A daring hit squad of World War II warriors, who inspired writer Ian Fleming to create James Bond and gave birth to modern-day black ops, carried out an infamous"butcher-and-bolt reign of terror" against the Nazis in top-secret missions that are only now being fully revealed.
Created by British prime minister Winston Churchill after France fell to Germany in 1939, the fearsome crew from Churchill's shadowy Special Operations Executive (SOE) sneaked behind enemy lines to kidnap and kill top Nazi commanders, went undercover as SS officers, drove enemy vehicles and wielded German Schmeisser submachine guns, and even robbed banks to fund operations while rampaging across occupied Europe.
The legendary exploits of the SOE have long been shrouded in secrecy—until now. They’re revealed in my new book, The Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill's Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops. It’s based on recently uncovered wartime documents and exclusive interviews with survivors like Jack Mann, who in 1941 was a nineteen-year-old recruit to the elite commando unit.
Mann, standing at far right, is pictured with a gang of fellow SOE commandos during WWII.
Though now a military legend, a teenage Mann couldn’t even grow the necessary piratical beard required for the team. Every member had to have one—to strike the fear of God into the enemy. "Put some chicken shit on it," one fellow raider-agent advised him."It’ll grow thick as a bush."
It was Mann who convinced me that the story of the savagely groundbreaking SOE was a tale that must be told. I first met him a few years ago in London, at the Victory Services Club, a private bastion for British military veterans. After we talked, Mann slowly levered himself to his feet and made his way towards the exit. He had to squeeze between rows of tables, and a beefy young vet came pushing through the other way. Ninety-three-year-old Mann stood his ground. Walking stick in one hand, he eyeballed the youthful upstart, pulling himself to his full six-foot-two height.
"I’m much bigger than you are," he growled.
The younger guy eyed Mann's craggy, war-bitten features and the discreet Special Forces badge on his blazer, and decided discretion was the better part of valor. He sheepishly backed away, and allowed us to pass through.
That was when I realized they don’t make men like Jack Mann anymore, or those who served alongside him.
* * *
Mann's commanders in Churchill's very first SOE butcher-and-bolt unit were Gus March-Phillipps, a wild British eccentric with a vivid scar on his lip from where a horse had once bitten him, and Anders Lassen, a knife-wielding, bloodthirsty twenty-year-old Viking warrior born into Danish nobility, who was then fighting for British Special Forces.
These ferocious young warriors would later provide inspiration for the world’s most famous licensed-to-kill fictional spy, Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Commander Fleming, then serving as a British Naval Intelligence officer, helped plan early SOE missions, giving him some a glimpse of real-life heroics that he used for the James Bond series of books that later became the famed movie franchise, which sees Spectre released on Nov. 6 .
James Bond author Ian Fleming, who helped plan the SOE hit squad's early missions while working as a wartime British Naval Intelligence agent.
In the winter of 1939, after Western Europe fell to the Nazi Blitzkrieg, Churchill called for volunteers to wage a new kind of devastating secret warfare. The British leader famously issued orders to "Prepare hunter troops for a butcher-and-bolt reign of terror."
Churchill recruited a deadly crew of eccentrics, free-thinkers, misfits, cutthroats, rule-breakers and buccaneers — those who had the special character to operate on their own initiative deep behind enemy lines, with no holds barred.
In typical style, Churchill offered these "volunteers for Special Duties"—the forerunners of modern-day Special Forces—little more than the glory of a short and exalted military career and all-but-certain death. Still, there was no shortage of Nazi-hating volunteers who answered his call.
So clandestine were these murderous operations, the official files about the SOE hit squad have only just been opened after more than seven decades.
The documents I obtained from the British National Archives and the Imperial War Museum revealed operational plans, encoded signals and mission orders, and were often marked "MOST SECRET - ULTRA" and "To be kept under lock and key and never removed from this office."
The story of this secret private army that inspired 007 is itself being made into a movie: The Ministry For Ungentlemanly Warfare is being developed by screenwriters Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy—who penned The Fighter—into a big-budget action flick.
It's no surprise that Hollywood is taking note, considering the SOE's riveting history. One of their signature high-stakes missions was codenamed Operation Postmaster, and aimed at destroying a secret Nazi Death Star in 1942. Three ships were acting as a refueling and supply hub for German U-boats off the coast of West Africa. Anchored in the remote African island nation of Fernando Po, the ships re-armed and re-fueled the German wolf packs that were sinking Allied convoys. It was crucial to close down their operations, or the battle for North Africa would be lost.
Operation Postmaster would typify the SOE team's future work, breaking all rules of war. It took place in a neutral Spanish port—Fernando Po being then a part of Spain—the men carrying false passports and ID, posing as Swedish yachtsmen on a pleasure cruise.
Postmaster would constitute an outrageous act of piracy and kidnapping on the high seas. It also had the potential to change the course of the entire war—either in Britain’s favor, or catastrophically otherwise.
Before departure, the SOE raider-agents were made to sign the Official Secrets Act, being sworn to absolute silence. They were warned that if they were captured, the British Government would deny all knowledge of them.
