Four recent books on the Second World War - review by Patrick Scrivenor

Patrick Scrivenor

Biting Hitler’s Ankles

Four recent books on the Second World War


The Second World War, that inexhaustible milch cow for military historians, has staggered into the milking parlour again and yielded four reasonably fresh pails of milk. Max Hastings’s Operation Biting: The 1942 Parachute Assault to Capture Hitler’s Radar (William Collins 384pp £25) is an account of the Bruneval Raid, a successful but minor operation in the war. In 1942, the German Würzburg radar system was providing accurate information about the strength and targets of British bombing raids. Operation Biting was launched with the purpose of capturing a Würzburg installation, finding out how it worked and developing a way of countering the system. 

Between 12.14am and 12.30am on 28 February 1942, 120 men of 2 Para were dropped by the RAF at the site of a Würzburg installation at Bruneval on the Normandy coast. They took with them an engineer and a technical expert. At 03.15am, the raiders, with the assistance of the Royal Navy, got away with the radar disc and much of the associated technology. Of course, as Hastings makes clear, no military operation goes entirely smoothly. Three ‘sticks’ (or groups of paratroopers) were dropped two miles short of the target, and the evacuation from the beach was bedevilled by confusion and unexpected German resistance. Sixteen men were killed, wounded or left behind. But the raid achieved its objectives and enabled Britain to understand and counter German radar defences.

Hastings’s account is vivid, exciting and accurate. He places the raid in context and demonstrates its influence on subsequent airborne operations. He covers the planning and preparation of the raid by Combined Operations Headquarters, which was led by Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten had previously commanded HMS Kelly, which was sunk in 1941, and would later oversee the disastrous Dieppe Raid, so the men of 2 Para were perhaps lucky to get away with such light casualties. 


The heroism of the Polish resistance movement is legendary and Britain has particular reason to be grateful for it. Churchill calculated that 50 per cent of all intelligence from within occupied Europe came from the Polish underground – including information about the Enigma cipher. Thanks to intelligence about the V-2 rocket programme supplied by Polish agents, the RAF was able to launch a bombing raid that set back its development by two years. 

Much of this intelligence was conveyed by Elżbieta Zawacka, the subject of Clare Mulley’s Agent Zo: The Untold Story of Fearless WW2 Resistance Fighter Elżbieta Zawacka (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 416pp £22). Codenamed Agent Zo, Zawacka acted as a courier for the Polish Home Army, undertaking hazardous trips from occupied Poland to London, where the Polish government-in-exile had its headquarters, before parachuting back into Poland. She served in the resistance from 1939 until 1945, not only as a courier but also as a fighter, participating in the Warsaw Uprising. 

Nor was this the end of it. After the war, like all Polish resistance fighters, Zawacka found herself the target of the Soviet puppet regime in Poland. In 1951 she was arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the communist authorities. Mulley tells this story of industrial-strength heroism with sympathy and feeling. She reserves much admiration for the trenchant feminism of Zawacka, who fought hard on behalf of the women who served in the underground, believing that they were inadequately recognised, and campaigned for female equality all her life.


Robert Hutton’s The Illusionist: The True Story of the Man Who Fooled Hitler (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 384pp £25) is an account of the life of the extraordinary British officer Dudley Clarke, who sowed the seeds of the British Commandos, the SAS and the US Army Rangers and carried out inventive and successful deception operations during the war. At one point, he was arrested in Madrid while wearing female clothing. There is no accepted explanation for this strange incident. 

Clarke’s primary area of operations was the Middle East. Working out of Cairo, he used double agents, spoof wireless transmissions and dummy units to persuade Axis intelligence that the Allies had far more troops on the ground than was the case. Among his more ingenious schemes was Operation Mincemeat, the dumping of a corpse dressed in the uniform of a marine officer carrying misleading documents about a planned invasion of Italy in the sea. Another operation devised by Clarke was designed to deceive the Germans about the precise location of the Allied landing in France.

It is difficult to assess the success of deception plans on an individual level, but the overall success of Clarke’s operations cannot be doubted. Uncertain where the Allied blows would fall, the Germans maintained large forces in the Balkans which might otherwise have been deployed on the Western Front or against the USSR.

Clarke’s efforts were assisted by the extraordinary ineptness of the German intelligence service, the Abwehr. Hutton gives an excellent analysis of this organisation’s failings. The Abwehr was a dead end for passed-over officers and its agents were badly trained and incompetent. Its head, Admiral Canaris, became so hostile to Hitler that he established contact with MI6 and passed information about the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, to the British government through his Polish mistress. Following the failure of the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler, he was arrested and executed.


Peter Pomerantsev’s How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler (Faber & Faber 304pp £20) deals with the ‘black propaganda’ campaign conducted by the journalist Sefton Delmer on behalf of the British government. At times, it was as though Delmer were in a contest with Joseph Goebbels to be the vilest. It is no credit to Delmer that he seems quite frequently to have won. There was much cunning in the supposedly Nazi-produced radio programmes Delmer created to spread disinformation, but the content was often so base – indeed pornographic – that Sir Stafford Cripps remarked that he would rather lose the war than win by these means. 

Pomerantsev interleaves his account of Delmer’s activities with references to the war in Ukraine and Putin’s similarity to Hitler. He analyses the psychology of black propaganda and credits Delmer with making his fake German broadcasts convincing. But whether black propaganda has much impact is an open question. Did Goebbels’s broadcasts affect British morale? Not noticeably. One is tempted to reach a similar conclusion about Delmer and German morale.

I would make a plea to all publishers of military history to be more generous with maps and to include some indication of the timeline to accompany the text, either in the margins or, as in Mulley’s book, in the page headings. Without these aids, the prose of military historians often resists being understood. 

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