Book Review: Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive


by A. R. B. Linderman

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 272. Notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0806151676

The Man who “Invented” Special Operations

In what is his first book, Dr. Linderman examines the life and work of Colin Gubbins (1896-1976). Although Gubbins had a long career in the British Army, with service in First World War, then against the Bolsheviks in northern Russia and in the Irish War for Independence, and played an important role in the development of special operations, he has largely been over-looked by historians.

Linderman sees Gubbins’ experiences in Russia and Ireland as the primary sources of his interest in special operations. Gubbins honed this interest during the interwar period by studying earlier conflicts, such as the Boer Wars and German operations in East Africa and the Arab Revolt in the Great War, as well as contemporary conflicts, such as frontier operations in India, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Spanish Civil War, the Arab revolt inn Palestine, and others, in Linderman’s words “Learning from the Past” and from “Contemporary Examples.”

Gubbins began his service in World War II as a liaison officer in Poland in 1939, barely getting out before the Nazis took over. Gubbins then served as a liaison officer to Polish and Czech forces being raised in France, before being selected to raise the first of what would become Britain’s Commandos. He took part in the Norwegian Campaign, rising to brigade command, and then turned down a division command to organize “stay behind” groups in the Home Guard should the Germans occupy parts of Britain. This led him to join the nascent Special Operations Group, the “SOE”. Linderman carries Gubbins story through the organization and training of the SOE and its operations, concluding with an evaluation of its successes and failures.

Linderman offers the reader a great deal of material about the development of special operations doctrine and practice, the politics of special warfare, the management of agents, and the conduct of special operations within the framework of the “Big Picture”. He also gives us and peeks at many unique individuals, from “Wild Bill” Donovan to the remarkable Constant de Wiart.

A volume in the University of Oklahoma Press’ “Campaigns and Commanders” series, this is a very useful look at the origins of the now very essential special operations forces.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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