There were all sorts of names for Britain’s top secret World War II commando unit. Officially, they were the Special Operations Executive. Those lacking clearance knew only their cover name: the Inter-Service Research Bureau. Internally, sometimes they were “the firm,” other times “the racket.” Because of the brutality of their work and their unconventional means of waging war, history sometimes remembers them as “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” In his new book of the same name, Damien Lewis reveals the secret story of the SOE, whose daring agents and commandos would go on to invent many of the tactics and techniques of special operations today.

CHURCHILL’S “HAND OF STEEL”

Winston Churchill ordered the formation of the Special Operations Executive in 1940. Their mission: to subvert, sabotage, and assassinate. There were things, Churchill reasoned, that small teams could get away with that military divisions could not, and there were things that needed to be done that were too messy to have associated with Britain and its government. (Lewis describes these things as “politically explosive, illegal, or unconscionable.”) The SOE was formed with one phrase in mind: total deniability. They didn’t belong to the military, but instead to the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and anything they did was to be disowned by the government. “Officially,” writes Lewis, “the SOE didn’t exist, and neither did its agents nor its missions, which meant that anything was possible.”

Its ranks were drawn from “volunteers for Special Duties.” So secret were its members that agents were paid in cash, which minimized the paper trail and eliminated evidence that might connect the agents. The choice characteristics of an SOE agent: “fiery, disdainful, rebellious, and individualistic, with little respect for the formal hierarchies that defined the established military.”

THE LUXURY OF SQUEAMISHNESS

They trained at a site called Experimental Station 6, which was, in fact, the “seemingly genteel” Ashton Manor in Hertfordshire in southern England. Agents called it their “school for bloody mayhem.” There they trained in such arts as knife-fighting (“it never runs out of ammunition”), strangulation, and shooting pistols from the hip. They learned how best to shoot someone dead in close quarters—the “double-tap” being the preferred method: a fast shot to the torso, and then a slow, careful shot to the head (“one cannot afford the luxury of squeamishness”). They trained with bows and arrows, which deserved a place in modern warfare (so SOE argued) as a soundless weapon that killed “without shock or pain,” thus minimizing the risk of screams.

They were taught “to wage war in what was then a very un-British way—fast and dirty, with no holds barred ... they had been taught to fight ‘without a tremor of apprehension, to hurt, maul, injure, or kill with ease.'"

Lewis concludes, “What they taught at Station 6 wasn’t fair or pretty, but it certainly delivered.”

REINVENTING WAR

What is perhaps most fascinating about World War II special operations is that everything taken for granted today had once to be invented. The SOE, for example, had to work out how best to do water infiltrations with canoes, which were completely silent and thus highly effective vessels. In Africa, they had to figure out how to do this without being eaten by sharks. They faced pushback from a decidedly conservative military establishment, which considered them to be “lawless agent-commandos.” The Royal Navy banned them from all theaters of operation but Africa.

They also faced the problem of remaining a secret even as they piled one high-profile success atop another. One member of Parliament almost blew their cover from the floor of the House of Commons. Confronting Churchill, he asked: “Is it true, Mr. Prime Minister, that there is a body of men out in the Aegean Islands, fighting under the Union Flag, that are nothing short of being a band of murderous, renegade cutthroats?”

Replied Churchill: “If you do not take your seat and keep quiet, I will send you out to join them.”

Under Hitler’s personal order, any SOE agents caught were to be given “special treatment”—hanged with piano wire, an especially slow and painful way to go, and a threat likely to get captured agents to talk. Members signed documents that declared an understanding “that he would to be disowned by the British government in the event of his death or capture.” In effect, when out on missions they were on their own. “Being taken alive didn’t bear thinking about, for they would very likely be treated as spies—tortured and executed.” A standing order under which they operated: “Avoid a fight if humanly possible, but resist capture to the last.”

They stole German and Italian ships docked in Spanish ports (in violation of Spain’s neutrality). They detonated explosives on railways in Greece, cutting off German supply lines. They linked up with partisans and guerrilla fighters across Europe and organized and coordinated missions. They blew up fuel depots and airfields. They wore disguises and gathered intelligence. Small teams parachuted into France to support D-Day operations. They engaged in withering firefights all across Europe, and terrified German officers. (In an intercepted letter to his commander, one German wrote of the special operations force, “The British come like cats and disappear like ghosts.”)

They were enormously effective, but they were human beings and felt the effects of their sometimes grisly work. One SOE agent recorded hauntingly in his diary after a grim mission: “The hardest and most difficult job I have ever done—used my knife for the first time.”

LICENSE TO KILL

Over the course of World War II, various parts of the Special Operations Executive would be subsumed into such units as the Special Air Service. After the war, the SOE itself was disbanded. Its legacy lives on in special operations units around the world. (A knife is represented on the insignia of such units as the British SAS, the U.S. Army Special Forces, and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.)

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve heard of the SOE. Some of this will probably sound familiar. They had code names like W.03 and W.25. For example: Major Gus March-Phillips, who led Operation Postmaster—the first deniable operation of World War II—was code-named W.01. The “W” was for West Africa; the “01” was because he was the first agent assigned there. The “0” according to Lewis, signified that he “was a ‘zero-rated’ agent, meaning he was trained and licensed to use all means to liquidate the enemy.” (Not all agents for SOE were zero-rated; they weren’t all trained to kill, though every member excelled in “the subtle arts of subterfuge, trickery, and deception.”)

Major-General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins was a celebrated SOE director of training and operations. The secret agents of the SOE called him M.

Legendary SOE member Major Anders Lassen made a lasting impression on a young officer named Ian Fleming, who was SOE liaison at the British Admiralty. According to Lewis, Fleming would base James Bond in part on Lassen. Fleming’s fiction would also give new life to M, zero-ratings, daring secret agents, and licenses to kill. Even the words and attitudes of SOE agents fit the Bond mold. During one raid, a friendly fire incident left Lassen with a terrible flesh wound, and he unleashed a torrent of fury on the soldier responsible. Much later, when the mission was over, Lassen approached the soldier with a mug of rum in hand. “Here,” he said. “Drink this.”

The soldier accepted the drink, and said, “Oh, sir ... but I shot you.”

Lassen replied, “You did, and you may be a bloody Irish gunslinger but you are my best soldier. I forgive you. I apologize for what I said. But Sean, do not shoot me again.”

If The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare proves anything, it’s that such fiction as the James Bond series pales when compared with the men who inspired it.