Since the end of World War II, the “men on a mission” action film genre has been rich in great entries. It makes sense: small units taking on insurmountable odds away from the front lines makes for great tension. Guy Ritchie’s new film just has the benefit of being based on history. “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” now in theaters, follows members of the No. 62 Commandos led by Gus March-Phillips (Henry Cavill), tasked with taking out an Italian ship that’s full of supplies for the Nazi U-boat fleet. The catch? The ship is in neutral Spanish territory so if things go wrong it means Spain joining the Nazis. If Operation Postmaster succeed, the German U-boat fleet will be essentially shut down for a few months, giving American ships carrying needed assistance safe passage to the United Kingdom.

As Task & Purpose noted in the review of the film, it’s a set up so fortunate for the British it would feel like lazy writing if it wasn’t a true story.

It was also a mission kept quiet for decades given the risks it posed at the time. It forms a major part of Damien Lewis’ 2014 book “Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII.” The conflict journalist and historian has written heavily about World War II and special operations. The book covers the formation of No. 62 commandos and Operation Postmaster, but extends throughout the war, telling the story of British commando missions and the formation of units such as the Special Air Service. One major player in both the film and the book is Anders Lassen, a Danish national who fought for Britain out of a deep hatred of Nazis and would eventually earn the Victoria Cross, the U.K.’s highest military honor, for his actions.

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” takes the broad strokes of Postmaster and embellishes other moments for fun — the team did not actually gun down scores of Nazis in the course of the mission— although certain specific details are there. Yes, Lewis said, Lassen (played in the film by “Reacher”’s Alan Ritchson) really was an archery enthusiast who used a bow for commando missions. Lewis sat down with Task & Purpose ahead of the film’s release to talk about the true history behind the movie.

This interview contains historical information that counts as spoilers for the film. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Task & Purpose: When you think of commando missions in World War II, at least from the American perspective, it’s missions such as Dieppe, Operation Flipper [the failed attempt to kill Erwin Rommel], operations in Yugoslavia or groups like Ord Wingate’s Chindits. Why was Operation Postmaster so little known, considering how important it was? 

Damien Lewis: The reasons for that are simple: It was so unbelievably sensitive and so top secret that it was enveloped in layers and layers of security and deniability and secrecy. Long after the war it wasn’t talked about. People tried to write about it and were told not to. So it kind of faded into the background. Approximately 16-17 years ago, the first of those files that had been closed for 70 or 80 years were made public. It was getting a hold of those files and speaking to some of the few remaining survivors who were on these missions that made me think wow this story needs to be told.

Part of why it’s so secret is that had it gone wrong it would have certainly altered the course of the war. If British forces carry out a raid in neutral harbor in what was then Spanish territory, what’s it going to do? It’s going to provoke Spain to join the war on the side of the Axis powers. It would have been completely disastrous for the Allied war effort. You can imagine the level of secrecy surrounding it because it was so unthinkable had it gone wrong, had we been discovered as the agents of this mission. 

Q: It does feel like a scenario that’s too good to be true. German U-boats need to refuel, they have this one spot on this one island and there are only these few ships with the supplies. How did British intelligence find out and react to such a lucky stroke?

A: The reason we found out about it was because we had agents of the Special Operations Executive, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, which was formed to do all sorts of things you’re not allowed to do in war — assassinations, black operations, bribery corruption, money laundering, formed to wage total war. We had a few of those operatives in Fernando Po under diplomatic cover. They discovered the purpose of those three ships moored in the harbor. To give an example of the level of intelligence, the main ship, the Duchessa d’Aosta, they actually got the cargo manifest for that ship. In the files there are a number of pages showing a copy of the manifest and some of the cargo was so sensitive for the German perspective it was listed only as top secret material. There’s a page of the manifest that is so secret the Germans didn’t even reveal what was in there. 

