- Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain's Special Operations Executive by A.R.B. Linderman
This study of the forging of the Special Operations Executive (soe) to lead and support resistance movements in occupied Europe and Asia during WWII is most welcome. It provides not only a fascinating insight into the career of Major General Sir Colin Gubbins, who was the main driving force behind this newly-created and unprecedented organization, but also into the development of British doctrine for irregular warfare. Based on an impressive and wide selection of both primary and secondary sources, A.R.B. Linderman shows how Gubbins gained much experience during his post-WWI service in Russia, Ireland, and India in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition, [End Page 351] Gubbins learned from the second hand insights of others — notably T.E. Lawrence and Orde Wingate — regarding places such as Iraq, Palestine, Spain, and China. In May 1939 he distilled this knowledge into two booklets that would provide the doctrine for the partisan operations of soe, which supported the Allied armies and their war aims.
Linderman puts the emergence and development of not only soe but also of the Commandos, the Long Range Desert Group (lrdg), and the Special Air Service (sas) — some of the earliest special forces — into context. Gubbins and his contemporaries, such as Ralph A. Bagnold, "Mad Mike" Calvert, Dudley Clarke, William E. Fairbairn, and Orde Wingate, learnt much from the warfare of the early twentieth century and the many imperial small wars fought against Indigenous peoples in defence of the British Empire. These lessons allowed Gubbins to formulate a doctrine that not only learnt from the past but also drew on more contemporary events of the 1930s in Spain, Palestine, and China, where the effects of irregular warfare could be reported and studied.
Gubbins was probably unaware of Mao Tse Tung (1893–1976), who authored On Guerrilla Warfare in 1937. Given Gubbins's dislike of communism following his experiences in Russia as well as the absence of ideology in his writing, it is not surprising that he showed little inclination to investigate or adopt any of Mao's more radical ideas. soe represented a marked contrast to the more revolutionary methods of Mao in China and Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980) in Yugoslavia; the organization sought to wage a guerrilla war of ambush and sabotage in support of the Allied regular forces rather than build up the guerrilla forces into large conventional units capable of fighting the German or Japanese armies.
Instead, soe was a very practical answer to the specific requirements of 1940 when Britain faced the prospect of invasion and neither the USA nor the USSR had yet entered the war. Having helped to organize and train soe, as Linderman explains, Gubbins then set about teaching their American counterparts, notably in the Office of Strategic Services (oss). Formed in 1942 and operating under "Wild Bill" Donovan, the oss was deeply influenced by the organization and doctrine of soe. Linderman also provides a brief but valuable assessment of soe's activities in the different theatres of operations. This includes two case studies of the campaigns in Normandy and Burma. He maintains correctly that despite its failures, soe made "a substantial contribution" to the war effort and "played an important role" in the Allied victory while requiring comparatively few resources (177).
Linderman demonstrates lucidly that Gubbins himself was a major figure in the process, which shaped the ideas underpinning soe's activities and adds significantly to our understanding of how doctrine and training were developed within soe using previous British experience of irregular warfare. He also makes clear that soe did not just magically emerge in [End Page 352] 1940 but was the result of British knowledge of and experience of irregular warfare since the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. The lessons and experiences of that war had been reinforced and enlarged by those of Russia, Ireland, Spain...