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From: Irish Foreign Affairs: Articles
Date: April, 2010
By: Philip O'Connor

British war strategy, the SOE and the IRA

British war strategy, the SOE and the IRA

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established in 1940 to support or create resistance movements in Europe and organise widespread “sabotage and subversion” as an extension of the British war effort. It was consciously outside and contrary to the “Rules of War” and was accompanied by military coups and sabotage raids organised by other branches of the secret services in pursuit of British war aims. The Anglo-German War of 1939-41 gave way in summer 1941 to a much wider and very different war, which, as a former leading operative of SOE described it, led to

“an upsurge of anti-Fascist resistance throughout Occupied Europe on a scale hitherto undreamed of by SOE.” (P.A. Wilkensen, J. Bright Ashley, 1993, p. 94)

At the peak of the war, according to its former commander, SOE consisted of about 10,000 personnel,

“but we were controlling as it were very large numbers of patriot forces; 16,000 perhaps in Denmark; 20,000 in Norway; 100,000 in France; 18,000 in Burma, and so on.” (Gubbins, Sir Colin, 1974, p. 105)

Unfortunate Irish inspiration

M.R.D. Foot – in WW2 a British intelligence officer involved in clandestine activities - was commissioned by Harold McMillan to write the official history of the SOE in France, and went on to write numerous books and articles on the subject. He delivered a lecture in Dublin in 1969 to the Military History Society on ‘Michel Collins and Irregular Warfare’. Present at the lecture – he subsequently noted – was

“an alarmingly large number of former participants [in the Anglo-Irish War] ... including Collins’ chief of staff in the Troubles, subsequently commander-in-chief of the Irish Army ...; three silent survivors of the ‘Twelve Apostles’; his personal bodyguard; and two former members of the detective division in Dublin Castle, who had doubled their official task by acting among his leading intelligence agents.”

Also present, though Foot does not mention it, was the British Ambassador, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, a former counter insurgency specialist and senior intelligence officer.

Foot said some interesting things, including that in 1914 the United Kingdom had been on “the verge of civil war” over Ulster, pre-empted at the last minute only by the Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. On the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21 he expressed his admiration for the IRA as a sparsely resourced guerrilla movement, its underground state, and its intelligence-based insurrection.

“Ireland,” he said, had become “a world model of how to conduct a successful insurrection against an occupying colonial power.”

He also stated:

"... the British drew an offensive as well as a defensive lesson from the Irish difficulties, learning how to stimulate resistance to an occupying army when engaged in another kind of anti-imperialist struggle themselves."

Lessons (or personnel) from the “goings-on in Ulster in 1913-14” played no role in “subversive British activity in the war of 1939”, but:

"what Collins did in Dublin had a noticeable impact ... through two of his junior but intelligent opponents, [Major] J.C.F. Holland and [Major] C. McV. Gubbins... Both were profoundly impressed with the powerlessness of regular troops against the resolute gunmen who could rely on the local population not to give them away ... both saw the advantages, in economy of life and effectiveness of effort, of the Irish guerrilla they could not see. And both were determined that next time, if there had to be a next time, guerrilla should be used by the British instead of against them."

Later at the War Office J.C.F. Holland undertook a special study of “irregular warfare” and was put in charge of the secret service unit set up to work on it in 1938, - “General Services (Research)” or GS(R). When offered the chance to pick an associate, he chose his old colleague Colin Gubbins. In early 1939, and building on their Irish experience, they proposed a comprehensive plan for an army of “sabotage and subversion” to operate outside the laws of war in taking on the enemy through flying columns, civic disobedience, the execution of traitors and enemy agents, explosions and intelligence. In 1940 they were tasked with establishing the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which General Gubbins later went on to command. Foot concluded:

“The Irish can thus claim that their resistance provided an originating impulse for resistance to tyrannies worse than any they had had to endure themselves.” (M.R.D. Foot, 1973, pp. 57-69.)

Foot, of course, may have been a man on a mission and may have had grounds to want to flatter such an impressive audience. 1969 was a year of intense British activity in Ireland. When the North erupted in August, Gilchrist, who had experience of postings in many trouble spots around the world, acted as a go between to the Foreign Office and Downing Street for Major Tom McDowell, himself a former British intelligence officer. McDowell wanted to place his newspaper, The Irish Times, under the direction of London, as its editor, Douglas Gageby, a former wartime Irish Army intelligence officer, was, according to McDowell, “…on Northern questions a renegade or white nigger.” (See John Martin, 2008.) But Foot – who knew personally many of those involved at the top of SOE – repeated his thesis of the Irish inspiration for the SOE in more depth in later publications, sometimes in even more emphatic terms. (E.g. M.R.D. Foot, 1981, p. 185.)

Foot’s views on this issue have come under attack. That post-war British military officials might have second thoughts about legitimizing a source of terrorism and insurgency like the SOE, as has been argued, for example, by military historian John Keagan, is hardly surprising. The IRA inspiration for SOE strategy is regularly played down in British accounts of SOE (Foot is an exception), and this is hardly surprising – Britain is not in the habit of announcing to the world that it learns anything much from Ireland. After fighting “insurgencies” for centuries, to be promoting and organising them, as they did in WW2, was a novelty. And, after the war, Britain was to return to its more accustomed role of wide scale counter-insurgency operations in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus, Aden and elsewhere. Indeed, when SOE was dissolved on January 15, 1946, 260 of its key intelligence agents and various of its underground networks were moved to MI6 precisely for this purpose. (John Keegan, 2003.)

