Churchill’s Hellraisers Cover

Churchill’s Hellraisers

The Thrilling Secret WW2 Mission to Storm a Forbidden Nazi Fortress

Damien Lewis

Citadel Press, New York, 2020, 416 pages

Book Review published on: June 4, 2021

At the beginning of World War II, the British suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the Axis powers. In order to set the stage for a future counterattack, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was created to support popular uprisings and partisan operations deep behind enemy lines.

Churchill’s Hellraisers: The Thrilling Secret WW2 Mission to Storm a Forbidden Nazi Fortress by Damien Lewis chronicles the effort championed by Winston Churchill to sow chaos in the Axis-occupied lands of Europe and Asia. This mission was led by the SOE and augmented by Special Air Service when large-scale, direct action was required. The focus of the story centers on the resistance in Italy and the tales of the various operations conducted by the brave souls dedicated to disrupting the fascist war effort. The author chronicles the small unit tactics used by soldiers sent to organize and funnel military arms and munitions to the partisans resisting the fascists. In reading the book, one learns about the role of Special Forces, the characteristics of the SOE soldier, and the friction between the aims of political and military leadership.

The author focuses the chronicle on Italy in 1944. Seen as a means to tie up Axis forces occupying Europe and relieve the Russians fighting in Asia, the Allied campaign to seize Italy, the soft underbelly of Europe, in 1943 was initially successful. However, as the attack moved north toward the mountains, the campaign stalled at a series of fortifications and prepared defenses in northern Italy called the Gothic Line. This situation led to a new urgency in the effort to raise, train, and equip Italian partisans so they may disrupt the enemy defensive line and enable the Allied attack.

SOE only lasted through World War II. After the war, its members were either let go or absorbed into such organizations as MI6, the legendary British spy organization. Formed in 1940, the role and purpose of SOE was very complex. SOE agents were nontraditional spies and saboteurs along the same vein as the fledgling American Office of Strategic Services. The operators waged a secret war against the Axis by raising and organizing a partisan army to wage guerilla war against the occupiers. Unlike traditional soldiers, SOE operatives were not provided any protections of the Geneva Convention if captured. If caught, they could expect to be tortured and executed.

SOE had a number of departments from technology and research to propaganda and supporting an insurgency using direct action. Like their modern-day counterparts, SOE soldiers had to operate with limited resources and without any significant backup. A method used to gain the trust of the various partisan forces was to provide ammunition, weapons, and other critical supplies that were necessary to fight the Nazis. Using their suitcase radios and relying on airdrops for supplies, SOE soldiers were able to garner resources used to keep the resistance alive. A key task of SOE operatives was to provide reconnaissance of lucrative, high-value enemy targets. This information would be coded and transmitted to the Allies for a future bombing mission. Battle damage assessments of the effectiveness of an air strike was another important function. Lewis does a great job of illustrating how SOE tactical battles translated into strategic gains. Partisan activities tied up a disproportionally large number of fascist forces to secure infrastructure, ammunition and fuel storage sites, and troop garrisons from attack. He describes a raid on an enemy Army level headquarters that caused the interruption of command and control for over two weeks. When looking at historical records, Lewis determined that after the war, the raid on Villa Rossi was credited with killing scores of staff officers and radio operators and their equipment. This action led to the success of the Allied attack to penetrate the Gothic Line ten days later.

SOE recruited primarily from the Allied military forces of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Spain. It also recruited civilians with special skills. The author provides a number of background details on the protagonists in the story. This technique assists the reader in investing in the characters. The author highlights the characteristics of a successful special operations leader. The SOE recruiters were looking for independent thinkers. They sought “mavericks” that had the ability to improvise and motivate others. Due to the secrecy of the organization, one had to know someone to get an invitation to join. Bravery was a requirement, since getting caught meant certain death.

The SOE was created apart from the British Foreign Service and the Secret Intelligence Service. The Secret Intelligence Service considered the SOE operatives amateurs and did not trust them. In the Foreign Service (FS), there was friction between the desired political end state upon the conclusion of the war, and the military desire to win at the least cost in lives. The FS was very concerned that the most well-organized partisans identified themselves as communists. They wore red berets and were staunchly antifascist. The British FS was convinced that after the war was won, the partisans would seize control of the government and make Italy a communist country. As the war progressed, the British government was inconsistent in its support for the partisans due to the politics of the partisans. At times, the British government very much wanted the partisans to succeed. At other times, FS appeared to want them to wither on the vine so they would not pose a threat when the war was over. It was only when the SOE operators formed a relationship with the American special forces commander that the supply situation was stabilized and expanded. By conducting an “end run” around their own government, the SOE operators were able to get the resources needed to support the sabotage of Nazi forces maintaining the Gothic Line.

The book is a rousing tale of clandestine action carried out by some outstanding people, both partisan and operative alike. The linkage between the tactical operations and the strategic outcomes is very well illustrated, and serves to show that a tactical success can have a dramatic strategic effect. In many cases, this may not be readily assessed until much later. The characters are vivid in the telling. The book is well researched, despite some apparent effort to suppress the information of this secretive formation.

Book Review written by: Eric McGraw, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas