Victory Vs. Bureaucracy: On ‘Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’

Though interesting and sufficient, Milton’s nonfiction narrative doesn’t confer the suspense and danger of Churchill’s missions.

Giles Milton
Nonfiction History | 356 Pages | Reviewed: Paperback
978–1–250–11903–2 | First Paperback Edition | $17.00
Picador | New York City | BUY HERE

Image: Picador.

What makes a book “good” or worth recommending? These questions seem obvious enough, but, for the reviewer, they require deliberate examination, especially for a book like Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, by Giles Milton. Churchill is not an academic history looking to deconstruct, reinterpret, or instruct, in the manner of a Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Nor is it a finely-grained, meticulous study of historical details that comments upon contemporary situations, like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. Milton has lesser ambitions, but he does turn history into a compelling narrative about British irregular / asymmetric warfare during World War II:

“[S]he had been hired to work for a top-secret Whitehall department known as Section D. The D stood for destruction and Grand and his staff had been tasked with conceiving a wholly new form of warfare [. …] They would be working outside the law and were to borrow their tactics from guerrillas and gangsters [. …]”

The story is a revelation. At the war’s start, the British completely disregarded guerrilla tactics and sabotage, but, by the war’s end, they have developed more expertise and deployed the taactics to a far greater extent than any other combatant. Even more quickly, though, the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare gets torn asunder once the war ends, a victim of the British class system and its bureaucracies, who fight to maintain their own privileged positions. Along the way, we meet a standard cast of protagonists and antagonists. Colin Gubbins, the determined mastermind behind the operations; Cecil Clarke, the eccentric weapons inventor; Bill Sykes and Shanghai Buster Fairbairn, black market kingpins turned Special Forces trainers; Eddie Myers, the audacious relentless saboteur. They are interesting if limited characters in Milton’s telling, and his style is itself likewise sufficient but a bit pedestrian. His writing does not confer the real-life suspense and danger of the missions. I found myself willing to read on but hardly glued to the page:

“Zero hour. It was eleven o’clock. Myers was anticipating the opening crackle of gunfire as his teams went into action at either end of the viaduct. But there was only silence. It was as if the mountain had gone to sleep.”

Milton sets Churchill within a context of competing mindsets: one wishes to win the war at any cost, while the other seeks to maintain a British class system / bureaucracy whose claims of preserving Britain’s ideals of “fair play” seem self-serving. However, he never fully develops the antagonism between the camps as a historical thesis; they are mostly a rhetorical device to develop sympathy for his protagonists. Likewise the ministry’s arc, from concept to experiment to full-bodied operation then discredited idea, is of secondary concern to Milton. He uses it as plot device but does not dwell on or explicate the process in detail. As a reader very much interested in organizational development and the ways intentions become actions, I found this disappointing.

Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed Churchill. Appropriately enough, my review copy included a back cover blurb from Anthony Horowitz. The book is, in many ways, the written equivalent of Horowitz’s television show, “Foyle’s War.” It offers a different, interesting, and very human view of a war for which we think everything has been said. It is hardly revolutionary, daring or groundbreaking, in subject, craft, or style. Regardless, the experience is worth the time. I finished the book entertained, a bit more informed and satisfied. That leaves me questioning how good a book Churchill is, even as it persuades me to recommend it to others.

ED TATO currently lives in Coburg, Australia. He edited poetry manuscripts and one chapbook series for Spartan Press in Kansas City before earning graduate degrees from University of Auckland and Syracuse University. His work has appeared in various print and online journals, and his two poetry collections are available online.