Eunan O’Halpin, “Bank of Ireland Chair of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin”, writes extensively about Ireland and British intelligence. In his most recent book, he decisively throws cold water on the notion of an IRA/Sinn Féin inspiration for SOE, or indeed the idea that Britain learned anything from its war in Ireland:

"Few British military thinkers sought to draw wider lessons from the Irish War of Independence. A number of officers who were to make their names as intelligence or irregular warfare specialists, such as J.C.F. Holland of the War Office think-tank GS(R), which in 1939 developed into MI(R), Colin Gubbins of the Special operations Executive (SOE) and Kenneth Strong, Eisenhower’s chief of intelligence in 1944-5, had served in Ireland between 1919 and 1922 (Gubbins commanded the detachment which provided the field gun with which the Provisional Government troops shelled the Four Courts at the commencement of the Civil War, and was also in charge of the handover of the gun-carriage lent to the Irish to bear the remains of Michael Collins).
Undue emphasis has been placed on the importance for such officers of the experience of Irish rebellion and counter-insurgency. In 1969, M.R.D. Foot, the official historian of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France, presented a celebrated lecture in Dublin on ‘Michael Collins and Irregular Warfare’. Amongst his audience was the British Ambassador, Andrew Gilchrist, himself an old SOE hand, who thought the lecture brilliant. So too did Gilchrist’s closest Irish friends, Colonel David Nlligan and Major-General Sean Collins-Powell, respectively Collins’s ‘spy in the Castle’ in 1920 and 1921, and Collins’s nephew. Gilchrist bemoaned the absence of a single politician from the ruling Fianna Fáil party at the lecture. But perhaps the Fianna Fáilers were right to doubt the weight of the speaker’s argument, because a survey of inter-war British military thought and planning yields very few references to the intelligence, counter-insurgency, or irregular warfare lessons of the Irish campaign of 1919-21." (Eunan O’Halpin, 2008, pp. 26-7. )

O’Halpin’s colleague, Keith Jeffery of Queen’s University Belfast, who also specialises in British intelligence and has been appointed to head the team writing the official history of M16, drew the same lesson as O’Halpin, though twenty years earlier, with regard to the Irish “counter-insurgency”:

"Scarcely any lessons with regard to counter-insurgency campaigning generally were drawn from the Irish experience... M.R.D. Foot has, however, asserted that in the persons of J.C.F. Holland and C. Mv. Gubbins, both of whom had served in Ireland, the experience of that campaign was not entirely lost, at least in its contribution to SOE." (Keith Jeffery, (1987), no. 1, pp. 118-147.)

But he is not as cock sure as O’Halpin in dismissing this influence, and quotes one book used in staff colleges – Col. H. J. Simpson, British Rule and Rebellion (Edinburgh, 1937) – which described the “Sinn Fein campaign in Ireland in 1920-21” as the “one most skilfully managed by the other side”. The main lesson Simpson drew was that

“It is better to win first and then give, as we did in South Africa, than do as we did in Ireland in 1921 and are doing now in Palestine.” (Jeffery, 2006, pp. 32-53.)

(Although these seem to the present writer to be pretty clear “lessons”, Jeffrey gives a clue as to the political reasons why there was a reticence to talk too much about the “Irish experience” in 1930s Britain, the era of “appeasement” towards Ireland -:

“In the standard inter-war text on what is now called ‘low intensity conflict’, Imperial Policing, Sir Charles Gwynn ‘thought it inadvisable to draw on experiences in Ireland, instructive from a military point of view as many of them were’...” (Jeffery, 1987)

British war strategy in 1939
The beginnings of the SOE lay not in anti-fascist struggle but in British war planning of the 1930s.
British “appeasement” strategy in the 1930s was one which sought to come to terms with the weakening of the British Empire. It was first adopted towards Indian demands for Home Rule and then towards De Valera’s Ireland. It was a policy which had few friends at the Foreign Office or the Imperial General Staff. Churchill was the most vociferous opponent of appeasement, particularly towards India. Another leading anti-appeaser was Leo Amery, a former Colonial Secretary and Governor of India. While disagreeing with Churchill’s hard line on India, he supported him on Ireland. Amery had been a die-hard during the Irish War of Independence (“I had been opposed to Irish Home Rule from first to last”), (Leopold S. Amery, 1953, p. 245.) and opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1938 as a sell out of imperial interests. The agreement settled the issue of Land Annuities and agreed a final British military withdrawal from the Irish Free State. Like Churchill, Amery was a supporter of Zionism as a project of British imperial expansion, despite expressing a dislike of Jews and recalling

“the great deal of shirking of conscription among Jews in the East End of London” in WW1. (Leopold S. Amery, 1953, p. 245.)

In 1919 Churchill had defended the anti-Jewish pogroms being committed by Deniken’s ‘White Army’ in Russia and went on to denounce the Soviet Union as a “world wide communistic state under Jewish domination.” He later championed Mussolini and Fascist Italy as a world bulwark against Soviet Russia, defended the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the Japanese onslaught on China and Franco’s rebellion in Spain. On 14th April 1937 he told the House of Commons:

“I will not pretend that if I had to choose between Communism and Nazism I would choose Communism.” (See Manus O’Riordan, April 2010.)

The opposition of Churchill, Amery and others to the “appeasement” of Germany in allowing it to reverse the armament and territorial aspects of the Versailles Treaty was from the perspective of the weakening of British power, not because of any aversion to fascism. They equally opposed the “appeasement” of the Soviet Union.