They sailed for Africa crewing a "Q-Boat"— Q standing for secrecy and bluff perpetrated in breech of all the rules of war. While it appeared to be an innocent fishing trawler, at the flick of a switch the vessel could unveil a 40mm Vickers cannon concealed behind a false plywood wheelhouse, plus twin Lewis machine-guns. The dozen men comprising the boat's crew were actually a SOE hit squad.
Such bold tactics were revolutionary at the time. But the SOE wasn't part of the mainstream military. It sat under the obscure Ministry of Economic Warfare, and operated under an innocuous-sounding cover name—the "Inter-Service Research Bureau."
Those who staffed up its grey, nondescript 64 Baker Street, London, headquarters referred to the SOE as variously "The Firm", "The Org" or "The Racket." SOE agents were paid in cash, to prevent banking and wage slips leaving a paper trail.
The SOE had its own James-Bond-like dirty tricks and gadgets department, producing exploding attaché cases, pistols disguised as pens, rats packed with plastic explosives, invisible ink, and silk escape maps that you had to piss on, to reveal what was written on them.
Q, the gadget whiz from the Bond movies, was inspired by real-life weapons specialists that Fleming met during his stint working alongside the SOE.
The Q Ship’s taskmaster at the SOE was Brigadier Colin McVean-Gubbins, a seasoned veteran of guerrilla warfare in Norway. Gubbins—who worked hand-in-hand with Ian Fleming—was better known to all simply as ‘M’. Each of March-Phillipps men was issued with a "0" codename— "zero agents" trained to use any and all means necessary to eliminate the enemy, particularly the arts of silent killing.
Those "O" operatives were truly licensed to kill, and they were the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s "00" agents in the Bond novels—as were the real-life M, Q, Miss Moneypenney and the gadgets department of these SOE "Baker Street Irregulars".
As the Q Ship sailed into West African waters, M sent the ship a final telegram. It read: “Good hunting. Am confident you will exercise utmost care to ensure success and obviate repercussions. Best of luck to you and all…others. M.”
In the SOE’s own words, Operation Postmaster was: "a cutout operation. In other words, simple theft." Under cover of darkness, the tiny force sailed into Fernando Po harbor, blew apart the Nazi ships anchor chains, and stole the three massive enemy vessels with their crew held captive—even as their harborside guns opened fire.
They’d seized 10,000 tons of shipping from under the noses of the enemy, but more importantly they’d done so with no-one being any the wiser as to who was responsible.
Operation Postmaster was utterly "deniable"; the raiders had posed as German Naval officers, and even left items of foreign uniform floating in the harbor, to further cover-up their identity.
In a "MOST SECRET" report submitted to M after the raid—one authored by CAESAR, the code name for Lt-Col Julius Hanau, M’s Deputy at the SOE—they trumpeted Postmaster’s success.
“No reports from any sources have indicated that any tangible evidence of British complicity was left behind. Nor is it the easiest task to spirit away on a dark night an 8,000 ton liner moored close into shore without leaving any trace of one’s visit.”
Churchill was delighted by this blatant act of piracy. The mission set the tenor for those to come: breathtaking and daring operations that defied all the rules of war.
The Danish-born Lassen epitomized the spirit of these men, not to mention Bond’s forthcoming delight in wielding unconventional weaponry. In training, Lassen refined the bow-and-arrow as the perfect means for long-distance, silent killing, becoming known as "The Robin Hood Commando".
He praised its advantages over a machine gun. "1. The arrow is almost soundless. 2. The arrow kills without shock or pain, so it is unlikely that a man would scream. 3. A well-trained archer can shoot up to fifteen shots a minute. 4. The arrow is as deadly as an ordinary bullet."
Despised by much of the mainstream military—this band of brothers were utterly dismissive of formal hierarchies and rank—they enjoyed the absolute support of Churchill. They were essentially a private army that operated by its own rules and its own chain of command.
At the revolutionary Experimental Station 6—the code name for the seemingly genteel Ashton Manor, in the leafy English countryside—the agent-commandos were taught to fight, "without a tremor of apprehension, to hurt, maul, injure or kill with ease."
In what became known as the "school for bloody mayhem" they learned methods of silent strangulation, how to disable with a single blow from fist or boot, and how to wield a pistol fast and deadly from the hip, "Shanghai Style".
"The harder and harsher the training, the more likelihood there was of beating the enemy," Jack Mann recalls. "It gave me an edge. I learned the value of total self-reliance, plus the value of your fellow raiders—those who quickly became your closest mates."
An SOE raider sharpens his Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, a weapon prized by the hit squad because "It never runs out of ammunition."
Their signature weapon was the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, made by Wilkinson Sword. It was a bespoke dagger, with a seven-inch blade, a heavy handle to give firm grip in the water, plus two razor sharp edges and a sharp, stabbing profile.
The SOE raiders knew that there was no more deadly a weapon at close quarters, "and it never runs out of ammunition."
Anders Lassen—the team's wild Viking warrior—would be the first to draw blood with the blade, on an operation that would earn the force lasting infamy.
In a midnight operation the raiders sailed across the English Channel and attacked the German held island of Sark, using a Motor Torpedo Boat fitted with silent-running engines and a low-profile hull.
