Book review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare #WWII #History

P1090040The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Churchill’s Mavericks Plotting Hitler’s Defeat. A book by Mr Giles Milton esq.

Hardback. I got mine for minimal bung as secondhand from Amazon. Full-price and new is beyond the reach of my peasant-sized piggy-bank, as ever. I rarely “buy” books, I simply re-home other folks’ discards.

People often assert that history is written by the “winning side”. I do not believe that for one second.

First, England did not “win” the Second World War – we defeated the Axis powers, we nailed Mr Hitler to a tree, but we were the ones left wrecked, ruined and devastated – most especially so after we’d used what little remained of our resources to then rebuild bloody Europe! We rebuilt a continent that hated us before the war and went back to hating us again after the war. England’s coffers were utterly emptied, her people totally knackered and depleted of what may be termed the “cream” of humankind. It was our infrastructure that at the final close of business that still lay in absolute ruins. We may have written the history, but we most certainly did not come out of the war as victors.

Second, it is my contention that history is actually always written not by the players but by those folk privileged, rich and leisured enough to sit down, scratch up some books and then have them published by their chums in the industry. Everyone else is too damned busy acting out the next portion of history (as in “having their strings pulled in fresh directions”)!

Was England playing the role of “the good guys” during the conflict? Were we bollocks! Mr Churchill, had he not been born with a silver Sten-Gun up his Arsenall Villa are doing awfully well again, are they not and with fifty-thousand acres of rolling wotsit to his name would have instead been a gangland thug of monumental repute. Don’t misunderstand me, he was absolutely the man needed at the time needed and in the place needed. Without him England would today have been a prosperous and powerful country with a flourishing car industry, trains that run on time – and a language peppered with umlauts. Instead of Thatcher and a problem of unregulated immigration we’d have had Merkel and a problem of unregulated immigration. Our written history would by now have been peppered with pickelhaubes instead of bowlers.

Contrary to the beliefs of the old-school leadership of the armed forces at that time, you cannot win a major conflict by fighting strictly under Marquis of Queensberry rules. Even the Marquis of Queensberry was an utter git of stupendous proportions. Churchill knew this, and he had the power to act upon it.

England poisoned, gassed, knifed, used shrapnel bombs, used bio-weapons and killed, maimed and generally blew up civilians and civilian targets with gay abandon – and we did so better (“better”) than did the Axis powers, Russia – or the USA, when we eventually persuaded them into the fray, some years after its beginnings (see our little wheeze with the S.S.Automeda and Mrs Ferguson’s tea set).

What England stupidly did not do, unlike all of the aforementioned countries, was to profit from the war or even capitalise on any of the technological advances made during the war. We didn’t miss out on these opportunities because we suffered from scruples – we were just, nationally speaking, too ruddy thick! As a nation we are rather brilliant at beginnings, in the thick of things – and then we have no idea at all how to finish, we never ever take the necessary final few steps to make hay from our crops. We invent stuff and then we give it away for other countries and corporations to develop and profit from. It’s a flaw in the national psyche.

The USA and Russia nicked everything useful that they could lay their hands on, everything that wasn’t actually nailed down, including the scientists involved. England had neither facilities nor money left to offer anyone anything to “pop over and work for us”, and so everything closed down after the war. This left even the guerrilla warfare experts featured in this book at something of an unemployed loose end – and a lot of them found themselves head-hunted, poached and generally courted by employment as far afield as Los Alomos and the Indian Army. As far as England was concerned, nineteen forty-five was hello obscurity and hello to food rationing that lasted here right up until the 4th of July 1954.

NINETEEN FIFTY-FOUR. You read that correctly. That’s how few pots England was left with after the war, micturition into for the purposes of. Food rationing in England had to continue up until nineteen fifty-four.

This is a great read of a book. It’s history, but not a history-book. It’s adventure, but not exactly Biggles or Enid-Blyton-on-Steroids. The facts are all there, in appendices abounding, but the text itself reads like something more akin to a Nevil Shute or an Ian Fleming. In fact, Ian Fleming’s elder brother, Peter Fleming, looms large in the book, having had many a finger in some of our “alternative tactics” war.

The impression given by the book is that, with one or two exceptions, the entire ungentlemanly warfare effort was propelled along by chaps from Oxford and dickies from Cambridge and dashing Sirs and Lords – indeed, anyone whose blood tended at least towards the purple, if not actually the blue. The ladies mentioned, if they weren’t the also-ran tag-alongs towed by the few “exceptions” to this purple/blue/dashing rule, all came from socialite backgrounds. Everyone’s absolutely marvellous, darling, and glamorous to boot. The men could have (and often apparently had) managed entire African nations single-handedly, the women may have been given the rank of “office secretary” but spent their evenings and nights tugging at the strings of the old boy web and network more like social secretaries (and office decorations). One is rather left with the impression that they all, but all, carried hip-flasks of single-malt and held business cards advertising “lions tamed, virgins converted, uprisings quelled”.