Imperial circles in Britain, who had supported German re-armament – culminating in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 – as a counter-balance to France and a bulwark against Soviet Russia, moved in 1936 to a strategy of containment of Germany. As developed in that year by the Imperial General Staff, this strategy did not foresee large scale involvement in a land war, but instead, in the words of the Imperial General Staff, would start with

“weakening Germany and Italy by the exercise of economic pressure and by intensive propaganda, while at the same time building up our major strength until we can adopt an offensive strategy. Command of the sea would then confer freedom of choice in striking at the enemy’s most vulnerable points.”

Germany, which depended on imports of critical materials, would collapse through these measures. The doctrine of ‘economic warfare’, in addition to blockade, embraced the air bombing of industrial targets combined with “sabotage and psychological warfare”. In pursuance of this strategy, armament investment in the 1930s was concentrated on Bomber Command and the Royal Navy, and the development of propaganda and subversion techniques. (David Stafford, 1980, pp. 10-11.)
Following the German absorption in February 1939 of the Czech rump of Czechoslovakia (the Slovak part went on to establish a separate state and was not occupied), Britain was put on a war footing and activated the strategy of the Imperial General Staff. Partly to forestall an imminent Polish-German Axis, on 31st March 1939 Britain (and France) declared a unilateral “Guarantee” to defend Poland in case of attack. The surprised Polish Foreign Minister, Józef Beck, rushed to London and on 6th April and signed a military alliance of mutual assistance in case of attack by “a European power”, with a secret protocol defining this as Germany. A week later Britain followed this with similar unilateral guarantees to Romania and Greece, also thought to be dangerously on the verge of concluding co-operative agreements with Germany. Poland, which had rejected Soviet proposals for a common security agreement, now secure in its alliance with Britain stalled its talks with Germany. Up to the British guarantee Germany had sought an agreement with Poland over the matter of a link to its East Prussian province across the two-mile Polish corridor.

The role of Poland in British strategy
When Britain and France issued their “Guarantee” to Poland, they had no intention of defending it. In fact, British military planners had already written it off. On the eve of Chamberlain’s announcement of the “Guarantee”, the Imperial General Staff in March 1939 concluded that in a Polish-German conflict, fighting would last two to three months and, while Germany would win, its army would suffer considerable losses and be severely depleted. This would put the French army at a major advantage over Germany and enable it to box it in. They assumed the British military would be unable to render any assistance to the Polish Army. Defending Poland was not the aim. Rather a German attack on it would act as the trigger for war to be executed against Germany until its destruction. In May 1939 the French and British high commands met and agreed a “long war strategy”. This foresaw Poland being left to its own devices. But in July 1939 the French Chief of Staff, General Gamelin, informed his British counterpart, Lord Gort:

“We have every interest in the war beginning in the East and becoming a general conflict only little by little. We will thus have the time necessary to put on a war footing all Franco-British Forces." (Nicole Jordan, 1992, p. 294)

The massive French army would hold the western front while British military and diplomatic actions throughout the continent and at sea would slowly strangle Germany until it was weak enough for an offensive against it. The British Embassy and Military Mission in Poland were ordered to keep the Franco-British plan of May 1939 secret from the Poles. (Andrzej Peplonski et al, 2005, pp. 172-5.)While France and Britain would go to war over Poland, that country was in fact simply to be a casus belli for a continent wide war on Germany.

The combined strategy of naval blockade, aerial bombardment and sabotage/subversion was an offensive strategy that, in the words of a German historian,

“presupposed and aimed at the expansion and prolonging of the war.” (Gerhard Schulze, 1982, p. 37.)

Avoiding a war with Germany through agreement over the “Polish Corridor” or seeking to contain or end it should it start formed no part of the strategy. It was in this context that the Soviet Union moved to secure its exclusion from the war for as long as that was feasible. On 27th August 1939, Germany and Soviet Russia signed a wide-ranging Non-Aggression Pact dividing eastern Europe into “spheres of influence” and committing the parties to extensive economic, political and military cooperation.

The role of Poland after its (presumed) defeat was to continue a harassing war of sabotage from the underground against Germany. To lay the groundwork for the underground war, Colin Gubbins of the secret planning unit of the War Office travelled to Romania and Poland in May 1939 – four months before the Polish war actually started - where, he later reported, he organised instruction in partisan and sabotage tactics in case of German occupation, and also tried to organise pre-emptive sabotage missions in Romania to break off oil supplies to Germany. He knew Poland well. Up to the change of British strategy in 1936 he had organised joint covert actions with Poland across the Polish border into Soviet Russia. In May 1939 a British Military Mission was established in Warsaw and the Poles were again assured in July that in case of a German attack

“the Government of His Majesty will provide immediate assistance on the ground, in the air and at sea.” (Peplonski, p. 174.)

In the event, following the German-Soviet Pact (27th August) and the German invasion on 1st September, the formal declaration of war on Germany by Britain and France on 3rd September was followed solely by the forceful implementation of the blockade already established in Britain’s war strategy. It prepared to move an expeditionary army to France and set about preparing the ground for warfare throughout Europe. In a farewell speech to Polish military leaders on 17th September – as the Red Army moved in to occupy eastern Poland up to the Curzon Line of 1921 - Gubbins, as instructed, solemnly promised the Poles that

“Britain would fight on until Poland was once more free and its territory restored.” (E.D.R. Harrison, 2000, no. 4, p. 1073.)

