keep up morale, and how exposed would its supply of arms become? Linderman refers to this historical tension, but does not crisply dispense with it.
Gubbins became SOE chief in September 1943, after political battles had caused Hambro’s resignation. The discovery of the disasters in France, and the clandestine use of SOE resources in deception through the TWIST Committee, may have forced the issue, although Gubbins managed to avoid most of the blame. In July 1943, Stewart Menzies had attempted to undermine SOE by sending a memo to the War Cabinet that claimed that SOE had no proper control of its affairs in France. As Robert Marshall wrote, in All The King’s Men:
On 1 August, a Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee pronounced that on the basis of Memo CX108 and despite Gubbins’ protestations, they were forced to the view that SOE had been less than frank in their reports about the situation in France. Moreover, because the JIC had been obliged to learn the truth from MI6, they felt doubly disappointed with SOE, who had a responsibility to keep them and the Chiefs of Staff informed.
Hambro took the rap, and Gubbins, probably because of his close relationship with Hastings Ismay, survived. SOE then came under greater military control, a symbiosis that Gubbins had endorsed all along. In Linderman’s words: “This left Gubbins, a man who had argued since his GS(R) days that irregular forces need to be closely coordinated with regular operations, the most senior SOE officer.” In Setting the Med Ablaze, Peter Dixon reinforces this opinion, stating that Gubbins’ early experiences with the Brandon mission in North Africa in early 1943 had convinced him that ‘irregular forces must be integrated into the regular chain of command’. But then why did Gubbins then increase the shipments of arms to French ‘irregulars’ so irresponsibly for the remainder of 1943? And when Gubbins replaced Hambro, he concluded that efforts had to be more closely co-ordinated with governments-in-exile, and shifted his attention to creating more of a paramilitary organization, but it was too late by then. It was all a rather reactive strategy. After all, relations with the Belgian government-in-exile had been so acrimonious that they were broken off in 1942.
The title of the last book on Gubbins that I review here, SOE’s Mastermind, does not suggest that it is going to act as any corrective. And, indeed, the book is another flattering account, promoted as ‘an authorized biography of Major General Sir Colin Gubbins, KCMG, DSO, MC’, intimating that the Gubbins family was involved. Major Gordon Lett, the father of the author, Brian Lett, served in SOE, and the younger Lett approached Gubbins’ grandson, Michael, with the concern that he might be competing over a new biography. The result was that Michael happily abandoned his own plans, and co-operated with ‘an experienced author’. SOE’s Mastermind thus presents a lot of fresh information about Gubbin’s personal life, but has little new to say about his career in SOE.
The book is divided into two parts. The first section describes, in twelve chapters, Gubbins’ life and experiences before he joined SOE. As Lett puts it: “The author has endeavoured in Part 1 of this book to detail the qualities and experiences that equipped him so well for the role. Part 2 sets out to give the reader some idea of the organization that Gubbins commanded, and the contribution that he made to its success.” Lett presents some fascinating accounts of Gubbins’ military career, especially as it related to dealing with guerrilla warfare. It is pertinent that his three main exposures were on the counter-insurgency side, in Russia in 1918, against the Bolsheviks, in Ireland in 1920-1921, against the IRA, and in India, from 1923 to 1930, against the Indian Congress Party. His lessons for guerrillas were all developed from the side of suppressing them.
Each period in Gubbins’ military career is thus presented however as a positive influence, and ideas are attributed to him even though the evidence of his contribution as a ‘mastermind’ is scanty, with some lip-service made to the fact that not all these ideas were appropriate. You could not support guerrilla armies where there was no place for them to hide, for instance (such as in the Netherlands). Lett echoes the point made by others that Gubbins was not sensitive enough to the danger of reprisals when he set out how secret armies should behave under occupation.
Lett also adds some useful anecdotes about Gubbins’ personality and character in his pre-WWII years. In India, he joined the Freemasons (a membership he tried to play down in conversations with M. R. D. Foot). He also developed some important relationships, one of which is overlooked by Lett. (I insert it here for the historical record.) Gubbins acted as best man at the wedding of his friend John Tiltman, the future famous cryptologist at the Government Code and Cypher School, in Simla on April 7, 1927. Brian Lett describes the two years that Gubbins spent at Simla decrypting Soviet signals, but does not refer to the close friendship he had with the very significant Tiltman. (As I noted this fact, I recalled that Bernard Montgomery had acted as best man at the wedding of St. John Philby, in Rawalpindi in September 1910. There must be other similar connections to follow up, I am sure.)