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It was that discovery, engineered by those agents in Fernando Po, which was transmitted to London, which came into the hands of the Special Operations Executive, which then led to this plan to carry out this, you could argue, suicidal mission. It was suicidal for those involved. A very small body of men, sailing on a converted fishing trawler, dressed in civilian clothes, posing as Swedish civilians, knowing they would be denied by their own government. Of course, the only thing that would happen with you if you were caught was horrendous torture and death. The very idea that you could carry out this mission and hope to succeed really was generated by those discoveries on Fernando Po. Those original SOE agents are some of the unsung heroes of this story. 

Q: This mission was planned in late 1941 and early 1942. The commandos were still relatively new. What was the level of training and experience they had going into Postmaster? 

A: They had an immense amount of training but they were inventing a new form of warfare. They trained extensively in Dorset, at a place called Anderson Manor, this big old rambling country house. They had been there for many months training, making up this new concept, new form of waging warfare. Anders Lassen — who is one of the most fascinating characters you could come across in the Second World War — on training missions in Dorset, he’d go on those operations with his bow and arrow. So you had a blond, not particularly English looking individual, who spoke English with a very foreign accent as he was Danish, stalking around the Dorset lakes with a bow and arrow. He was arrested numerous times by the Home Guard who thought he was some kind of fifth column. And he became known in Dorset as “the Danish Robin Hood,” as he fought with a bow and arrow.

Alan Ritchson as Anders Lassen in "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." (Image courtesy Dan Smith for Lionsgate)
Alan Ritchson as Anders Lassen in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” (Image courtesy Dan Smith for Lionsgate)

To give you more indication of how maverick and free thinking these individuals were, you did not get recruited into the SOE unless you were thoroughly unorthodox. Because you had to do thoroughly unorthodox things. You had to do the unthinkable, the idea being that if you did the unthinkable the enemy might never think you’d do it. That’s the conundrum. And Lassen, one of the first things he did after being recruited, he petitioned the war office with a paper on why the bow and arrow is the perfect weapon for the Second World War. It’s delicious, the correspondence, because the War Office responds and kind of agrees. It’s a silent killer, it never runs out of ammunition, you can manufacture ammunition in the field. But the reason they gave Lassen that he wasn’t allowed to develop it as a weapon of war was because it was too inhumane a form of warfare for the Second World War. The coup de grace is that Lassen then ignores that and carries on training and preparing to use the bow and arrow. 

So they were a highly trained unit, but in a groundbreaking method of waging war. And so much of it was based on deception, lies, trickery, all of the dark arts of warfare, which regular units are not versed in and were, let’s be frank about it, largely anathema to the British military. The SOE were deeply unpopular with most of the military high command, and most of those in power. Churchill had to fight tooth and nail to get this created. This is not gentlemanly warfare, this is not the way that the British officer class are supposed to wage war in the eyes of the hierarchy of the time. Even when putting together the plans for the Postmaster mission, the level of resistance from the powers that be was insurmountable. At several moments Churchill was challenged by very powerful figures and told to stop the mission because the risks involved if Spain was provoked into joining the war were too great for the rewards.

Q: It’s interesting you say that considering that so many of those who partake in these missions were from the upper echelons. Tell us about Gus March-Phillips. In the movie the shorthand is that he’s walked in from a military prison, which wasn’t the case in reality. In your book you say that he had a dislike for authority. What was his story after Dunkirk and before Postmaster?

A: Gus March-Phillips was at Dunkirk, with Geoffrey Appleyard who became his second in command. They were in a foxhole at Dunkirk, staring abject defeat in the face, the British military having suffered complete defeat and being routed. They vowed they’d have their vengeance. That was part of the birth of Operation Postmaster, the brotherhood that laid behind it. Before the war, Gus March-Phillips had a colorful madcap career. He was from a highborn background, classic British upper class officer material. But before the war he’d been involved in race horses, he’d written thrillers. He had an eclectic career. He was one of these ideal figures for the SOE. Because if you look at the individuals who were generally recruited, you had artists, poets, safebreakers, people from the stage, circus acrobats, magicians, anyone who could bring a kind of different perspective to the normal means of waging war. 

