We recently had the pleasure of attending a very special book launch at the Special Forces Club in London. This private members club was founded in 1945 by men and women who had served in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), on the initiative of the last Chief of the SOE, Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins, KCMG, DSO, MC.
Brian Lett QC, the author of the this new official biography presented a talk about Sir Colin and we sat down with him to discuss his book and the role of SOE.
Why did you decide to write the official biography of Sir Colin Gubbins?
I met Colin Gubbins a number of times when I was a young man. He was a friend of my father and mother, and indeed my father worked as his unofficial ADC from a number of years in the late 1960s. My researches for Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster and The Small Scale Raiding Force reminded me of what a fascinating man he was, and, of course, of the fact that he had actually used the code name “M”.
He was a highly effective regular frontline soldier and staff officer, and yet had a total understanding of irregular warfare and “skullduggery”, based in part on his experiences in Northern Russia against the Bolsheviks, in Ireland against the IRA, and in India against the peaceful protests and campaigns of civil disobedience of Ghandi. Colin Gubbins was a truly fascinating figure.
What sort of relationship did Ian Fleming have with Sir Colin and the SOE in general?
Ian Fleming worked for some years as assistant to Admiral Godfrey, the head of Naval Intelligence, and in 1941 and 1942 had the job of liasing with SOE on Admiral Godfrey’s behalf. Fleming was later described in an Admiralty file as knowing more about the activities of SOE in its early years than anybody else in the Navy. Fleming and Gubbins got on well together, and remained in touch after the war – Fleming wrote to Gubbins as “My Dear Colin” when trying to persuade him to write an official account of what SOE had got up to. Gubbins was not allowed to do so, and so eventually Fleming used his knowledge of SOE to create his fictional post-war secret agent James Bond.
The SOE and SIS are purported to have had a strained relationship but how much did each organisation rely on each other’s expertise?
Certainly in the early years, SOE was unpopular with all the regular services, including SIS. They were regarded as amateurs and upstarts, and there was also jealousy at the funding that they had been given, and the affection that Winston Churchill had for their efforts. Inevitably, SIS and SOE operated quite regularly in similar geographical and tactical areas. SIS were the senior intelligence service. Gubbins however had the gift of being able to get on well with everybody, and by November 1940, when he was appointed to SOE, he was a very well respected regular soldier, decorated with both a DSO and an MC.Contemporary observers credit Gubbins with managing by the force of his own personality to keep SOE alive, and to forge working relationships with the other services, including SIS. There was a sharing of information between SIS and SOE when it was strictly necessary, but in my opinion, the two organisations could never really be described as friends. It is significant that SOE was officially closed down in January 1946, when Winston Churchill was no longer Prime Minister, despite an obvious continuing need for their expertise and resistance networks as the Soviet threat increased. SIS of course continued. A number of SOE agents then moved under its command.
Some notable and infamous SOE personnel were Kim Philby, Paul Dehn, Peter Fleming, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Christopher Lee and even Noel Coward. How did this unconventional SOE recruitment process work?
You cannot advertise for recruits to a really secret service, which SOE was. Thus all recruitment had to be done by personal recommendation and then interview. Serving SOE officers would be encouraged to suggest persons that they knew who might be suitable agents. SOE was fighting an all-out war for which there was no official rule book, and thus all sorts of people might be of value who would never have been accepted into the regular services – for instance prostitutes and burglars.
The interview and training processes were therefore very important, but they were far from infallible. SOE agents would pass through a series of rigorous training schools before being finally accepted. The political beliefs and affiliations of agents were very varied. For instance, in the Small Scale Raiding Force, raised by SOE in 1942, Richard Lehniger, a communist Sudeten German, fought valiantly alongside Peter Kemp, an anti-communist who had fought against communism in the Spanish Civil War. They both shared a hatred of Nazi Germany.
What do you believe to be SOE’s lasting legacy?
The friendship and mutual understanding between the Allied and Occupied nations which led to the successful founding of NATO and the longest ever continuous period of peace within western Europe. SOE had established resistance networks within all the Occupied countries, and worked very closely with them. Very many resistance leaders emerged after the war to become the political leaders of their countries, and those who did not enter politics exerted a significant influence on those who did. It is sad to see that friendship and understanding crumbling today in the face of increasing nationalism and isolationism.
Brian Lett QC has four successful books in print with Pen and Sword: SAS Operations in Italy, Ian Fleming and Operation POSTMASTER, Small Scale Raiding Force and An Italian Imprisonment The Extraordinary Story of Campo 21, 1941-1945. A practicing lawyer, he lives in Somerset and has a house in Tuscany.
Buy SOE’s Mastermind: An Authorised Biography of Major General Sir Colin Gubbin
Exclusive Interview with Brian Lett, Author of ‘Operation Postmaster’
Visit Brian Lett’s website