The second Part of the book constitutes mostly a series of descriptions of the most famous of SOE’s exploits, interspersed with too much of what Gubbins himself said about them, such as his delivery of a lecture to the Cambridge University Officers Training Corps in October 1962, where he oversimplified the process of building up ‘secret armies’. There is little crucial exploration of the precise contribution that Gubbins made to the success of the major projects that Lett describes at some length, such as Operation Anthropoid (the plot to kill Heydrich) and Operation Gunnerside (the plan to destroy the Germans’ heavy-water supply in Norway). These exploits have been well-described elsewhere, and Lett’s analysis brings nothing new to the table. He even presents the burden of the horrors of the reprisals that took place in Czechoslovakia as somehow enhancing Gubbins’ status, since he was strong enough to be able to ‘stand back and appreciate the whole picture’. That could be said to be an opinion that stepped just over the borderline of good taste. Lett repeats this sentiment when he concludes his analysis of the twenty-six civilian losses in Norway resulting from the sinking of the ferry carrying the heavy water.
In this scenario, there are no real failures, and, like Linderman, Lett completely ignores the Nordpol fiasco in the Netherlands, and the betrayal of the Prosper network in France. (This is a recurring oversight: the compilation edited by Mark Seaman, Special Operations Executive: a new instrument of war, published in 2006, completely ignores the operations in France, and Gubbins receives little attention overall.) SOE is represented as playing a crucial part in the victory in Italy (where Lett’s father is featured strongly as part of Mission Blundell Violet), while the more problematic episodes involving Peter Wilkinson and Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard with the partisans in Croatia and Slovenia (as described above) receive no treatment at all. The book winds down abruptly without any summarization or assessment of what justifies Gubbins’ sobriquet of ‘mastermind’, or a serious evaluation of how SOE had contributed to the Allies’ victory, the author transferring quickly into the subject’s retirement years. It all consists of a very shallow and disappointing work.
Lynne Olson has described how Gubbins in 1949 gave evidence to a commission that was investigating the Nordpol disaster, and how he dishonestly claimed that SOE in London bore no responsibility for the Abwehr’s ability to round up agents and send controlled messages back to England to encourage further personnel to be despatched. Even M. R. D. Foot admits the incompetence, the truth of which was reinforced by such as Leo Marks. Other witnesses, such as William Stephenson (to Anthony Cave-Brown), and Sporborg (to Robert Marshall) attest that Gubbins believed that his networks had been betrayed by Dansey. Yet that was a disingenuous claim by the SOE chief: all evidence suggests that Gubbins must have been aware of the whole Déricourt fiasco, and went along with the plan. The fact that he was out of the country (in Algeria) for some of the critical time in early 1943 is no excuse.
The inevitable conclusion from reading these books could be that SOE had an impossible role, and that Gubbins was under enormous political pressure to deliver. Some critics, such as John Keegan and Douglas Porch, have underlined its several disasters. Others have claimed that, for the expense and loss of life, SOE was a much more profitable undertaking than was Harris’s Bomber Command, with its deluge of raids on Germany that so frequently missed their targets, while consuming so much energy, fuel, and lives. Gubbins’ role in the execution of SOE’s mission demands a very careful analysis that has not yet been engaged upon, so far as I can judge. The thorough documentation of those daring raids needs to be complemented by critical accounts of the less reputable exploits that ended in failure.
Gubbins was probably more complex than his biographers have described him. Like many military men, he concealed his emotions. He was crushed by the death of his son in Italy in 1944, and it brought home to him how every death in war represents an almost unbearable local tragedy. Yet he could be quite ruthless: he once said, when asked about the possibly unnecessary deaths of SOE officers in Europe that they had known when they signed up what the risks were. In A Life in Secrets, Sarah Helm quotes his statement about probable losses in France:
Strategically France is by far the most important country in the Western Theatre of War. I think therefore that SOE should regard this theatre as one in which the suffering of heavy casualties is inevitable. But it will yield the highest possible dividends. I would therefore increase to the maximum . . . SOE aid to the French field from now on and maintain it until D-Day.
The possibility of arrest and execution was one thing, however: the conscious betrayal by the placement of a traitor and the dissemination of false promises about an imminent invasion, which must be held at Gubbins’ door, were a completely different phenomenon. That he commanded great loyalty is true, but he could be harsh and demeaning to those who challenged him, as Leo Marks testified in Between Silk and Cyanide. The Free French politician Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie dubbed Gubbins ‘the mysterious manipulator of the initials SOE’. Patrick Howarth thought that, in a world dominated by rank, Gubbins (like Selborne and Hambro) lacked the deviousness required to achieve political goals. That straight-shooting lack of deviousness may have contributed to his blindness over the hazards of treachery and double-dealing.
M. R. D. Foot offered a flowery and unsubstantiated appraisal of Gubbins in SOE in France:
His influence soon percolated all round the SOE pyramid, affecting colleagues, staff subordinates, and agents alike. Through the months of worst disaster, through the fog of battle, through all the complexities of a large, confused, impromptu organization, he pursued steadily the course that he and Holland had dreamed of long ago in Dublin, and had worked out months before the war. He combined a Scottish highlander’s insight [eh?] with a regular officer’s tenacity, a keen brain, and much diplomatic and intelligent experience, and before SOE was two years old an incomparably well placed observer described him as a linchpin.
The reputation of SOE and Gubbins was also bolstered by General Eisenhower, who in his memoirs issued a generous appraisal of SOE’s contribution to winning the war that has been frequently quoted by the SOE champions. Yet one has to consider the overall track-record, not just the guerrilla activity that SOE arranged after the Normandy landings. SOE worried the Norwegians, upset the Belgians, betrayed the Dutch, sacrificed the French, mortified the Czechs, misled the Poles, was abused by the Soviets, and fooled by the Germans. SOE in Baker Street lost control of Yugoslavia to Cairo: Nigel West writes that far more Yugoslavs were killed with SOE weaponry than German or Italian troops. Thousands of innocent lives were overall lost. Was the human sacrifice worth the few spectacular sabotage successes?
Gubbins’ career at SOE should better be analyzed as a case-study in leadership and management. For his direct and second-level reports, he had to recruit overall trustworthy figures who were all novices at the game, while some even lacked the motivation. The selection of Buckmaster was a case in point: mustard keen, but incompetent, and hopelessly out of his depth. In that environment, according to Situational Leadership principles, careful close-handling and coaching was necessary to guide the country section leaders in strategy and operations. There is no evidence that Gubbins gave them that advice and direction: he let the ‘chaps’ get on with it, sometimes with disastrous results. He frequently delegated (e.g. to Sporborg, over the Netherlands) when he should have become directly involved. Even Wilkinson describes the events of November 1943 as ‘a major crisis which might have been thought to demand Gubbins’ instant return’.
Much more attention was paid to the training of the agents themselves, what with all the detailed classroom studies on good tradecraft, and the physical tests in the highlands of Scotland, such as at Arisaig. That is where the important lessons of security and isolation, and discipline and mental and physical toughness, were instilled. Agents should have been well-prepared for the ardours of the field, but, again, many mistakes in selection and deployment were made, such as the approval of the unsuitable Noor Inayat Khan as a wireless operator, the unauthorized contacts among cells, and the calamitous failure to acknowledge security checks in agents’ messages.
But were the lessons themselves reasonable? Gubbins’ ideas were perhaps a bit too inflexible, and sometimes out of touch, while those that were important were frequently neglected. In his pamphlet, he had insisted that traitors be executed immediately, but when Mathilde Carré (la Chatte) was arrested and then became the mistress of Abwehr Officer Bleicher, Pierre de Vomécourt, instead of killing her, tried to manipulate her as a ‘triple agent’ [erroneous term], with disastrous consequences. Gubbins had surely not anticipated that his first traitor would be a woman. Gubbins had also preached that no paper records should be carried by agents, and contacts’ names and addresses committed to memory, but that was either too much of a hurdle for many operatives, or else they merely got careless. Wireless operators stayed on-line for far too long, thus exposing themselves to radio detection-finding: the pressure of communicating volumes was too great. The insertion of agents into hostile territory, where identity and ration cards were essential for surviving was very different from the subsistence of communist partisans in their homeland, as Gubbins had witnessed in Russia.
Thus the elevation of Gubbins’ frequently half-baked ideas and occasionally disastrous supervision of events to a level of innovative heroism, no matter how inspiring a leader of men he was, represents a missed opportunity in the writing of history and biography. Gubbins was brave, inspiring, imaginative and energetic. Yet he was also two-dimensional, ruthless, evasive and sometimes irresponsible – a military man out of his depth in the complexities of subversion and dissimulation. This piece is a study of the existing literature, and does not claim to be an original analysis of all the material. A fresh approach would undoubtedly be highly desirable. I am not looking for a hatchet-job, like Richard Aldington’s biography of T. E. Lawrence, or even the ‘harsh, aggressive and uncompromising’ terms (the author’s words) of Andrew Roberts’ Eminent Churchillians. Maybe more along the lines of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s recent study of Winston Churchill, Churchill’s Shadow, something uncluttered by Foreign Office advisers, or self-appointed champions of SOE. Our war heroes are allowed to have flaws, and to have made serious mistakes.
(This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)