In the hours and days following the invasion of Normandy, allied soldiers sacrificed their lives on the northern shore of France for one goal: to establish a beachhead. The time had come to fight Adolph Hitler’s army and push it eastward toward the German border, but to do that they first needed to gain a solid foothold on the continent. While many are familiar with the heroism of the soldiers who stormed the beaches, few know about a much smaller group of men and women behind enemy lines who helped to ensure their success.
In preparation for D-Day, a highly secretive British department known as Baker Street worked to drop 250 saboteurs behind enemy lines with one purpose: to stop the German army from sending supplies and reinforcements to Normandy. These guerillas were tasked with a massive coordinated sabotage mission to frustrate and block Hitler’s war machine in any and all ways possible. Especially important was stopping Germany’s most lethal division, the 2nd SS Panzer Division, Das Reich.
One saboteur destroyed all of Das Reich’s tank transporters by replacing the axle oil with axle grease mixed with an abrasive, forcing the division to travel by road and damaging six out of every 10 tanks. A separate team then barraged Das Reich with sabotage after sabotage, including felling trees in their path and planting bombs beneath them. In the end, what should have been a 72-hour journey took Hitler’s crack tank division 17 days—enough time for the allies to establish their beachhead.
Baker Street is the focus of Giles Milton’s latest book, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat, which follows the department from its inauspicious beginnings in a small office in Caxton Street to its hundreds of successful sabotage missions around the world, culminating in the allied landing in Normandy.
Milton follows the story of the man Colin Gubbins, who saw the coming war with Germany and envisioned a different way to fight the enemy based on his experience in the military fighting Michael Collins and Sinn Fein. Gubbins was the mastermind who brought sabotage and guerilla warfare to the fight with the Nazis ahead of the Normandy invasion. Gubbins’ unconventional war required unconventional weaponry as well as training. This is where the genius of a unique group of men came into play.
Weapons development was headed up by a man named Millis Jefferis, a brilliant mathematician who would scribble out equations for missile trajectories on the backs of cigarette boxes. Together with a team of inventors, Jefferis established a massive research operation at a countryside manor in Buckinghamshire called the Firs, only seven miles from Bletchley Park.
There, they developed, tested, and produced millions of innovative bombs, detonators, and missiles that were used around the world by saboteurs and traditional armies alike. The team at the Firs made numerous groundbreaking discoveries during the war (often tailored to specific missions Gubbins’ men were undertaking), including magnetic mines, a bomb detonator made to go off when a plane reached a certain atmospheric pressure, and a revolutionary anti-U-boat mortar that exploded upon impact.
To serve on one of Gubbins’ missions, each man had to pass training programs at two separate schools. To be able to sabotage Hitler’s war machine, each man had to know how to use the weaponry that was being prepared for him. This was the purpose of Brickendonbury Manor, code name Station 17, a top secret industrial sabotage training school.
Here, recruits were instructed on how to set bombs, use mortars, and sabotage just about any piece of machinery or infrastructure, including locating its weakest point and placing a bomb for maximum destruction. Before the famous heavy water sabotage at the Norsk Hydro plant in Norway, a complete replica of the heavy waters room was constructed on the grounds of Brickendonbury so the men could practice their attack in the dark, in anticipation of their night-time assault on the facility.
Kill or be Killed
The other training school, located at a Victorian lodge called Arisaig in the Scottish wilderness, served a much bloodier purpose. At Arisaig, two experts in “silent killing,” Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, both of whom had volunteered to teach a special skill set they had acquired in the Far East, taught men to survive and to kill. Writes Milton:
New recruits were toughened up with a grueling regime of physical training: endurance runs over empty moorland, hiking with heavy packs and lessons in the martial arts. The men were told how to induce a heart attack, snap the coccyx and strangle a sentry. It was not for the faint-hearted. Fairbairn would teach each new recruit ‘a dozen edge-of-the-hand blows that break a wrist, an arm or a man’s neck; twists that wrench and tear; holds that choke and strangle; throws that break a leg or a back; kicks that crush ribs, shins and feet bones.’ He bragged that he could kill a man with a folded newspaper, and his finger-jab to the eye had blinded many a Shanghai gangster.
The endurance training and hand-to-hand combat skills were crucial to surviving any mission. Sykes once told a friend that he wanted no recognition or honors for his work training guerillas during the war. All he wanted was to keep Gubbins’ saboteurs alive. This he did, by preparing them for every eventuality and teaching them that they would have to kill or be killed.
Ruthless, Relentless, Remorseless
Gubbins and the rest of Baker Street were fortunate to have the unswerving support of Winston Churchill. He saw early on the value of having a team of highly trained saboteur assassins at his disposal. But there were many in the military establishment who did not approve of Gubbins’ methods.
According to Milton, there was an ongoing debate in the late 1930s about what constituted gentlemanly warfare. This argument was held in the pages of The Times as well as in the House of Commons, where most members preferred fair play. One MP, Robert Bower, disagreed, calling out his colleagues for preferring to lose a war “than do anything unbecoming to an absolutely perfect gentleman.” He went on to say, “We must have a government which will be ruthless, relentless, remorseless. In short, we want a few more cads in this government.” He could have been describing Gubbins’ future Baker Street fellows to the tee.
However, Bower was in the minority. Most of his colleagues were strongly opposed to sabotage and guerilla warfare. They thought these methods distinctly ungentlemanly, and when the war came they tried to stymie Gubbins at every turn. He had constant problems with the Ministry of Supply until Churchill himself stepped in. When the Ordinance Board caught wind of a new anti-tank grenade developed by Jefferis, they said that it “broke all the rules of the game and just could not be permitted.”
Churchill ordered them to manufacture a million of them.
