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    Drunk Nazis and the Birth of Bond: The Real Story of the Ministry of Ungentlemanly War

    Eiza Gonzalez in a scene from the film “Ministry of Ungentlemanly War” Photo: Daniel Smith/Lionsgate via AP

    According to Operation Postmaster “was carried out by one of the SOE employees who participated in “not really a military operation,” but a “robber operation.” This was the assessment of Lieutenant K.A. Leonard Giese, who helped plan and execute the mission. Of course, Operation Postmaster was a heist of sorts.

    On January 14, 1942, two tugboats under the direction of SOE entered the harbor of Spanish Guinea – neutral territory – and hijacked three boats belonging to the Axis countries. It was a feat of British cunning and derring-do that included explosive blunders, scenes of an agent hovering over shark-infested waters, and a plot to distract German and Italian officers by plying them with booze at a nearby casino. /p>

    If this sounds like a low-key James Bond, it's not a coincidence. Bond creator Ian Fleming had a hand in some aspects of the mission. Historian Brian Lett suggests that at least two real people, Operation Postmaster leaders Gus March-Phillips and Geoffrey Appleyard, served as inspiration for the James Bond character. (Including the zero in the code names for Operation Postmaster – W.01 and W.02, which meant they were trained to kill. Not unlike Bond's Double-O “license to kill.”)

    Operation “The Postmaster” is also the basis for Guy Ritchie's new film “Ministry of Ungentlemanly War,” a heavily fictionalized tale starring 007 contender Henry Cavill as March-Phillips and Alex Pettyfer as Appleyard.Although this mission seems relatively minor in the grand scheme of World War II, its consequences were larger: it proved the value of the Special Operations Executive, which was unpopular with the regular British forces but carried significant risks. As Brian Lett argues in Ian Fleming and Operation Postmaster SOE, any failure could have caused an international incident. If the Allies had been caught, Lett writes, “the consequences internationally would likely have been very devastating. Failure and exposure may even convince Spain and other neutral countries to enter the war alongside the Axis powers, Germany and Italy.”

    The story begins in a roundabout way at Dunkirk, where Captain Gustavus March-Phillips and Lieutenant Geoffrey Appleyard first met. They were among nearly 340,000 men trapped there. While awaiting evacuation, they ducked down and took cover from the attacks of German planes. Appleyard heard a voice say, “I f-feel like a damn coward, don’t you?” This was not an unwarranted comment in the face of what looked like certain death.

    March-Phillips, who spoke with a stammer, was anything but a coward: an extremely masculine English country gentleman with – at times – a quick temper and reckless impulses. As historian Marcus Binney describes in Heroes of the Secret War, March-Phillips reluctantly tolerated the bureaucracy of the military.

    In fact, he left the army before the war. But March-Phillips was ideally suited to the Special Operations Executive, created with Churchill's support in 1940, a secret service dedicated to carrying out covert operations, sabotage and covert warfare in enemy territory. The ZP was led by a real “M”, Brigadier General Colin Gubbins. As Lett notes, Gubbins' liaison was Ian Fleming, then chief of naval intelligence. Fleming later borrowed Gubbins' codename and gave it to the fictional MI6 chief in his James Bond novels.

    March-Phillips and Appleyard joined SOE in early 1941. March-Phillips was initially recruited as a training officer, but he asked to lead his own commando unit, with which he could conduct raids on the occupied coasts of Europe.

    Ian Fleming during the Second World War

    To begin these proposed raids, March-Phillips found a trawler in Brixham called Maid Honor, which gave his unit the name Maid Honor Force, later known as No. 62 Commando or Small Raid Force (SSRF).

    Also enlisted in the Maid Honor Force were Graham Hayes, a sailor and childhood friend of Appleyard (played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin in Guy Ritchie's film), and a burly Danish commando named Anders Lassen (played by 6'2, Jack's star Barrel-chested Reacher (Alan Ritchson). Lassen became the only non-Commonwealth soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in World War II.