With typical dark humor they’d nicknamed the vessel "The Little Pisser’" due to the bubbling noise of her underwater exhausts. After scaling the cliff-face, Lassen used his Fairbairn-Sykes blade to fatally stab the German sentry, and half-a-dozen captives were seized.
But during the withdrawal and ensuing battle the raiders escaped by the skin of their teeth, and with only one German prisoner. The rest had been killed in the melee.
The value of the operation was huge in propaganda terms. Its success led Churchill to taunt Hitler personally: "There comes out of the sea…a hand of steel which plucks the German sentries from their posts with growing efficiency. The British raids along the coast…inspire the author of so many crimes and miseries with a lively anxiety."
Hitler reacted with fury. He declared: "All sabotage parties of the British and confederates, who do not act like soldiers but act like bandits, will be treated by the German soldiers as such and…will be ruthlessly wiped out.”
He issued his infamous "Sonderbehandlung"—his “Commando Order" decreeing that any captured SOE raiders be handed over to the notorious SS, to be tortured and executed.
In that top-secret order, which was marked "In no circumstances to fall into enemy hands," Hitler decreed that raiding forces would be "annihilated to the last man, whether in uniform or not . . . whether in combat or in flight".
In spite of Hitler’s orders, volunteers flocked to the SOE ranks—including Porter "Joe" Jarrell, an American gunman-turned-medic, who famously carried a Tommy Gun slung on one shoulder and a Red Cross satchel on the other.
When asked if he killed people or cured them, Jarrell would reply: "A bit of both, actually."
Jarrell would remark of Lassen’s unit—nicknamed "The Irish Patrol", due to the prevalence of non-Englishmen in their ranks: "They were really tough. They had a Cockney barrow boy very proud of splitting a man in half with a burst from a machine gun."
In 1943, the SOE commandos would join forces with the Special Air Service (SAS), wreaking bloody havoc on German forces across the Mediterranean.They struck at night, killing or kidnapping German garrison commanders, and spreading terror among the Nazi ranks.
One frightened German officer would write in a letter to his headquarters: "The British come like cats and disappear like ghosts."
Danish-born raider Anders Lassen (top right) with his men at a secret SOE base in Turkey.
Like Bond, Lassen—the original SOE raider-agent without equal—was an arrestingly handsome womanizer. One night in Greece, having driven the Germans out of town, Lassen emerged from a brothel to yell at his noisy, drunken comrades: “Chaps, can’t you let your CO screw in peace?”
Lassen was naked, apart from his boots.
And just as Bond’s relations with M are strained by his stubborn refusal to conform, Lassen refused to tow the line to his superiors. A man of action, he detested all paperwork. His reports—famously—often consisted of no more than five words: “Landed. Killed Germans. Fucked off.”
His commanders were forever pressing him for more details. Invariably, the Dane’s response was hauntingly enigmatic. “It’s done. What more is there to say?”
This tiny band of fighters would go on to destroy crucial enemy warplanes and shipping, and even liberated all of mainland Greece. In one mission Lassen—by then commanding the SOE squad—commandeered fire-engines of Greece’s second city, so that he and a few dozen fellows could drive out a German garrison several hundred strong.
In a scene straight out of a Bond movie, the blonde-haired and blue-eyed Lassen disguised himself as a local chicken salesman, strolling around the city and spying on the German positions. He then sent a message to the German commander, claiming to have the city surrounded.
"Surrender, or prepare to be annihilated."
With his men riding on fire engines, and with one on horseback out front leading the charge, they proceeded to enter the city, bells-ringing, and setting fire to buildings, to make it appear as if a massive Allied force was advancing.
Upon hitting the first German position at a Treibstofflager—a fuel-dump—Lassen and his men unleashed such a savage barrage of gunfire that the Germans turned and fled. It was very fortunate: Lassen’s commandos were all out of ammunition.
In their last, epic mission, they would famously break the stranglehold of German forces holding Northern Italy, penetrating the treacherous, mosquito-plagued swamp lands of Lake Comacchio.
As so often with Bond, Lassen led what many believed was a suicide mission. He epitomized the spirit of these warriors, whose actions were defined by unbelievable bravery, and a blatant disregard for the traditional military hierarchy. Men and officers alike had to earn respect—merit was prized above 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 (VC), Britain’s highest decoration for valor. The raid on Lake Comacchio would devastate their ranks, and earn for Major Anders Lassen a posthumous VC, to add to the Military Cross and two bars he already had.
"He didn’t seem to know the word fear," Jack Mann told me of Lassen. "Life had become a race against death. He had already become a legend, one full of contrasts in his many-sided character. A legend which bore the unmistakable stamp of his personality."
Anders Lassen is the only member of Britain’s SAS ever to have been awarded the VC. The force that he led remains one of the most highly-decorated, but least-known, of the entire war.
Even less-known is that he—and March-Phillipps, killed on a cross—Channel raid earlier in the war— were Ian Fleming's models for the world’s most famous secret agent.
And with all due respect to 007, this real-life SOE hit squad was badder than he could ever hope to be.