"The Poles had believed that with their “Guarantee” they were poised for victory. They massed their army in the Poznan salient west of the Vistula believing that the promised French offensive in the west against the numerically inferior German army, combined with promised British bombing of Germany, would cause a German collapse and enable the Polish Army break through and march on Berlin. But nothing of the sort happened and in three weeks it was all over. When the Red Army occupied eastern Poland on 17th September under the terms of the Soviet-German Pact, the Poles pleaded for the west to declare war on the Soviet Union. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, coolly responded that Britain had no obligation to do so under the “Guarantee”, which referred exclusively to Germany." (Quoted in Anita J. Prazmowska, 1995.)

What Britain was fighting for
On 3rd September 1939, Britain and France launched a war of encirclement and blockade against Germany. France instituted a system of government by decree and banned and began to arrest members of the communist party. Before its defeat, Poland since the mid-thirties had been evolving rapidly towards a fascist state, with Government sponsored anti-semitic persecution. Until early 1940 Britain hoped to gain fascist Italy, Romania and Greece as allies, especially after Mussolini attacked the Soviet-German Pact as a betrayal of the “principles of fascism”. In 1939 Germany was a fascist state – it arguably became something different in the course of the “Second World War”. But in 1939 it was one fascist state among very many in Europe, some of which were allies of Britain. Germany’s anti-semitic laws and legal and economic squeezing of its Jewish population aimed at inducing their emigration (and a large proportion had emigrated by 1939) were not of themselves uniquely exceptional in Europe. Nor were they ever mentioned as a cause for war on the part of Britain and France. The problem with Germany was not that it was fascist, or anti-semitic, but that it was Germany, and that it was resurgent. Of the myriad “independent states” that emerged in the back-wash of the 1914-21 catastrophe, the Irish Free State was virtually alone in still being a parliamentary democracy in 1939. And virtually every state in Europe, from Spain to Lithuania, Hungary to Norway, Ireland to Romania, declared their neutrality following the opening of the Anglo-French war on Germany, presuming it to be a struggle between the powers to re-arrange the balance of power between them.

What Britain’s public, propagandist, war aims should be – beyond its obvious imperial interests in defeating Germany - was briefly a matter of confusion to itself. The American author and historian, Lynne Olson, describes the agitation on this issue among Britain’s ruling circles in the months following the defeat of Poland as follows:

"If Britain was not going to defend Poland, people wondered, why on earth were they still at war? Was there any other reason to continue this supposed conflict? If so, Chamberlain’s government never said what it was, despite pleas from Commonwealth leaders and others to tell them what Britain’s war aims were..."

There was an urgent need to define some noble war aims, as unease and industrial unrest were spreading rapidly in the population, with the communist interpretation of the war as another round of inter-imperialist juggling winning widespread sympathy.

When Lord Halifax asked Lord Cadogan what he thought Britain’s war aims should be, Cadogan replied that he saw “awful difficulties” in anything that might be proposed.

“I suppose the cry is ‘Abolish Hitlerism,’” Cadogan wrote in his diary. “But what if Hitler hands over to Goering? Meanwhile, what of the course of operations? What if Germany now sits tight? ... What do we do? Build up our armaments feverishly? What for? ... Time is on our side...”

Churchill was included in the government and remained a loyal supporter of Chamberlain until Amery engineered a reshuffling of the Government in May 1940. With Churchill, the British cause found its voice. In his first speech as First Lord of the Admiralty on 1st October 1939, Olson reports,

“he savaged Hitler ‘and his group of wicked men, whose hands are stained with blood and soiled with corruption’, and promised that Britain, as the ‘defenders of civilisation and freedom,’ would fight to the end.” (Lybbe Olsen2007, pp. 241-2, 263.)

It was 1914 all over again, with ‘Hitlerism’ replacing ‘Prussianism’, a new Great War of Good versus Evil.

The Anglo-German war 1939-41
Under Churchill the strategy of the Imperial General Staff was not changed. Blockade, aerial bombardment and diversionary sabotage, subversion and raiding attacks ever widening the periphery of the war zone and engulfing state after state was pursued. The declared “neutrality” of states was regarded as immaterial. Germany had no plans beyond Poland and set about implementing its deal with Russia over spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, understood on the German side in economic terms. “Germanisation” and “ethnographical policy” focussed on transporting German minorities from East European countries “back to the Reich” or to occupied Poland. To deal with the Franco-British war against it, at the end of 1939 Hitler ordered plans be prepared to take on the French, whom he hoped to “knock out”, conclude an armistice with them and then reach a peace with Britain. The military plan for attacking France developed in December 1939 included ignoring Belgian neutrality, but then so did the Anglo-French plans, which prepared for their main battle with Germany to take place in Belgium.

In late 1939 Britain unleashed the naval war across the Atlantic Ocean, driving the much smaller German navy out of it, and began bombing German cities. By 1940, despite some spectacular successes by U-Boots, the German “blockade” of Britain amounted to twelve submarines in the North Atlantic. Britain and France considered intervening in the Finnish-Soviet war on the Finnish side, the British seeing it as an opportunity to strike into Sweden and halt ore supplies to Germany. The Finns, however, while accepting supplies of aid from France, did not want to be drawn into an ever expanding war strategy, and cut their losses by concluding a peace deal with Russia. Britain then decided on an audacious plan to mine Norwegian harbours and send raiding forces into Sweden bringing those countries into the war and completing the northern blockade against Germany. These plans were discovered by the Germans and precipitated a last minute and previously unplanned pre-emptive German occupation of Denmark and Norway.