    The Maid Honor Unit was based in Poole, Dorset, but they were frustrated by the lack of action. The SOE's irregular, subversive and secretive methods made it unpopular with some sections of the regular forces. Maid Honor Force was having difficulty getting plans approved. But with a mission in mind, they traveled to the Nigerian capital of Lagos, where Branch W, the West African arm of the SOE, was based. The target was a pair of boats anchored on the island of Fernando Po: the Italian merchant ship Duchessa d'Aosta and the German tug Licomba.

    Fernando Po (now Bioko) lies off the coast of Nigeria and Cameroon, but was then part of Spanish Guinea, about 160 km to the south. The Licomba, accompanied by the smaller barge Bibundi, had been anchored in the harbor of Santa Isabel (now Malabo) since the beginning of the war. It was a relatively new tug, raising concerns that it could be useful to the German war effort if it returned to sea, or that it could help supply German submarines as they hunted Allied convoys.

    Henry Cavill as Gus March-Phillips in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly War Photo: Daniel Smith/Lionsgate via AP

    Meanwhile, the Duchess d'Aosta had been in Santa Isabel since June 1940, when Italy entered the war. The Duchess was carrying a cargo of wool, hides, tanning materials, copra, asbestos fiber and electrolytic copper rods. However, there were rumors that it also contained ammunition and weapons. The first page of the ship's manifest was missing, and when a local shipping company asked to see it, the captain refused. The Duchess's radio was also seen as a threat as it could potentially report on British fleet movements.

    Prior to Operation Postmaster, Brigadier Colin Gubbins observed the ships for a year. Alarm bells rang when the Likomba was loaded with 2,000 liters of fuel in the summer of 1941 and looked as if it was about to set sail. In addition, there were concerns about the neutrality of Spanish Guinea, whose governor was pro-Nazi, not to mention the possibility of the island being captured by German troops for strategic purposes.

    Despite opposition from the military leadership in West Africa, especially General George Giffard and Admiral Algernon Willis, the ZP continued to collect intelligence. As Marcus Binney has detailed, they had help in the Fernando Po case, including an anti-fascist Spaniard named Zorilla; the English chaplain Reverend Markham, who was mistakenly invited to a party aboard the Duchess (the Italians thought he was Spanish) and gathered information before going into hiding; and Lieutenant Leonard Guise, who worked undercover as a diplomatic courier and regularly traveled to the island. Another SOE employee, Richard Lippett, was assigned to the Liverpool shipping firm's island office, where he befriended locals, pulled strings and greased palm trees.

    Defeating the Duchess of Aosta and Licombe will not be easy. The state-owned enterprise was supposed to conduct strictly secret operations, which were absolutely denied. They couldn't just blow up ships anchored in a neutral harbor. The British were not seen operating on neutral ground. Moreover, the harbor was not deep enough to ship the Duchess's cargo. March-Phillips suggested a robbery – simply taking or “cutting out” the vessels from Santa Isabel.

    Port on the island of Fernando Po (now Bioko) in Equatorial Guinea, where the robbery took place. Photo: Getty

    Whatever the plan, West African commanders Giffard and Willis refused to give it the go-ahead. Giffard was particularly stubborn. His job was to protect the West African colonies. He wouldn't do anything that would rock the boat (literally) and provoke the enemy. And, according to Binnie, there were “unnamed plans” in the air. Giffard would not allow a state-owned enterprise to jeopardize them.

    The Foreign Office eventually approved the mission, forcing Giffard and Willis to follow suit. Giffard continued to refuse to provide personnel to assist in Operation Postmaster. He argued that the British would certainly be suspected of carrying out the raid. But, as Binney describes, the Admiralty response, supported by the Foreign Office, said that “suspicion of British complicity was inevitable: the main thing was to avoid any real evidence.”

