The British Empire Library

SOE's Mastermind: The Authorised Biography of Major General Sir Colin Gubbins KCMG, DSO, MC

by Brian Lett

S.O.E. was a unique organisation encouraged by Churchill to 'set Europe ablaze' during the Second World War and which to a certain extent redefined the ways that countries fought wars. Colin Gubbins was instrumental in turning S.O.E. from a concept to a fully functioning organisation. He ultimately went on to become its leader. Also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, the organisation certainly owed much of its character to Colin Gubbins who in turn was very much a product of the military and imperial establishment of the early Twentieth Century.

Colin Gubbins came from an imperial background which had included a great grandfather as the Governor of Newfoundland and a grandfather who had been in the Bengal Civil Service and had even been involved in the Siege of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny. Exotically, Colin himself was born in Tokyo, Japan at a time when few Westerners knew the country well. His father was a diplomat posted there and his mother's family had business concerns in the rapidly modernising Japan.

Despite this exotic start to life, he took the well trodden imperial families' path of returning to Britain for schooling and then joined the army. Somewhat unexpectedly, young Colin found himself in Germany at the outbreak of World War One as an Artillery cadet hoping to improve his German language skills. His remarkable escape is really interesting and establishes his initiative and intuition that would prove so invaluable throughout his military career. Notably, his fellow cadets all spent the rest of the war in German internment camps. Colin Gubbins' military career could have ended even before it had started had he not had his wits about him as war was declared. As it was, he had a very intense and exhaustive First World War experience including becoming wounded and gassed. However, it was clear that he had a natural connection with his soldiers and was earmarked for an interesting post-war position in Archangel in Russia as it disintegrated into Civil War in the wake of the Russian Revolution. This was his first exposure to irregular warfare and the need for diplomacy in handling complex alliances of disparate forces of sometimes dubious loyalty. He served as the ADC to General Ironside who himself was regarded as something of an unorthodox leader after his Boer War experiences. (indeed it was rumoured that John Buchan's arch-imperial hero, Richard Hannay, was based on General Ironside). The British commanders also saw the drip drip effect of propaganda in undermining the willingness of soldiers to fight. This psychological warfare was an interesting innovation that would be used extensively by both the Communists and Fascists in the coming two decades and for which democracies had little in its armoury to defend against. The idea of Fifth Columnists and sympathisers disrupting defenders willingness to fight would lodge itself very much in young Colin Gubbins' mind.

However, the British Empire was to provide some more key ingredients to Colin Gubbins' eventual successful recipes for unconventional warfare. These were to be found in Ireland and India. Ireland was undergoing serious upheavals in the wake of the pre-war tensions over Ulster and Home Rule, the 1916 Easter Rising and an increased nationalist awareness which erupted into a low intensity but very real war. Colin Gubbins spent 3 years in Ireland which could hardly have been a better training ground for unconventional war techniques. He saw for himself the role of smuggling arms, of using women as couriers or of assassination, intimidation and sabotage as instruments of war. He also witnessed lightning ambushes where the ambushers melted away almost without a trace. Of course the British were on the receiving end of these tactics but he never forgot the impact that it had on the willingness of British Soldiers and particularly of the Irish police to continue the fight. The role of Irish women was particularly interesting in that the S.O.E. would later become the only British military formation that actively recruited, trained and used women in combat roles throughout the entire war. He understood that they were a valuable resource, even more so as they may be underestimated by their foes. As Britain finally vacated Ireland, it fell to Colin Gubbins to actually help the Irish supporters of the Treaty deal to fight against dissident Irish who regarded it as a sellout. Additionally, as an artillery officer, Gubbins provided crucial artillery support to his former foes to help defend them from those who were unhappy with the Treaty. And almost irony of ironies, Collin Gubbins would later be responsible for supplying the gun carriage which carried Michael Collins' body to burial after he himself had been ambushed and killed by his compatriots.

