Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain's Special Operations Executive

Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain's Special Operations Executive

by A. R. B. Linderman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806155180
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/29/2016
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #52
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 1 MB

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Rediscovering Irregular Warfare

Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain's Special Operations Executive

By A. R. B. Linderman


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5518-0



Speaking to a group of Danes after World War II, Sir Colin McV. Gubbins, former director of Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE), commented that "it is all very well to 'decree' an organization, but then someone has to create it." This work examines the processes whereby SOE was created, including how its doctrine was formulated and subsequently disseminated, both to its own agents and to its American counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). This book approaches the topic of irregular warfare from the perspective of intellectual history, seeking to understand how ideas in various times and places influenced later thoughts and actions.

The question of precedents has received some attention — if only in passing — in the scholarship of SOE. A lecture detailing the organization's history may be taken as representative of a common view: "When war broke out the art of underground warfare was unknown in England. There was nothing to build on, no past experience and no precedents." While such a narrative makes all the more glorious the subsequent successes of SOE and its colleagues in OSS and the various resistance movements, it also plays to certain stereotypes of the British amateur jack-of-all-trades gentleman. This book argues that that narrative is wrong, however engaging it may be. There were precedents upon which SOE could, and did, draw. It was not created ex nihilo. Gubbins and his colleagues consciously looked to past and contemporary examples for their inspiration. In some respects, this is unsurprising. As historian Andrew Hargreaves explains:

Britain entered the Second World War with a military that was conducive toward the development and exploitation of irregular means: the country had both a small and decentralized military well experienced in the rigors of colonial warfare and a strategic culture that placed a premium on surprise, maneuver, and peripheral attack. ... The prominent vein of irregular actions occurring throughout British military history ensured that by the outbreak of the Second World War the British "way in warfare" was inherently amenable to the creation and employment of specialist formations.

Such a disposition, though perhaps necessary, is not sufficient for the creation and large-scale operation of an organization such as SOE. The achievement of Gubbins and those who worked with him was taking the general idea of irregular warfare, distilling it into a manageable number of principles, and turning those principles into action in the field.

This work relies heavily on the pioneering research of M. R. D. Foot and the impressive work of Peter Wilkinson and Joan Bright Astley. Journalists sometimes claim to write the first draft of history; in the case of SOE, however, there was no such journalistic account. As a secret organization, it had very little meaningful history available to the public before Foot's SOE in France, published in 1966. Thus, he, Wilkinson, Astley, and other members of the first generation of SOE historians have had to do the difficult but very necessary task of accurately establishing basic facts: who did what, when, and where. Their work has not only added to the historical record but has done so with insightful comment, lively writing, and patriotism of the truest sort, a patriotism that is not blinded by pride but that rejoices in its service of fellow man.

With the broad outlines of SOE's history already traced, we now have the luxury to step back and ask more analytical questions. Who were the men and women of SOE? Where did they come from? What ideas underlay their strategy and tactics? How did they learn to do the things they did? These questions, which may appear deceptively simple at first glance, point us toward more intellectually complex questions: What was SOE's doctrine and where did it come from?

SOE was created by the merger of two earlier organizations, Section D, a branch of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and General Staff (Research) (GS[R]), a branch of the War Office. As historian Simon Anglim observes, "The historians of SOE, William Mackenzie, M. R. D. Foot and Mark Seaman, all discuss [GS(R)] summarily and in terms of its input into SOE." The story of these agencies and their leading light, Colin Gubbins, must be told in its own right. This book follows Gubbins's career from 1914 onward, examining his experience of irregular warfare, first in the Allied intervention in Russia (1919), most importantly in Ireland during the Irish Revolution (1919–22), and then, to a much lesser extent, in British India (1923–30). To this personal experience he added the insights of colleagues who served in these same places and also in Iraq. Gubbins's knowledge of irregular warfare was further augmented by study of several other conflicts: the Second Anglo-Boer War, the Arab Revolt led by T. E. Lawrence, the German guerrilla war in East Africa, the Revolt in Palestine between the World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

With this knowledge at his disposal, in 1939 Gubbins authored two brief guides, The Art of Guerilla Warfare (AGW) and The Partisan Leader's Handbook (PLH). The approach in each is pragmatic, only venturing into theory when necessary. Gubbins wanted to create "how-to guides," works "intended for the actual fighting partisans, tactical and not strategic." One writer describes the AGW as "the first synthesis of British unconventional warfare doctrine, or at any rate the first codification of irregular experience. The work is bold, original and arguably unique; an incisive summary of lessons learned from Russia, Ireland, Arabia and elsewhere."

