Malcolm Atkin Military Research
Control of the Historical Narrative
History is determined by those who write it
It is a long-accepted truth that the history of war is written by the winners. This is not simply a matter of stories from the battlefield but can also be reflected in the race to establish one’s own personal perspective in print. The history of the Second World War is littered with autobiographies and biographies which have been accepted as accurate historical sources as if the very act of seeing them on the printed page gives them a validity. This is especially true in the secret world of intelligence and special operations where for decades, before the release of primary documents to the National Archives, it was impossible to corroborate the early stories of heroism and derring-do.
Such stories can encourage an emotional investment in the events of recent history by chroniclers that perhaps have, or at least feel, a second generation connection to events or people. Nowhere is this more true than the history of secret organisations such as the Special Operations Executive (SOE) or the Auxiliary Units. In the case of the SOE and commando operations , their history has often seemed to be driven more by admiration for audacity, individual heroism and suffering than a cold assessment of the strategic results. The early history of the Auxiliary Units was driven by a nationalism in which the media sought a British equivalent of the now famous French Resistance and planted this context into the minds of many veterans when they later felt able to tell their stories. The concept of them being 'the British Resistance' was then accepted almost without question in subsequent publications. Such influences can only be dissipated by the passage of time, when history can, perhaps, be re-evaluated by a more dispassionate generation. In the meantime, however, legends are promulgated across the internet by sometimes passionate supporters, and their electronic image is now equally accepted as indisputable fact, by a growing audience who expect to receive instant answers from web-sites or social media, rather than by assessing for themselves the less immediately-accessible published research and argument. An on-line query on a topic on a Facebook page is likely to receive an instant flood of opinion, some informed and some not (but all expressed in equally confident tone), whilst the referenced answer might already be lying within a text in your local library or purchasable as an e-book or in printed form.
Colin Gubbins is one of the best known figures in the history of British special operations, who became head of the legendary Special Operations Executive (SOE). Such is the aura that has been created around him that barely a word of criticism has been published about his story. Yet during the war itself he was viewed with suspicion, viewed as being overly-ambitious and even by one contemporary as ‘evil’.
One feature of Pioneers of Irregular Warfare: secrets of the Military Intelligence Research department in the Second World War (2021) is its re-assessment of the career of Colin Gubbins in MI(R) and the Auxiliary Units. Originally recruited for his expertise in training and for his strong anti-communism, he played a key role in the Polish Mission and the Independent Companies but was deeply frustratedly the role of MI(R) as a 'think tank' rather than an operation body. In sharp contrast with the self-effacing head of MI(R), Colonel Jo Holland, this was a story driven by personal ambition. In MI(R) he was responsible for relations with the early Polish and Czech resistance but spent much of his time in-fighting with Section D of SIS, repeatedly trying to impinge on the responsibilities of the latter and denigrating its leader, Colonel Laurence Grand. He repeatedly over-sold what MI(R) could offer to the Poles and Czechs (to the embarrassment of the head of MI(R) and the Director of Military Intelligence, and was eventually recalled to England. He craved for action and was next sent to command the Independent Companies in the Norwegian campaign. Here he arguably sacrificed the career of a successful Scots Guards officer to win favour with General Auchinleck – then built his reputation in that campaign on the success of the fighting retreat for which Colonel Trappes Lomax had been dismissed. He returned to England in temporary command of 24th (Guards) Brigade but the original commander returned from sick leave, leaving Gubbins unemployed.
Having already cultivated a reputation as an expert in guerrilla warfare theory (through the seminal 1939 pamphlets The Art of Guerrilla Warfare and Partisan Leader’s Handbook), he left MI(R) to command the new GHQ Auxiliary Units. Having by now cultivated the reputation of an expert on guerrilla warfare and with MI(R) having tried to advise foreign General Staffs on how to organise irregular warfare, this should have been an opportunity to put the principles of MI(R) to the test. Yet curiously Gubbins initially floundered in deciding how to organize the Auxiliary Units. He accepted the War Office view that they were to be a uniformed guerrilla force to support the field army in the event of invasion rather than a longer-term resistance organization but it took a month to arrive at what became the classic system of patrols operating from hidden operational bases. Once the main threat of invasion in 1940 had passed, he moved into the new SOE, which needed a senior army officer to try to improve relations with the War Office. In SOE he initially found he had an impressive title as Director of Operations, but limited real power, and was not even given an office in their Baker Street HQ. He steadily built up his portfolio of responsibilities and in 1943 finally became head of SOE. He re-introduced some of the para-military principles of MI(R) and was able to improve the working relationship with the War Office and theatre commanders, which would be critical for establishing the reputation of SOE during the D Day campaign. But he was also in charge during SOE’s greatest lapse in security when it failed to realise its wireless networks in Holland had been penetrated by German Intelligence, sending many agents to their deaths.
After the war, the responsibility for what to do with SOE passed to the head of SIS, Stewart Menzies - who had a long memory of battles with Gubbins. So it was that Colin Gubbins, now an Acting Major General, was unceremoniously retired on the pension of his substantive rank of colonel. This was an act of pure spite and what made it worse was that his former colleagues and sometime rivals in MI(R) and Section D, Jo Holland and Laurence Grand both had the kudos of retiring as major generals.
Gubbins would not let this slight pass easily and had a close circle of long-time allies from the former SOE who were equally dismayed by the treatment meted out to their former leader, and by extension to the organisation for which so many had sacrificed their lives. They therefore began to re-write history to put Gubbins in the best possible light. As part of this, anything he had been connected with in MI(R) automatically began to be assumed to be superior than anything his rivals in SIS could have achieved. The efforts of SIS in creating the Home Defence Scheme were systematically rubbished and the status of the GHQ Auxiliary Units enhanced. This is evidenced in the flaws with the seminal The Last Ditch (1968) despite Gubbins and a number of senior officers of the Auxiliary Units being cited as sources. Claims were here made for the Auxiliary Units that could not be tested by examining documentary evidence until decades later, by which time the mythology was almost unassailable. The process was also evident in the first history of SOE that Gubbins had himself commissioned in 1945 and was completed in 1947 (although William MacKenzie’s Secret History of SOE was not published until 2000). He also advised M.R.D. Foot to the same ends in Foot’s later history of SOE. Meanwhile, neither Jo Holland and Laurence Grand ever broke their silence regarding their own secret war, and SIS did not encourage attention on its own wartime achievements. A lop-sided myth became firmly entrenched in the historical record ago to the point that some authors would place Gubbins at the heart of every intelligence success in the Second World War. Pioneers of Irregular Warfare offers a new perspective on that reputation.