Churchill’s Wizards

Recommendation: It’s an absolute hoot

Where to read: Curl up with a blanket and outlandish tales of derring-do

Read with: Hard English cider

In brief: Churchill’s Wizards reads like a Boy’s Own adventure with the added benefit of a solid factual basis. It’s one of those rare war histories that will have you giggling like a small child on public transport and reading passages aloud to anyone willing to share your joy.

So here’s the thing, British historians, the military variety in particular, are the unrivalled queens of sass. Hew Strachan, for instance, snarkily notes in The First World War that (from memory) “while gunnery was a vaunted specialisation in the Royal Navy, they were not very good at it” and the book is replete with similar examples. Rankin, veteran of the BBC World Service, gets on the same level very quickly with rollicking effect.

Churchill’s Wizards aims to engage and entertain rather than participate in serious scholarly discourse or comprehensively cover covert and intelligence operations in either of the wars. The crowning jewel of the British intel effort in WWII, ULTRA, gets mentioned only in passing as Rankin focuses in on fun stories, long-shot odds and quirky characters.

Starting with WWI, Rankin traces the beginnings of camouflage as a serious military concern (it seems insane today, but the French started the war in bright red trousers), the increased use of aeroplanes for recon and the British propaganda effort. It’s all good fun but the real shenanigans hit in WWII as Dudley Clarke and Tom Delmer take centre stage as the masters of deception in the field and “black radio” on the home front respectively.

Clarke’s endeavours (along with his deliberately ambiguously named ‘A Force’) include:

  • creating entirely imaginary “notional” armies in North Africa (and elsewhere) to tie down German forces with the result that they overestimated British strength in North Africa by an absurd amount;
  • contributed to the British victory at El Alamein by faking a entirely different deployment of Montgomery’s troops;
  • naming the US Rangers;
  • inventing the SAS (knowing that the Germans and Italians were terrified of paratroopers landing behind them, he spread rumours, created dummy gliders and faked training jumps to convince them that there was a massive force of British paratroopers ready to go. David Stirling, one of the men on those fake training jumps went on to create the SAS); and
  • “Monty’s” fake trip to Gibraltar.

Delmer’s “black radio” stations mucked around with German radio communications, gave fake orders, overrode legitimate Nazi stations, spread rumours about typhoid on the home front and terrified U-Boat crews by reporting on the scores of inter-boat soccer matches in far away, tropical harbours. One station requisitioned a German army band captured in North Africa as house band, conned Marlene Dietrich into singing (with American assistance) and kept a meticulous library of personal information about German officials and local details utilised to give reports designed to demoralise and confuse the ring of truth.

One is left with the impression that Hitler might have had a point when he suggested the British promote their best soldier, “General Bluff”, to Field Marshall.

Heath Robinson – “Deceiving the invader as to the state of the tide” 

By way of warning, I should tell you that the tone is deeply patriotic – the comparison to Boy’s Own is advised. If you loathe Churchill, the monarchy and TE Lawrence, you will probably find this a fairly uncomfortable read. Ditto if you’re American.

Running through the book, albeit in quite a playful manner, is the question of moral justification – under what circumstances are deception, propaganda and official fibs acceptable and how should the population of a democratic society react when governments deceive them. Rankin finishes, accordingly, with a shattering denunciation of the lies the Americans told and the British echoed to justify the war in Iraq. Churchill’s Wizards may be patriotic, but it’s far from jingoistic.

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