British forces throughout the Empire backed up the blockade strategy by securing swathes of territories in Africa and Asia. After the German defeat of the Franco-British forces the French State signed an Armistice with Germany in June 1940. Britain simply rejected the legitimacy of the French agreement with Germany and proceeded to attack and sink much of the French fleet off the West African coast and to organise clandestine warfare in France in league with some French officers who refused to accept the defeat of the French state.

Despite the air war over Britain in summer 1940 there was no sense in British ruling circles of being on the point of defeat. Even while the “Battle of Britain” raged, military and underground operations were planned and executed in Abyssinia, the Mid East and the Balkans. It was widely believed in British government circles that the blockade would bring Germany to its knees. It secured massive economic and military aid from the American government and set about planning to bring the US into the war. In June 1940 Hugh Dalton, a Labour minister in the Churchill government, in his diary predicted that within six months Europe would be faced with

“famine, starvation and revolt, most of all in the slave lands which Germany had overrun”

and Sir Stephen King-Hall predicted in his newsletter that

“in due course Field Marshall Famine may knock at Hitler’s door.”

George Orwell expressed similar sentiments and Harold Nicholson predicted starvation in Germany by 1941. (Stafford, p. 16)

Every step in the escalation of the war after the defeat of the armies of France and Britain was initiated by the British, who clung to the “long war” strategy, while Hitler persisted in his hopes of a peace with Britain and the preservation of the British Empire. In 1940 Britain’s armies in North Africa inflicted defeats on the Italians, who had been busy trying to build a colonial niche for themselves there. In February 1941 Hitler felt obliged to send a diminutive force under Rommel to shore up his Italian ally and, to everyone’s surprise, soon had the British in headlong retreat. As earlier with Scandinavia, Germany had no offensive plans with regard to the Balkans and, again as with Scandinavia, presumed their neutrality. Britain, however, supported an anti-German military coup and toppled the neutral Yugoslav government, and moved a large expeditionary force into Greece. British efforts at regime change in Romania were forestalled by military developments. Following the Yugoslav coup, the Wehrmacht turned south, rapidly occupying the Balkans and again ejecting the British armies.

The SOE in the Anglo-German War
In 1938 Colonel J.C.F. Holland was appointed head of General Services (Research) – GS(R) – a section of the intelligence division of the War Office, tasked with researching and developing a comprehensive strategy for the war of subversion and sabotage foreseen in the planning of the Imperial General Staff for a renewed war on Germany. Holland, “an enthusiast for guerrilla warfare since fighting the IRA in 1919-22”, who also had experience in India and as an airman with T.E. Lawrence, and had studied “irregular warfare”, was brought in to head it. (Simon Anglim, 2005 pp. 631-653 ) He recruited his old colleague, Col. Colin Gubbins, to assist him. Gubbins had served a year in Northern Russia in 1919 as adjutant to General Ironside’s expeditionary force sent to aid the anti-Bolshevik ‘White Army’ before being moved to Ireland in charge of an artillery unit. Gubblins described Holland as developing his theories of guerrilla warfare from his

“studies of Boer tactics in South Africa, of the Civil War in Spain, of the Sino-Japanese conflict and of his own experiences of the use made by the Irish of irregular troops during the ‘Troubles’” (J. A. Ashley, 1971)

Exactly what Gubbins did in Ireland is unclear (beyond his formal posting as an artillery officer). His 250-page biography by close associates in intelligence, Peter Wilkenson and Jane Ashley, mentions in just a few lines the three years he spent in Ireland from November 1919. But, once there,

“he settled in to learn all he could about clandestine warfare and the intelligence without which it could not function. ” (Wilkenson and Ashley, p. 26-7)

While he deeply disliked the forces opposing him in both Russia and Ireland, he was intrigued by the tactics of the IRA. Throughout the 1920-30s –

“his experiences in Ireland and North Russia making him an obvious candidate for intelligence”

– he was involved in covert anti-Soviet intelligence work both in eastern Europe and at the War Office.

The first product of Holland and Gubbins’ joint work at GS(R) was a proposal to the Imperial General Staff in May 1939 arguing that the German takeover of Czechoslovakia and diplomatic advances in the Balkans presented opportunities for

“an alternative method of defence ... to organised armed resistance ... based on experience we have had in India, Irak [sic], Ireland and Russia, i.e. the development of a combination of guerrilla and IRA tactics.”

In a later memo they argued that the lack of an indigenous resistance movement should not stop guerrilla activity being fostered pro-actively from the outside, perhaps initially against the wishes of the local population –

“Unless they arise spontaneously from within the countries concerned ..,. the organisation will have to be fostered from outside. This shouldn’t in the end prove impossible of achievement; the Irish revolt was largely fostered from the USA.” (Anglim, pp. 634-6.)