In Britain they were known as the fourth armed service, not the navy, not the army, not the air force. They weren’t liked. They were not British intelligence, they were not the mainstream military. They were something kind of dark, mysterious, sitting somewhere in the middle of those two. They didn’t fit in either of those stereotypes, and that made them disliked by so many. The SOE drew together these mavericks and misfits and pirates, modern day buccaneers who had this ability to take the fight back to the enemy during our darkest hour. Churchill had this vision, it’s absolutely inspired. Britain’s still alone at this time, and Churchill was this very isolated leader, and he had this idea that if we didn’t have this wherewithal as a nation to reinvade and liberate Europe, we needed the Allies, but he had this idea that we needed to hit back. If nothing else, even those “mosquito raids,” pinpricks along the enemy coast, even if thy might not have a major impact in the overall scheme in the war, they would have a major impact on the morale on the British people and our allies and in particular with America. It made us believe we had the will to fight back and it made our American colleagues think the British bulldog was not down and out. 

Q: Postmaster, and this is not a spoiler for anyone who knows history, succeeds. What was the immediate material impact for Britain and for other SOE or commando missions? This was incredibly daring, it was a suicide mission that succeeded.

A: The chances of pulling it off were extremely low. You sail a fishing trawler around the western coast of Europe, then around the western coast of Africa without being intercepted by German navy, U-boats or aircraft. You’re posing as Swedish holiday makers on a converted fishing trawler turned into a pleasure boat, you get into the harbor at night, steal these ships, against a massive enemy force when there’s only half a dozen of you, you could argue it’s undoable. But the prize was glittering, these three enemy ships, one German, two Italian. They were believed to be stationed in what was then called Fernando Po, this island nation off the coast of West Africa, to service the German U-boat fleet. They were packed full of spare parts, so rather than having to tow them back to the nearest German base which was an inconceivable distance from where they were operating, you could take them to Fernando Po, refit them, re-arm them, then send them back to war. 

Of course, this is the real McGuffin, there remains that one page of the manifest with the unknown secret cargo. To this day, I’ve been unable to find out what this consisted of. But I’ve kind of wondered. Fernando Po had Congo to the east, and the Congo was the key source of uranium in the Second World War. There was a war in the shadows in the Congo to get the Congo’s uranium, which was key to our atom bomb program but also the German’s atom bomb program. It’s tantalizing to imagine what it might have been. But we know the U-boat incentive was key. 

To give an indication of the level of risk involved, the files are actually hugely entertaining. The SOE knew they’d have to have ready their deception story as soon as the ships were seized and taken onto the seas at which point the Royal Navy could then steam onto the horizon and claim to have taken them as prizes of war. So we had ready all our news stories to put into the media once that happened. Basically they’re a blatant concoction of lies! The correspondence that goes on between the individuals tasked with writing these pack of lies, they make for absolutely fabulous reading. It was a complex, fast moving, nigh on impossible mission with many many parts to it, which somehow they managed to pull off.

Q: In your book, Lassen is the throughline of the book. You can trace, from these early missions to the reorganization of the commando forces to the formation of the SAS, with him. How did these secret warriors like him become a more legitimized modern special operations force over the course of a few years?

A: Postmaster was a special operation. These were 00-prefix agents, that James Bond thing, it’s real. Ian Fleming, he was one of the taskmasters of the Postmaster mission. These agents really did have 00 prefixes. It meant you were licensed to kill and break all of the rules of war. In time, within months of postmaster, these individuals start to get recruited into newly founded untis lik the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, which are slightly more conventional. Lassen becomes a leading light and figure int hose units. He’s an iconic figure to this day. At the SAS base in the UK there are two or three statues of the founders, David Stirling, Blair Paddy Mayne who took over after Stirling was captured and thirdly there’s a Dane: Anders Lassen. He’s the only member of the SAS to win the Victoria Cross. Sadly, he won it posthumously for a raid near the end of the war. He is an absolutely iconic figure. If you want to posit two individuals behind the modern day recruits of the British Forces, they’re Blair Paddy Mayne, and Anders Lassen, the Danish viking warrior who wielded the bow and arrow. 

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is now in theaters. 

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