Damien Lewis, the author of Churchill’s Secret Warriors, explains how this small force of ‘freelance pirates’ were the first ‘deniable’ secret operatives tasked with undertaking devastatingly effective missions against the Nazis. Often dressed in enemy uniforms, Churchill’s Special Forces desperadoes broke all previously held rules of warfare.
Based upon first hand testimonies, Lewis’s book reveals the exploits of the secret warriors that have, until now, been shrouded in secrecy. Here, writing for History Extra, he outlines 10 things you (probably) never knew about Churchill’s clandestine operatives:
1) Churchill’s warriors were cut-throat
As the British Expeditionary Force retreated from the French beaches in 1939, Churchill issued an extraordinary order to his chiefs of staff: “Prepare hunter troops for a butcher-and-bolt reign of terror.”
Under Churchill’s orders the British military was tasked with recruiting forces to strike the enemy in hit-and-run attacks, using all possible measures and with no holds barred. He tasked his Special Operations Executive (SOE) to recruit a band of eccentrics: free-thinkers, misfits, cutthroats, gaol-breakers and buccaneers – those who had the special character to operate on their own initiative deep behind enemy lines, with no holds barred.
2) Volunteers faced all-but-certain death
In typical Churchillian style, Britain’s iconic wartime leader offered these ‘volunteers for Special Duties’ – the forerunners of our modern-day Special Forces – little but the chance to become some of the first to strike hard at a hated enemy, plus a short but exalted career, and all-but-certain death. Incredibly, there was no shortage of volunteers flocking to his call.
3) Churchill’s agent-commandos were ‘licensed to kill’
These men were the SOE’s first ‘deniable’ operatives. Falling under the SOE’s command as opposed to that of the military, they were empowered to use all necessary measures to achieve Churchill’s aims, and they were to be disowned by the British Government if captured.
Each SOE warrior-agent was issued with a ‘0’ codename, meaning that he was a ‘zero’-rated agent – one trained and licensed to use all means to liquidate the enemy, especially the arts of silent killing. Indeed, these SOE 0-rated operatives are believed to be the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s ‘00’ agents in his James Bond novels.
4) The warriors were ordered to fight ‘fast and dirty’
The men were taught to wage war in what was then a very ‘un-British’ way. At the revolutionary Experimental Station 6 – the codename for the seemingly genteel Ashton Manor, just south of Stevenage in Hertfordshire – they were taught to fight “without a tremor of apprehension, to hurt, maul, injure or kill with ease.”
Their instructors were the legendary William Fairbairn and Eric ‘Bill’ Sykes, veterans of policing British interests in what was then the wild Treaty Port of Shanghai. In what became known as their ‘school for bloody mayhem’ Fairbairn and Sykes demonstrated methods of silent strangulation, how to disable with a single blow from fist or boot, targeting vulnerable points like the kidney or spine, and how to wield a pistol fast and deadly from the hip, ‘Shanghai Style’.
5) Churchill’s warriors carried a deadly blade
The operatives’ signature weapon was the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife: from a Wilkinson Sword, the duo commissioned a specially-made dagger with a seven-inch blade, a heavy handle to give firm grip in the wet, a cross-guard to prevent hand slip, plus two razor sharp edges and a fierce, stiletto stabbing profile.
Some 250,000 of these knives would roll off Wilkinson Sword’s London production line during the war years, each etched on its square head with the words: “The Fairbairn Sykes Fighting Knife.”
Fairbairn and Sykes stressed that there was no more deadly a weapon at close quarters, “and it never runs out of ammunition”.
6) Bland names were used to avoid suspicion
The very first of Churchill’s clandestine butcher-and-bolt units had a deliberately innocuous-sounding name: the Maid Honour Force. It was led by Gus March-Phillipps, a British eccentric of high birth, together with an aristocratic and bloodthirsty Danish warrior called Anders Lassen (plus a cheeky West African monkey called Chico).
They undertook the very first of Churchill’s deniable operations, codenamed Operation Postmaster: a top secret, high-stakes mission to seize Nazi shipping in the far-distant port of Fernando Po in West Africa – ships that were suspected of acting as re-supply vessels for German U-boats.
7) It was a very special kind of warfare, the likes of which the world had never seen
Operation Postmaster came to typify the raiders’ future missions, breaking all the rules of war. It took place in the port of a neutral country (Fernando Po being then a part of Spain), and the men of Maid Honour Force posed as civilians on a ‘pleasure cruise’ in what constituted an outrageous act of piracy and kidnapping on the high seas.
The operation also had the potential to change the course of the entire war – either in Britain’s favour, or catastrophically otherwise. It set the scene for missions to come: breathtaking and daring operations that defied all the rules of war, but reaped a propaganda bonanza if successful.
8) The warriors enraged Hitler
Viewed with deep suspicion by the wider military, Churchill’s top-secret unit began striking across the Channel, silently and under cover of darkness. In doing so they instilled a pathological terror in the enemy wherever they encountered them. They so enraged Hitler that he issued his infamous ‘Commando Order’ – that any such operatives taken alive were to be “ruthlessly wiped-out”: tortured and summarily executed.
9) Churchill’s agent-commandos defied the military hierarchy
Dressed in uniforms culled from the enemy, and using enemy vehicles, weaponry, and even its money, the warriors assassinated and abducted enemy officers to spread terror in their ranks.
Despised by much of the mainstream military, as they were dismissive of formal hierarchies and rank, it was only the absolute support of Churchill, who backed such ‘underhand’ tactics, that enabled the commandoes to soldier on. These men came close to forming a private army that operated to its own rules and its own chain of command, so as to wage total war.
10) Only one of the agent-commandoes won a Victoria Cross
The most famous of Churchill’s commandoes – who would go on to form part of the SAS – was arguably the Anders Lassen. Lassen epitomised the spirit of these warriors, whose actions were defined by extraordinary – some might argue, suicidal – bravery, and a blatant disregard for the traditional military hierarchy.
Men and officers alike had to earn respect – merit was prized above and regardless of rank – and the only way to do so was in battle. Lassen became the only member of the British SAS ever to win the Victoria Cross (among numerous other decorations).
His VC was granted posthumously, as a result of a raid on Italy in the closing stages of the war that also claimed the lives of many of his men. Prior to that, he and his small force had liberated the entirety of Greece pretty much single-handedly.
To find out more about Churchill’s Secret Warriors (Quercus Publishing) click here.