Kill without mercy, party like there’s no tomorrow: Churchill’s secret band of fearless warriors broke hearts, rules — and the Nazis’ spirit. One of the most extraordinary stories of World War II is also one of the least commonly known, that of a small band of men charged by Winston Churchill himself with carrying out ‘a butcher-and-bolt reign of terror’ behind enemy lines.
Often dosed up on powerful amphetamines, they were an eclectic, wildly unconventional bunch, one of whom favoured the bow-and-arrow as his weapon of choice. They went initially by a prosaic name, Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF), operating under the aegis of the secretive Special Operations Executive, which had been formed in July 1940 to carry out ‘operations seen as too politically explosive, illegal or unconscionable as to be embraced by the wider British establishment’.
Major Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau Lassen VC, MC & Two Bars (22 September 1920 – 9 April 1945)
‘CHURCHILL’S SECRET WARRIORS’ by Damien Lewis (Quercus £20).
Damien Lewis’s compelling book gives as good an explanation as any of why the Special Operations Executive also came to be known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. And perhaps the least gentlemanly of the SSRF butcher-and-bolt specialists was an aristocratic Dane, Anders — known as Andy — Lassen, who was not averse to bellowing orders in German to confuse the enemy. It was the similarly unorthodox Lassen who petitioned the War Office to be allowed to develop the bow-and-arrow, with which he had hunted on the family estate, as the perfect, silent killing machine. But Whitehall mandarins refused, declaring arrows — in the age of the machine-gun and flame-thrower, as Lewis wryly points out — to be somehow ‘inhuman’.
Still, that didn’t stop Lassen, dubbed the ‘Robin Hood commando’ by locals in rural Dorset, where he trained in the summer of 1942 in preparation for a furtive assault on the occupied Channel Islands. Indeed, one of the themes of this absorbing tale is the constant battle not just between the Allies and the Nazis, but also between the regular army and Churchill’s licensed buccaneers.
In Italy in 1945, one regular officer told Lassen that he and his wild bunch were a disgrace, “What would the enemy think of them, if they were found not just dead, but unshaven?” It is certainly true he was no respecter of bureaucratic authority. After every raid, he and other key commanders were supposed to file an operational report. But he detested all such paperwork and his reports famously consisted of no more than five words: ‘Landed. Killed Germans. F***ed off.’ Churchill’s secret band of fearless warriors; the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF)
Almost Christmas, and another book has just been added to my ‘non-digital reading list’ Yours Aye.