They proposed an organisation be established to direct and control a strategy of subversion in Europe. As M.R.D. Foot put it, Holland

“had conceived some such body as the SOE when in Ireland during the Troubles of the early 1920s.” (M.R.D. Foot, 1976, pp. 129)

Their proposals were enthusiastically received and they were immediately commissioned by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Lord Gort, to draft detailed manuals on guerrilla warfare. In mid-1939 – months before the start of the Polish war, though in the context of the “long war” planned to commence with it - they delivered three handbooks –The Art of Guerrilla Warfare, The Partisan Leader’s Handbook and How to Use High Explosives. These set out the conditions for successful guerrilla war, including a supportive population, long-term strategies for making territories ungovernable, the development of underground quasi-government networks, the role of flying columns, the intelligence function of supportive populations, including especially women and children, the organising of small mobile groups and broader support networks, tactics in eliminating spies, informers and traitors, withstanding interrogation and torture, etc. The character, patriotic commitment, abilities and local popularity of partisan leaders, as well as efficient intelligence systems, are seen as the keys to success. (The Art of Guerrilla Warfare is available at

These handbooks, which were distributed by the thousand in Europe, bear all the hallmarks – and shortcomings – of intelligent British understandings of what the IRA of 1919-21 was about. For example, they do not refer to how partisan movements are rooted in a political legitimacy – in the Irish case the 1918 elections and the IRA oath of loyalty to the elected Dáil then under military onslaught by the British state. They also stay within the confines of British strategy, which foresaw such movements being tightly controlled from the outside by the greater strategy of the British military leadership and with British officers and trainers appointed to them. But they provide a detailed description of successful guerrilla warfare in nature more familiar from Ireland than Iraq or China. And reflect British counter-insurgency thinking from the 1919-21 war in how they describe probable counter-measures and also in the combination of underground warfare with ‘black’ and ‘white’ propaganda techniques. (See Brian P. Murphy 2006) M.R.D. Foot described The Art of Guerrilla Warfare as “based on direct experience in Ireland and much reflection since” and it is difficult to fault this assessment. (Foot, 1976, p. 137)

GS(R) organised the training of officers, operatives and agents in these techniques over the following months, and were also involved in some clandestine operations in Romania, Poland, the Balkans, Scandinavia and elsewhere, and planned partisan groups for the eventuality of an invasion of Britain itself, with Gubbins appointed to command them. Along with the naval blockade and the strategic bombing of Germany, implementing the planned “Irregular War” was a top priority of the British war strategy.

Gubbins and Holland were not the only officers with “Irish experience” to play a prominent role in intelligence and partisan tactics in the Second World War. Peter Hart, author of the now infamous The IRA and its Enemies, has expressed surprise that the British police chief in the Anglo-Irish war – General Hugh Tudor –chose as his Chief of Intelligence an artilleryman, the Anglo-Irish Colonel Ormonde de l’Epée Winter,

“who had no experience of intelligence or police work.” (Peter Hart 2002, p. 6 f.)

But Winter had risen to command a division in the Great War and Tudor himself came from the Royal Artillery, as did Gubbins. In fact it is surprising just how many British artillery officers serving in Ireland were involved in counter-insurgency/intelligence and propaganda roles and went on to play key roles in British intelligence operations in WW2. Col. Henry de Mountmorency, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, was another artillery officer in WW1 who returned to Ireland as a bitter opponent of separatists and worked under Winter as the Intelligence Officer of the Auxiliaries in County Westmeath. (‘From Patriot to Spy’ (Obituary), The Irish Times, 4th August 1979) Dudley Wrangel Clarke was another one – in WW2 he was to be involved in setting up both the SAS and the Commandoes. Yet another was E.E. Mockler-Ferryman, Royal Artillery and intelligence, who rose in WW2 to intelligence chief in North Africa under Eisenhower and commander of SOE in North Western Europe. (Nicholas Rankin 2008, pp. 178 ff.)

Perhaps it was something to do with the uselessness of artillery in the situation the British found themselves in Ireland in 1919-21!

In July 1940, the Coalition Government headed by Churchill agreed the establishment of the Special Operations Executive. Josef Garlinski, an officer in the Polish underground Home Army and a close colleague of Gubbins in the war, wrote an account of matters in the 1960s. Reflecting on events in 1940 and the astounding cross-party unity constructed in Britain to secure “survival and victory in yet another of Britain’s wars”, he describes the meeting on 22nd July 1940 when Churchill met with Ministers Anthony Eden and Hugh Dalton and announced his decision to launch a war of subversion and sabotage across Europe. Garlinski paraphrases Churchill from the surviving accounts:

"Precedents for this type of fighting were not lacking. Although it was centuries since Britain had had to resort to underground methods in their own country, they had had much to do with such movements in the course of battling to maintain their empire. One had only to remember the Sinn Fein organization which for years harried British troops in Ireland. If Britain, which was still free and at war, extended a hand to the conquered but subdued peoples of Europe, German troops and authorities could be effectively attacked by unseen enemies... Sabotage, propaganda, attack [sic] on the lives of key officials, the disruption of work and industry and a general stirring up of the occupied countries – such were the purposes for which it was proposed to set up a far reaching organization." (Josef Garlinski, 1969, p. 21.)

Churchill added, however, that such activities could not be left to local control, or

“isolated from what the [British] government and armed forces are doing. The secret operations must fit into the general military picture, and you must keep the Services informed of your plans in general terms.”

After Churchill had outlined his plan at the meeting, Dalton asked :

“So, we are to go to work everywhere and with all available means”,

to which Churchill responded,

“Set Europe ablaze!” (Churchill’s comment is recorded in Dalton’s diary as “And now, go and set Europe ablaze.” Entry for 22nd July 1940, p. 62.)