The lessons of the various conflicts that Gubbins studied may be found throughout these two works: the centrality of the local population; the collection, protection, and use of intelligence; the necessity of cooperating with conventional forces; and the use of speed, surprise, and escape in carrying out ambush operations. The historian Józef Garlinski, who fought with the Polish Resistance, argues that "before the outbreak of war, before mobilization, when no one knew what turn events would take or how the Germans would overrun Europe, preparations were already in hand for underground warfare in territories that might fall under their control. In this field, Britain was better prepared for war than any other country." That preparation was the result of early planning by Gubbins and a handful of colleagues.

Once formulated, these ideas were given time to germinate while Gubbins liaised with the Poles in 1939, commanded troops in Norway in 1940, and made plans for the use of guerrillas in Britain itself, should it be invaded by the Germans. Though of some significance, none of these actions would have earned the place that Gubbins deserves in history; that came in 1940, when he was invited by Minister Hugh Dalton to join the new Special Operations Executive, an organization within the Ministry of Economic Warfare tasked with supporting resistance and subversive activities in Nazi-occupied Europe. Upon Gubbins's arrival at SOE, he was given charge of not only operations but also training. Thus, it was his ideas that shaped SOE's new agents and formed their thinking on irregular warfare. Moreover, the United States turned to Britain for training in intelligence and sabotage, even before its official entry into the war. SOE played a significant role in this training process, which rapidly blossomed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As the British lent instructors and their training syllabus to the Americans, Gubbins's ideas were propagated even further. The Americans had their own sources of inspiration to draw upon when formulating ideas about irregular warfare, but SOE and Gubbins's doctrines played a key role. As he was promoted to deputy director and then director of SOE, the significance of Gubbins's thinking — and the many years of irregular conflict that informed it — only became more acute. In 1942 Lord Selborne, then minister of Economic Warfare, explained to Prime Minister Winston Churchill: "There is perhaps no officer ... who is more vital to the continuance of the work of this organisation than Brigadier Gubbins. He has seen the growth of S.O.E. from its early beginnings, and ... has acquired a technique, a knowledge and experience which are really irreplaceable." If the story of SOE's doctrinal origins is to be told, Gubbins must be its central character.

Writing about SOE

On 7 November 1949, Gubbins visited the Foreign Office to discuss the possibility of writing a book about his experiences during World War II. The following month he received a letter from a Foreign Office official, William Strange. "The proposal has now been fully discussed by all the authorities concerned," Strange explained. "The publication even of such a sober and balanced review as you would write would be undesirable on security grounds. ... The technique of organising resistance movements does not alter greatly with the passage of time and we could not be sure that your book might not give valuable assistance to a future enemy." But following the publication of a series of unauthorized memoirs and Foot's authorized SOE in France in 1966, the climate began to shift. By 1970, Robin Brook — who had served in SOE's Western Europe section and went on to become a director of the Bank of England — explained to the Foreign Secretary that "the techniques of subversion and sabotage have been so largely transformed since SOE's day that a mild office censorship on the final text [of a new book on SOE] could exclude anything in the least harmful." With the passage of time, many of SOE's secrets lost their deadly associations.

If security was no longer a major concern when writing about SOE, there remained the problem of sources. It has been suggested that a fire in early 1946 destroyed a significant quantity of documents relating to SOE. Gubbins strenuously denied this, explaining,

The suggestion of a fire in the small remaining office in Baker Street in January 1946 destroying any important files is absolutely wide of the mark. I returned from the Far East ... about the end of December, 1945 to find nothing remained of S.O.E. except this little remnant. Everything else ... had been transferred to "C" [the director of the Secret Intelligence Service] including all operational files. ... There have been suggestions ever since the War, rather nasty ones, that S.O.E. destroyed material that would have incriminated itself. This is absolutely false, as the Historical Section was formed long before the end of the War, and worked independently under the War Cabinet Historical Section, over which neither I nor any other Offices in S.O.E. had any control.

In spite of this insistence, a number of writers have commented on the famous fire of February 1946. C. B. Townshend, the first professional archivist to attempt an organization of the SOE papers after the war, notes that the fire "destroyed an unknown quantity of records the subject of which it has been impossible to trace." Duncan Stuart, former SOE advisor at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, observed that several independent sources of evidence confirm the damage to the Belgian files, which still bear the burn marks.

