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Book Review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Damien Lewis

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I ordered a copy of Damien Lewis’ book on the exploits of British SOE in WWII expecting to find an overview of, well, what SOE had done during the war. That’s not quite what this book is. Instead, Lewis has given us essentially a first-person view of SOE’s work through the eyes of Danish commando Anders Lassen (VC, MC with two bars). Don’t be fooled by the cover image; the North African LRDG is never mentioned. However, what Lassen was involved in was equally impressive and probably less well known.

Lassen was part of the crew for the first real SOE operation, the theft of a pair of German and Italian supply ships from the neutral Spanish port at Fernando Po. In an exploit that could be straight out of Hollywood, a band of commandoes sailed a pair of tugboats into the harbor at night while the ships’ officers were ashore at a raucous party. They blew the anchor chains with explosive charges, locked the crews below deck, and sailed the ships out to sea where they could be legally captured by a British destroyer. And they did it without a single death on either side.

The exploits only became bigger and bolder after that, with Lassen and his comrades making regular raids across the English Channel and running a freewheeling campaign of both hit-and-run raids and occupation of Greek islands in the Aegean. These were the quintessential independent Special Forces fighters, operating outside regular military command structures and supply chains, fighting as they saw fit. Lassen eventually because the commanding officer of a large group, and by the end of the war had been awarded the Military Cross three times. His last operation in Italy – where his men were hit with a shattering defeat when pushed into the role of spearheading a conventional offensive – would result in him posthumously receiving the Victoria Cross for his heroism.

I ended up reading the book almost entirely in a single sitting, and found it riveting and fascinating – far more so than the typical academic history. It offers a humbling and motivating example of what men can do when they are skilled and motivated. At the same time, it also left me a bit melancholy, as by the end we can see Lassen consumed by his combat experiences and slowly becoming removed from society. Nobody can say how Lassen would have coped had he survived the war, but one suspects he would have led a troubled life. Perhaps that is the price one must pay to become, as Churchill described, “a hand of steel which plucks the German sentries from their posts with growing efficiency.”

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