But Ireland was not the only imperial training ground for Colin Gubbins. India was his next destination where it was thought that his Russian experiences might help on the North West Frontier in what was still the remnants of the Great Game. As it was, the Russian threat was something in abeyance due to their own power vacuum. However, he was exposed to the Civil Disobedience tactics of the Quit India movement and by leaders such as Gandhi. Again the idea of non-cooperation and sabotaging the authorities would make a powerful impression on the officer who was then training to be a Staff Officer at the Quetta Military College.

Colin went on to serve in other interesting posts in the 1930s mostly in East Europe which again would stand him in good stead come the war. He actually was en route to Poland when the war broke out and he soon found himself as an early escaper much as he had in the First World War. He then played a role in the Norwegian Campaign where he demonstrated the value of hit and run tactics and was one of the few bright lights in an otherwise dismal campaign. However, the fall of Norway and France saw Colin Gubbins given the job to train Auxiliaries in Britain. These were small groups of volunteers who would put the guerrilla tactics that he had witnessed in Ireland into operation - namely assassination, ambush and sabotage. Arms caches were set up, hiding places established, targets identified and personnel trained. Fortunately, these were never called upon, but their commitment and preparation could not be faulted. Churchill soon realised that this kind of unconventional warfare could be used for offensive strikes too and so the S.O.E. was born. The book gives highlights of their myriad missions from West Africa to Norway and almost everywhere in between. They also played a role out in Asia against the Japanese. The personnel for these latter Asian escapades were often drawn from the imperial planters and families who had strong connections to the areas and were often fluent in the local languages. Of course, blending with the local population was never going to happen as it was possible back in Europe, but the jungle and the huge expanses had a capacity to hide personnel extremely efficiently themselves.

This was a very enjoyable and informative book. The overview of S.O.E.s escapades certainly whet the appetite although I note the author has written other books which goes into some of these in far more detail which is only to be applauded. This is a biography of one man after all and not of an entire organisation - however synonymous he became with it. Having said that, it is hard to come away from this book and feel anything but awe for a truly remarkable man who seemed to engender such devotion despite the dangers many of those same agents would be exposed to. And of course many ended up with extremely nasty endings. The Germans and Japanese were harsh indeed on any agents who fell into their hands. Little mercy was shown and much pain might be inflicted in trying to extract information from them. I would have liked to have read more about Colin Gubbins' institutional battles with Stewart Menzies of MI6 or with the various heads of MI5 during the war. These internecine battles were important and would have long term consequences for all the secret intelligence agencies. MI6 had a poor war and yet remained the dominant institution over S.O.E. after the war - this could really have done with expanding upon as it is clearly counter-intuitive. Although perhaps some poetic justice was later meted out by Ian Fleming (who worked extensively with S.O.E.) who based his James Bond figure 'M' on Colin Gubbins and most certainly not on Stewart Menzies (and whose own reputation would fall even further once the extent of the Cambridge 5 became exposed). Colin Gubbins' imperial and military background made him peculiarly suited to the role that was found for him in World War Two. Fortunately, Britain had an inspired leader like Winston Churchill who encouraged mavericks like Colin Gubbins to think outside the box and to redefine warfare in an era where their foes were no longer playing by any agreed rules. S.O.E. joined Bomber Command (which is also often criticised unfairly) by allowing Britain to strike back and continue the war offensively when she stood alone in the World. After the Fall of France and before the Invasion of Russia, Britain could have folded and surrendered or she could have retreated into her island shell. Churchill understood that passivity had been fatal to France during the so-called phoney war. He knew that the war had to prosecuted and be seen to be prosecuted. The actions of S.O.E. kept the light of resistance burning not just in the hearts of those living in Occupied Europe but also in the hearts of Britons who knew they were fighting a war to win. The fact that it was done with increasing professionalism and effectiveness is a testament to the achievements of its members, and especially of Colin Gubbins. This book will give you an overview of one of the key architects of this remarkable organisation which gave such hope to so many and such fear to those on the receiving end of its escapades.

British Empire Book
Brian Lett
Pen & Sword Military


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