Dalton, the Labour Party “Minister for Economic Warfare”, includes in his memoirs a letter he wrote that day to Halifax, the Foreign Minister, describing the “war from within” which he was now tasked with overseeing:

"We must organize movements in enemy occupied territory, comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland, to the Chinese guerrillas now operating against Japan, to the Spanish Irregulars who played a notable part in Wellington’s campaign or – one might as well admit it - to the organizations which the Nazis themselves developed so remarkably in almost every country in the world. We must use many different methods, including industrial and military sabotage, labour agitation and strikes, continuous propaganda, terrorist acts against traitors and German leaders, boycotts and riots ...” (Hugh Dalton, 1957, p. 368)

Following a long memo from Dalton, in August 1940 the plans were systematised for the SOE to “co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage” in German occupied areas, though controlled

“in step with the general [British] strategic conduct of the war.” (Sir Colin Gubbins, 1974, pp. 74 ff. ‘SOE Charter’, quoted in Stafford, 1980, p. 26.)

Dalton imbued the strategy with left wing purpose, seeing it as the start of a “people’s war” and believing, probably correctly, that Churchill had selected him to oversee the SOE because of the labour movement’s left-wing connections in Europe.

But, during the course of the Anglo-German War, the strategy did not have much success. In September 1940 a British intelligence assessment of the potential for resistance was highly negative, particularly regarding France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark, where for the emergence of resistance movements beyond circles of former officers,

“much would depend on the policy adopted by the Germans in the occupied areas.” (‘Probable state of readiness and ability of certain countries to rise against the Nazi régime’, report by MI(R) to the Chief of Staff Review of Future Strategy, 4th September 1940, reproduced in Stafford, 1980, pp. 213 ff.)

Countries found themselves occupied as a consequence of the cascading of events and believed – and, apart from Poland, and later Serbia, were initially treated – as though this was a temporary affair arising from a temporary power conflict between England and Germany. The great “Partisan War” for which the British secret services had planned was simply not happening, and British subversion activities virtually nowhere went beyond organising sabotage activities with underground groups of former military and intelligence circles in defeated states. During this period the sabotage function was developed through other special forces, such as the Special Air Services Regiment (SAS) and the Commandoes - so-called by their South African born commander after the raiding Boer Commandoes he had fought forty years previously.

According to Peter Wilkinson, a leading figure in SOE, and later biographer of Gubbins:

"The truth was that ... SOE had become the victim of a widely held fallacy that Occupied Europe was smouldering with resistance to the Nazis and ready to erupt if given the slightest support or encouragement. In reality, in these early days, most people in occupied Europe were still stunned by defeat and, except for a few ardent patriots, asked for nothing but to be left in peace. Compared with the horrors of invasion, the German Occupation, though disagreeable and humiliating, was as yet by no means intolerable, and most people were content for the time being to remain neutral, if only to survive." (Wilkenson, Ashley, p. 79)

As Colin Gubbins, the covert operations specialist who largely constructed the SOE, put it in 1940

“we may be able to provide for the T.E. Lawrences, we have also to find the Faisels and provide them with opportunities.” (Ibid., p. 36)

The anti-fascist War 1941-5
Britain’s reckless war strategy since 1939 had resulted by June 1941 in German military control of much of Europe, though some countries preserved their neutrality and others had joined the German side. The Germans had never planned for anything of the sort to happen. Intoxicated by how things had transpired through the effects of the British “long war” strategy in engulfing the continent in the Anglo-German conflict, the Germans proclaimed a ‘New Order’ in Europe, one led by the Germanic race. German occupation regimes shifted in character in 1941 from the temporary military ones of a 1940 to more long-term colonial-type systems. The course of events radicalised the German fascist regime and led to the ascendency of the ideology of the SS-Police element which was rapidly expanded from a fringe existence into an all-embracing force for policing the occupied territories. Germany also now planned to attack and destroy the Soviet Union, an idea inconceivable a year previously. And the attack on Soviet Russia as a racial war unleashed many other things, including finally the Holocaust, also inconceivable a year previously.

When Stalin called in his famous radio speech of 3rd July 1941 for the formation of partisan armies and a relentless war against the German invader, a struggle for the liberation of Europe from German fascist domination, the response was

“an upsurge of anti-Fascist resistance throughout Occupied Europe on a scale hitherto undreamed of by SOE.” (Ibid., p. 94)

The SOE and Ireland
The anti-fascist movement in Ireland largely rejected taking sides in the Anglo-German war of 1939-41. For many the invasion of the Soviet Union changed all that, while for others it was the emergence of mass resistance movements that led to a change. An account from Irish anti-fascist circles reflects what was happening throughout Europe:

"For other Irish anti-fascists it was the emergence of Resistance movements across the Nazi-occupied countries of Europe that had begun to change the character of the War into an anti-fascist one some months before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. This was the position of Michael Lehane, three times a volunteer in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War of 1936-39, and as many times wounded. As he wrote to his now-interned comrade-in-arms of the Spanish War, Michael O’Riordan, he was convinced that Hitler had to be stopped. Since he could never put on the uniform of British Imperialism, however, he would serve in the Norwegian Merchant Navy. And it was as such an anti-Imperialist anti-Fascist that Lehane gave his life when torpedoed by a Nazi submarine on March 11, 1943. (Manus O’Riordan, April 2010)

Similar emotional and political tensions were to plague the Resistance movements in Europe in their relations with SOE, and it is right for this article that active veterans of the IRA be quoted to express it. For, despite the Imperialist purposes for which it was founded in 1940, when the war developed its anti-fascist character the role of the SOE was to become indispensible in the development and supplying of the European Resistance. There were certainly problems in this regard in Asia, where in many countries nationalist liberation forces had no desire to replace the Japanese with a return of British colonialism. It was only in 1945 that the popular forces in Burma, under the influence of the communists, decided finally to join the anti-fascist war. In the context of lacking resistance, the SOE in Asia often retained the character it had had in Europe during the Anglo-German War, simulating resistance and sabotage operations in the absence of indigenous ones, or reduced to commando-style raiding missions.