    With the support of Nigeria's governor, Sir Bernard Bourdillon, the Maid Honor Force instead sought men from the colonial service. Every Nigerian who was invited to participate immediately volunteered. “The choice was to assemble a collection of thugs that Nigeria had ever seen,” Leonard Guise said. In total, there were only 32 people: 11 from the Maid Honor Force, four employees of the local state-owned enterprise and 17 from the colonial service.

    The plan was determined: they would split into two groups and, under cover of darkness, enter the harbor on two tugs – the steam Vulcan and the motor Nuneaton (Maid Honor, unfortunately, turned out to be unsuitable, although it turned out that the tricky engine on Nuneaton could cause serious problems). Two teams would board the Duchess of Aosta and the Licomba, blow up the anchor cables with plastic explosives, and tow both vessels out of the harbor. Then, 40 miles out to sea, a Royal Navy rendezvous ship pretended to encounter them (a lucky find) and captured the Duchesse d'Aosta and Licomba. But how can they get past the German and Italian officers? By getting them drunk blindly.

    Alan Ritchson as Anders Lassen Photo: Daniel Smith/Lionsgate via AP

    There were several parties on the island. Local residents treated the Axis officers to dinner at the casino; the officers responded in kind by throwing a party in honor of the Duchess of Aosta. Richard Lippett – through his man Zorilla – organized another dinner at the casino, which was attended by officers of both the Duchess of Aosta and Licomba. They sat on the upper terrace overlooking the harbor. But Lippett developed a seating plan that ensured all officers had their backs to the harbor. The boats were literally stolen behind our backs.

    It took the Maid Honor troops four days to reach Santa Isabel, during which time they made final preparations for the operation. They arrived on the evening of January 14th. The disaster occurred almost immediately. They were due to arrive after the city's lights went out at 11:00 p.m., but March-Phillips and Appleyard had not anticipated the hour-long time difference between Nigeria and Fernando Poe. The light was still on. They had to turn off the tugs and wait for the port lights to go out.

    After an hour's wait, the men from the Nuneaton boarded the canoe Fallboat and approached the Lycombe. They were armed with revolvers and Tommy guns, but used them only when absolutely necessary. March-Phillips instructed them to use silent but nasty-sounding koshas—12-inch steel bolts coated in rubber. The invasion team, which included Graham Hayes and Leonard Guise, captured Likomba with relative ease.

    Major Anders Lassen

    There were two guards on the boat, but they jumped overboard. Otherwise, Likomba was empty. However, he was tied to the barge Bibundi. Having discovered a swastika inside the Bibundi, they decided to tow her too.

    The plan was to blow up Likomba's cables and tow her out of the harbor as quickly as possible. This might create a distraction before the Duchess could be towed away, but the Nuneaton's engine was unreliable – they wanted to get the Likomba and the Nuneaton out of the harbor as quickly as possible.

    Another near-disaster occurred when explosives on the anchor cables threw Giese and another man from the Likomba back onto the deck of the Nuneaton. Incredibly, both men were unharmed, but it led to a nervous moment when the Likomba was momentarily adrift and unattached to the Nuneaton.

    Meanwhile, the Vulcan walked sideways towards the Duchess d'Aosta. The people on the Vulcan saw that the crew of the Duchess was on board. But even the flash of the torch towards the Vulcan did not cause alarm. March-Phillips led the men on board. The Vulcan and the Duchess collided and rolled away, leaving an eight-foot gap between the vessels. Appleyard, in charge of the explosives, had no choice but to make a daring Bond-esque leap between the two. As Brian Lett describes, the remaining men then climbed from the Vulcan to the Duchess using a bamboo ladder. Falling down the stairs into the water would mean being crushed between ships.

    The Duchess of Aosta's watchman also jumped overboard, and the rest of the crew surrendered. The only crew member who resisted was a pig, which was left on board for possible slaughter. The pig jumped out of the darkness and knocked down one of the Maid Force Honor invaders. There was another problem: one of the explosives on the anchor cable did not work. Appleyard had to show more courage, like in an action movie. He rushed back to light another charge – essentially returning to the site of the unexploded bomb. Setting the fuse dangerously short, Appleyard shouted, “I’m going to explode!” and jumped into cover under the winch.