Silly me, I had thought for all these years that 99.9% of the real people involved in the stupidity of war, especially war on that scale, were forced into it by circumstance, were scared witless and held as their greatest aspiration the passing of another day without soiling their own underwear each time they heard gunfire or an explosion.

But that’s just me.

This book is a great read though. Remarkable things were done by remarkable people. It’s just that I suspect that most of them cared a good deal more for their own lives than this book might lead us to believe, and rightly so.

The chapters, I am sure, must be laid out in some logic, but I was left wondering why we’d started where we started, and then suddenly found myself in a stream in flood, fascinated by my surroundings but convinced all the while that I was being shown just one thread and was missing what must surely have been a wider picture. The various departments and people herein simply can’t have operated in such an apparent vacuum, surrounded on all sides by two-dimensional caricatures if surrounded by anything at all.

This is a great book, I loved reading it and valued the information given. It’s just that I was left with the impression of having eaten only the icing of the cake and not the cake itself. It’s a bit too sweet to my mind.

So much walla walla whizzbang, so few visits to the lavatory, that sort of thing.

So many reasons to be grateful to the people featured in the book, but they are all rather made out to come from the opening scenes of a black & white propaganda film rather than from real life.

So much derring-do, and not a single pimple on any of them.

Recommended? Yes; you need to read, digest and form your own opinion about this incredibly important part of our written history. At the risk of sounding sillier than usual, read it with your eyes open. This is not a book that you can allow your brain to nibble on untended.

The writing style is generally not unpleasant, although dates written as, for example, “12 September” and suchlike are rather jarring and not English-English. Ditto some of Giles’ sentence construction. I wonder if perhaps the gentleman commutes weekly – or perhaps daily – across the Atlantic? The typesetting is fine and, with the exception of the Anglo-American language used, the editing seems to have been effective. At least all of the requisit letters “u” and so forth were in place!


Ian H.

p.s., I know for a fact that I would have been rendered totally useless by fear had I been placed in any of the mission-situations outlined in this book. I do wonder if perhaps that is why I squirmed so at the very gung-ho-ness of it all? Very different circumstances, very different times, and I labour under my own, current set of beliefs, values and surroundings.


  1. “This is not a book that you can allow your brain to nibble on untended.” Nicely written review! What about the Marshall Plan, though? Didn’t the US kick in a lot of cash for rebuilding? I was aware, though, that England suffered the aftereffects for decades — weren’t there bombed-out sites in London in the 1970s?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Without the might and finances of the USA the war would have had a very, very different outcome indeed. The Marshall Plan cost the US oodles of dosh, and it kept England’s head (among others) above water – but only just. There were indeed bomb sites remaining undeveloped in lots of cities up until the end of the sixties and early seventies. The Treasury in London made the last repayment on the loans that the US propped us up with on the 29th of December 2006, by sending the last instalments of £42.4 million to the US and £9.98 million to Canada – electronic banking transfer this time, not cheques! Without that loan we would have been royally stuffed. The US loaned $4.33bn (£2.2bn) to Britain in 1945, while Canada loaned US$1.19 bn (£607m) in 1946, at a rate of 2% annual interest – but we’re free now, free as birds, we’ve paid off the HP!

      I think that as well as being in physical and financial ruin, England did her usual job of shooting herself in the foot during the post-war decades by still trying to be a world power (when who cares? let the world get on with it!). Any money that we did find was squandered on international politics, not on electrification of the railways, or new factories and wotnot. It was, I think, our perennial National-psyche problem of “great start – lousy ending”. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Wow, you’re really up on this stuff! I didn’t know that Canada had loaned Britain anything, or that it took so long to pay off those debts. Thanks for the info-bits.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I do not understand why the loans were not forgiven. The US has forgiven other loans, especially those that were from that time frame. Hugs

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  2. I am interested in history and loved reading your post. But do you think history, while maybe not written by the victors, still is written with a bias? How do we determine the bias and how do we correct for it. As you may know Texas in the US wanted to whitewash the text books, changing everything from the meaning of slavery to emphasizing only white people did important things in history. They wanted that it in textbooks certain Christian bible things, even though it was against the law. Sadly children taught with those books would become adults who believed that was the true way it was. Have a great weekend. Hugs

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    1. Absolutely yes, always recorded with a bias. To read English history you’d think that we were stiff-upper-lipped total gentlemen just helping the world out, when in fact… it was a little bit more “complicated” than that! Churchill was ousted almost immediately after the war – whatever folk may write, that fact tells me more about how the population felt about him than do the books. Actions speak louder than words, much louder, but we rarely listen to them, preferring instead the pre-digested words… 😉 As individuals I think that we re-write our own memories, remodel our own past – how much more of that must be going on in the impersonal world of national histories? I reckon we’ve only got a vague notion of the past.

      Hope all is swelligant with you, and that life is giving you the occasional bowl of cherries in lieu of lemons!

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