In the anti-fascist war that spread across Europe in 1941, the partisan strategies developed by Holland and Gubbins on the basis of their Irish experience as seen through the blinkers of the British intelligence officers – in their own words “a combination of guerrilla and IRA tactics” – finally came in to their own.

Leopold S. Amery, My Political Life, vol. 3, London, 1953.
Simon Anglim, ‘MI(R), G(R) and British covert operations, 1939-42’, Intelligence and National Security, 2005, vol. 20, no. 4.
The Art of Guerrilla Warfare is available at
J. A. Ashley, The Inner Circle. A View of the War at the Top, Boston-Toronto, 1971.
The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton 1940-45, ed. Ben Pimlott,London, 1986, Entry for 22nd July 1940.
Hugh Dalton, The Fateful Years. Memoirs 1931-1945, London, 1957.
M.R.D. Foot, ‘The IRA and the Origins of SOE’, in Foot (ed.), War and Society, London, 1973.
E.g. M.R.D. Foot, ‘Was SOE any good?’, Journal of Contemporary History, 16 (1981), pp. 167-81, ‘Special Operations/I’, in Elliott-Bateman, Fourth Dimension, vol. 1 and ‘Revolt, rebellion, revolution, civil war: the Irish experience’, in Elliott-Bateman (ed.), The Fourth Dimension, vol. 2.
M.R.D. Foot, Resistance. An Analysis of European Resistance Movements to Nazism 1940-1945, London, 1976.
Josef Garlinski, Poland, SOE and the Allies, With an introduction by Sir Colin Gubbins, London, 1969.
Gubbins, Sir Colin, ‘SOE and the Coordination of Regular and Irregular War’, in Michael Elliott-Bateman (ed.), The Fourth Dimension of Warfare, Vol. I, Manchester, 1974.
Sir Colin Gubbins, ‘SOE and the Coordination of Regular and Irregular Warfare’, lecture and discussion, in Michael Elliott-Bateman (ed.), The Fourth Dimension of Warfare, vol. 1, Manchester, 1974. ‘SOE Charter’, quoted in Stafford, Britain and European Resistance.
E.D.R. Harrison, ‘The British Special Operations Executive and Poland’, The Historical Journal, vol. 43 (2000), no. 4.
Peter Hart (ed.), British Intelligence in Ireland 1920-21. The Final Reports, Cork, 2002.
Keith Jeffery, ‘Intelligence and Counter-Insurgency Operations: Some Reflections on the British Experience’, Intelligence and National Security, vol. 2 (1987), no. 1.
Jeffery, ‘Some Problems and Lessons of Anglo-Irish War in the Twentieth Century’, in Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey (eds.), An Art in Itself: The Theory and Conduct of Small Wars and Insurgencies. The 2006 Chief of Army Military History Conference, London, 2006. O’Halpin also presented a paper to this same conference, entitled ‘The Irish Experience of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency since 1919’, ibid., in which he first floated his dismissive thesis on Foot’s views.
Nicole Jordan, The Popular Front and Eastern Europe. The Dilemmas of French Impotence 1918-1940, Cambridge, 1992.
John Keegan, Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to al-Qaeda, New York, 2003.
See Manus O’Riordan, ‘The Spy who grew up with the Bold’, Irish Political Review, vol. 25, no. 4, April 2010.
See John Martin, The Irish Times – Past and Present, Athol Books, Belfast, 2008.
See Brian P. Murphy osb, The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland, 1920, Millstreet, 2006. For a sympathetic treatment of the British intelligence/propaganda “narrative” on Sinn Féin and the IRA, see Peter Hart (ed.), British Intelligence in Ireland, 1920-21. The Final Reports, Cork, 2002.
Eunan O’Halpin, Spying on Ireland. British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality during the Second World War, Oxford, New York, 2008. Collins-Powell, O’Halpin might have added, is the grand-father of John Martin, author of The Irish Times – Past and Present.
Lybbe Olsen, Troublesome Young Men. The Rebels who brought Churchill to power in 1940 and helped to save Britain, London, New York, 2007.
Andrzej Peplonski et al, ‘Intelligence Co-operation during the Second Half of the 1930s’, in T. Stirling, D. Nalecz and T. Dubicki (eds.), Intelligence Co-operation between Poland and Great Britain during World War II. The Report of the Anglo Polish Historical Committee, vol. 1, London, 2005.
Quoted in Anita J. Prazmowska, Britain and Poland 1939–1943: The Betrayed Ally. Cambridge, 1995.
Nicholas Rankin, Genius for Deception. How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars, Oxford, 2008.
David Stafford, Britain and European Resistance, 1940-1945, Oxford, 1980, pp. 10-11.
Gerhard Schulze, ‘Englische Geheimdienste und europäische Widerstandsbewegungen’, in Schulz (ed.), Geheindienste und Widerstandsbewegungen im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Göttingen, 1982.
P.A. Wilkensen, J. Bright Ashley, Gubbins and the SOE, London, 1993.