In July 1940, after the fall of France and with Britain fighting alone with scant resources available for the offensive, Prime Minister Winston Churchill named Hugh Dalton, MP as the political head of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Britain’s organization dedicated to sabotage and subversion in Nazi-occupied Europe. The prime minister’s directive was famously for the SOE to ‘Set Europe ablaze!’ The officer who played the leading role in putting Churchill’s instruction into action was Sir Colin Gubbins.
Brian Lett recounts Gubbins’ role in the sabotage campaign against Germany in SOE’s Mastermind: An Authorized Biography of Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins, KCMG, DSO, MC from Pen & Sword. It is a thorough study of Gubbins’ career and accomplishments.
As the author details in the biography, Gubbins was eminently prepared to direct SOE’s operations as after four years with the Royal Artillery on the Western Front in the First World War, he had served in North Russia (1919) and Ireland (1920-22); held appointments in Military Intelligence; written three handbooks on subversive warfare; and served with the British mission to Poland in 1939. After commanding the “independent companies” in the Norwegian campaign, Gubbins had been tasked with establishing the Auxiliary Units, a resistance network in England to be deployed in the event of a German invasion. Churchill closely followed the reports on the progress of the Auxiliary Units and was impressed with Gubbins. In 1940 Churchill intervened and insisted Gubbins’ go to the SOE when the army raised difficulties and attempted to prevent his reassignment. The prime minister remained “an ardent supporter of both SOE and Colin throughout the rest of the war.” In 1943 Churchill again intervened to keep Gubbins where he was when the army attempted to get him back for regular service.
Although he made an important contribution during the war, one for which he was uniquely qualified, Gubbins retired from the army in 1946 at the age of 49 with the rank of major-general and a knighthood. As Lett notes, had he not diverted from regular army service into the SOE, Gubbins would have reached “the very top of the military tree.”