More Efficient, More Humane
Gubbins and his men weren’t just motivated by a love for havoc and mayhem. They strongly believed that, until allied forces could make headway on the continent, guerilla warfare was a necessary component in the fight against Hitler. Gubbins himself wrote “If we could surpass [the Nazis] in design, in cunning, in surprise, in boldness, then the fruits of our labours might begin to show effect, in time, to have some influence on the war.” He saw it as a “battle of the wits” with the Gestapo that required him always to strike first.
His guerilla methods were also more efficient. After struggling to convince the head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, to provide him with planes to drop men and supplies behind enemy lines, Gubbins insisted that “one aircraft which drops an intelligent and well-trained party can do more damage than a whole fleet of bombers.” Baker Street’s record proved this time and time again.
Being efficient also meant being more humane. The men who worked for Baker Street were driven by their desire to limit human casualties during the war. Cecil Clarke, a brilliant motorhome designer-turned-bomb maker, had been traumatized by World War I, bringing him to the conclusion that human suffering in war should be minimized at all cost. This motivated him to develop a host of bombs and weapons, created specifically for Gubbins’ guerillas and saboteurs, that could strike at a target with precision and reduce collateral damage.
One of Gubbins’ guerillas, Harry Ree, used these weapons and his superb training for exactly this purpose. Initially a conscientious objector to the war, Ree ultimately got involved when Hitler’s viciousness toward Europe’s Jews became evident. Baker Street sent him to France in the spring of 1943 and he ended up in Sochaux, near the massive Peugeot-Sochaux factory, which had been co-opted by the Germans as part of their war machine. Rather than assigning Gubbins’ men to sabotage the factory, Chief of the Air Staff Charles Portal was put in charge. Portal is known for advocating the indiscriminate bombing of Germany, and was adamantly against Gubbins’ work, which he considered a “gamble.”
Portal’s bombing campaign of the Peugeot-Sochaux works was an utter disaster. The bombers missed their target, instead striking several villages just to the south with more than 700 high-explosive shells, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. When Ree found out, he took it upon himself to sabotage the factory to prevent any further bombing attempts. Ree was able to convince the heir to the Peugeot fortune, Rodolphe Peugeot, to help him blow up his own factory with the help of five factory workers. They were spectacularly successful. The factory was put out of commission for at least six months and not a single life was lost.
Creativity, Flexibility, and Foresight
In addition to being a fascinating read full of vignettes about missions and inventors worthy of a James Bond novel (Ian Fleming’s brother Peter was, in fact, one of Gubbins’ men), Milton’s book is also thought-provoking about the direction of warfare and the need for innovation. Baker Street’s creativity, flexibility, and foresight prompt reflection on how we have innovated in warfare in recent years and whether we’ve done so effectively.
One example of America’s ability to reframe its strategic model is the 2007 surge in Iraq. Army leadership recognized that they were making little headway relying solely on traditional troop deployment, so they looked for another solution. They needed a multi-faceted approach to the situation in Iraq, and found it in a strategy that engaged the local Sunni population and reassured them that they would have a role to play in governance once the smoke cleared. And it worked.
One could argue that Obama was trying to do the same thing as Gubbins with his reliance on drones—reduce civilian and military casualties by striking with more precision and from a distance. On the surface, Obama’s drone program looks like the innovative answer to unconventional enemies like al Qaeda and ISIS.
But where Obama went wrong was in envisioning the drone program as a long-term replacement for the traditional “boots on the ground” approach to Iraq and the Middle East. The use of drones was motivated in large part by Obama’s campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, including a full withdrawal of U.S. troops. Obama thought that technology and innovation in drone warfare could, to a large extent, take the place of traditional forces, rather than act as a complementary tool.
Baker Street’s guerilla tactics, on the other hand, were never meant to replace the regular army. They were used as a temporary substitute while the allied forces worked out how to get a foothold in France. As the allies pushed the German army eastward, the need for saboteurs and guerillas decreased until they were no longer needed at all. The time had come for different and more traditional tools of warfare.
The men and women at Baker Street also had a clear objective. Their goal was to muck up the works for the Germans—to stop the shipment of weapons and supplies, slow down their development of nuclear weapons, sink their U-boats, and generally frustrate their efforts. This was done with the singular aim of allowing allied forces outside Europe to catch their breath and organize a large-scale invasion.
The objective of Obama’s drone program has never been entirely clear. It focused on taking out al-Qaeda and ISIS leadership, but there were always men ready to replace them. His drone policy felt more like an attempt at patching a leak than fixing the faucet itself. That’s because the drone program wasn’t employed as part of a long-term strategy for Iraq. There was no end state in mind. Yes, we need to kill al-Qaeda leaders and drive ISIS from Mosul. But for better or for worse, Iraq also needs to be stabilized so the drone strikes will no longer be necessary. Otherwise, we’ll be caught in a holding pattern in which drone strikes become the end in and of themselves, rather than a means to an end.
Along with the increased use of drones, the trend over the past two administrations has been to rely more heavily on Special Operations forces and less on traditional deployment of large numbers of American troops. This has its obvious benefits both fiscally and politically, by keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way. So far, President Trump looks to be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, keeping with his campaign promise to minimize boots on the ground. Special forces are being used to advise the coalition fighting ISIS in Mosul and are expected to play the same role in Raqqa. They are similarly being used to work with local forces in the fight against the Islamic State throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Where they can usefully and efficiently replace the costly deployment of troops, Special Forces have a valuable role to play. But, like drones, they should be treated as one of many tools in America’s tool belt, not as a wholesale replacement for traditional ground forces. And they ought to be employed as part of a broader strategy and vision—just as Churchill employed Gubbins’ remarkable Baker Street saboteurs.