    The explosions on the Duchess of Aosta were loud—louder than on the Licombe—and the flash lit up the harbor. The police were drunk and did not see what happened. Some townspeople thought it was an air attack, so the lights were turned off (which was helpful for the Maid Honor Force) and anti-aircraft guns opened fire into the sky. Herr Specht, captain of the Likomba, assumed that the British were responsible for the theft of his ship and headed towards the British consulate. Enraged and drunk, he punched one of the SOE's undercover agents, Peter Lake.

    It was just the excuse they needed. “We [Lake and fellow agent Godden] beat the crap out of him,” Lake said. Lippett described the scene in more detail: “When Specht saw Godden's revolver, he collapsed in a heap, tore his pants and emptied his bowels on the floor.” The next morning there was talk in the city that the ships had been stolen by an entire fleet of battleships. Lippett himself was subsequently interrogated and detained by Spanish authorities on Fernando Po, but managed to escape from the island by canoe.

    For Honor Maid Force, the adventure was far from over. During the escape from Santa Isabel, the Nuneaton's engine broke down repeatedly, and it was dragged behind the Vulcan for several hours. There were other problems when the Likomba and Bibundi kept hitting each other and the tow rope between them frayed.

    Hayes, oddly enough, climbed over the rope between them to secure a new one. Thrown across the wild seas, he was dipped into the water and launched into the air, still clinging to the rope. Hayes crossed and attached a new rope – a Herculean task in itself – and then climbed back again. Hayes could be shark food. Another man was nearly bitten by a shark while preparing for a mission.

    The Nuneaton's engine eventually died, leaving it behind the Vulcan and the Duchess d'Aosta – and still in the sight of Fernando Po. At some point, March-Phillips decided to return the Vulcan to Nuneaton to try to help. But – like Appleyard in the harbor – he had to make a bold leap between the Duchess and Vulcan. March-Phillips fell and became submerged in the water between the vessels, Lett said. For a moment it seemed as if he had been crushed to death, but he emerged from the water angry and bruised. March-Phillips, however, was forced to leave Nuneaton, where he was stationed, to return to the Duchess of Aosta and meet the Royal Navy rendezvous.

    SOE operatives Major Gustavus March-Phillips, Major John Geoffrey Appleyard and Captain Graham Hayes

    This was a serious risk: the entire operation depended on absolute denial. If the men on the Nuniton were captured, it would be a disaster. Unbeknownst to March-Phillips, the meeting ship, HMS Violet, was also having trouble en route. He arrived three days late. By luck, the Nuniton was discovered by the destroyer Ajassa. All five ships – the Duchess of Aosta, Licomba, Bibundi, Vulcan and Nuneaton – arrived in Lagos by the evening of January 21, a week after the ships were hijacked. The success of Operation Postmaster, writes Marcus Binney, “bolstered the SOE's reputation at a critical time and demonstrated its ability to plan bold, complex commando-style covert operations and deal decisively with the political fallout.”

    Ian Fleming wrote a cover story that denied Allied involvement but claimed that the British Navy had sighted an unidentified vessel and investigated.

    The heroes' luck was short-lived. March-Phillips was killed in September 1942 during Operation Aquatint, a failed raid on Omaha Beach. Graham Hayes also took part and was later captured. Hayes was executed by firing squad in July 1943, the same day his childhood friend Jeffrey Appleyard was shot and killed. Anders Lassen was shot and killed by machine gun fire during a raid in Northern Italy in April 1945. In doing so, he destroyed several German soldiers and machine gun posts, for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

    Even General George Giffard, who stubbornly opposed Operation Postmaster, was forced to pay tribute to these men before his death. “For reasons I could not explain to you,” he wrote, “I felt I had to oppose your project. This does not diminish my admiration for the skill, courage and success with which you have achieved this success.”

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