Apart from the state of the SOE archives generally, there is the problem of sources regarding its earliest days. Section D, one of SOE's two predecessor agencies, belonged to the Secret Intelligence Service, which as a rule does not release documents. Likewise, Gubbins himself noted that "there are no records that I know of on the matter" of GS(R), the other predecessor. In spite of the fact that GS(R) kept a war diary, it has not survived among the SOE papers held in Britain's National Archives. This paucity of sources is not entirely the product of secrecy. Section D and GS(R) were both quite small when compared to SOE at its wartime height; thus, the number of documents produced by SOE dwarfs that of either of its predecessor agencies. Moreover, as is the case with any wartime organization, records from the end of the war are simply more plentiful, due to the common practice of throwing out old papers in a bid to save space.

Finally, when discussing SOE, one is bound to run into the question posed by Foot: "Was SOE any good?" There are certainly critics who insist it was not. Military historian John Keegan concludes that SOE was costly, misguided, and pointless. In contrast, Foot argues that SOE did a great deal of good, providing considerable support to the Allied war effort at a relatively low cost. The overall value of SOE and irregular warfare will be considered in the conclusion of this work. However, this ongoing debate about SOE's success or failure can sometimes obscure other questions about what SOE and OSS actually did and why they did it. Should sabotage officers work alone or in conjunction with local populations? How closely should their activities be coordinated with military operations? And how much should be expected from them? Gubbins engaged these questions as he sifted the experience of four decades of irregular warfare, concluding that it was a tool of great potential, though one that needed to work in concert with other elements of war.

Colin Gubbins

Colin McVean Gubbins was born on 2 July 1896 in Tokyo. His father, John Gubbins, attended Harrow and spent thirty years in the Consular Service at the British Legation in Tokyo. His grandfather, Martin Gubbins, was a member of the Bengal Civil Service, was present at Lucknow when it was besieged in 1857 during the Indian Mutiny, and later became a judge of the Supreme Court in Agra. Colin's mother, Helen McVean (known to all as Nonie), was born in India but grew up on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. Colin too grew up there, from the age of four onward; while his father served abroad, Colin was raised by his maternal grandparents from whom he acquired a love of nature and a fierce sense of Highland identity. It was a family of imperial civil servants: two uncles were in the Indian Army, another worked for the Hudson's Bay Company, and one of Colin's aunts was a nurse in the Second Anglo-Boer War. Gubbins attended Cheltenham College, in Gloucestershire, and although he commented, "I felt all the time that I was in prison," the school served its intended purpose, securing him a place at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich.

In appearance, Gubbins was "shortish, [a] dark man with clipped speech, clipped moustache and brisk movements." Gubbins's one-time secretary, Joan Bright Astley, described him as "quiet-mannered, quiet-spoken, energetic, efficient and charming. A 'still waters running deep' sort of man, he had just enough of the buccaneer in him to make lesser men underrate his gifts of leadership, courage and integrity." In studying Gubbins, one is struck by his incredible balance. He was a man of creativity and intellectual power; after the war he occupied much of his time visiting art galleries, reading novels, and watching ballet. However, he never attended a university. His writing always remained accessible to the common man, even if it contained a few romantic flourishes. Gubbins possessed considerable belief in the importance of ungentlemanly warfare; his zeal for his work made him "the driving force behind SOE." But Gubbins was no wild-eyed fanatic. When in the mid-1950s the future historian M. R. D. Foot and a group of fellow Oxford students decided to attack a railway bridge in Hungary, in support of that country's anti-Soviet aspirations, Foot looked up Gubbins's address in Who's Who and wrote to him for advice. Gubbbins prudently suggested they abandon the idea.

Gubbins was certainly hard working and proud in his way. Leo Marks, an SOE cryptographer, described Gubbins as an intense and sometimes inscrutable man of great intelligence and exacting standards. Lord Selborne acknowledged after the war that "Gubbins is not universally popular in all other Departments, and I believe he has his critics in some parts also of the War Office." However, he insisted "that no Minister was served more loyally by a subordinate than I was by him, and that when a strong man is fighting to create a new Organisation, which is to be carved out of the three Services and other Departments, it is not unnatural that he sometimes trod rather badly on people's toes." Sir Frank Nelson, Gubbins's first boss at SOE, echoed these sentiments, describing him as a man who provided "ever genial, calm and brilliant help, loyalty and support."


Excerpted from Rediscovering Irregular Warfare by A. R. B. Linderman. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction,
2. Baptism by Fire,
3. Formulating a Doctrine: Learning from the Past,
4. Formulating a Doctrine: Contemporary Examples,
5. Gestation of Gubbins's Thinking and the Creation of SOE,
6. SOE Training,
7. Operations and Assessment,

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