Book Review: Pioneers of Irregular Warfare: Secrets of the Military Intelligence Research Department of the Second World War


by Malcolm Atkin

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2021. Pp. xvi, 234+. Illus., maps, links, notes, biblio., index. $42.95. ISBN: 1526766000

A Vital Node in the Development of British Special Operations

In his new book, Malcolm Atkin meticulously presents the innovations, activities, and thought leadership of an obscure – but very influential — subunit of Britain’s much more renowned WW2 intelligence division, the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

The crucial secret department whose story he tells is Military Intelligence (Research), or MI(R), which came up with some of the shaping ideas behind special forces as they exist today.

In early 1939, Major J.C. F. Holland was appointed its chief. Part of Atkins’ intent is to restore attention to Holland’s visionary ideas and endeavors. The author believes that the spotlight on these was shifted postwar through the efforts of a more ambitious and publicity savvy deputy, Major Colin Gubbins (eventually chief of SOE).

The author examines – sometimes laboriously – the complicated relationship between the two officers. He also reviews the intricate rivalries MI(R) experienced with other elements of Britain’s SOE intelligence apparatus, like its center for political subversion, bribery, and general skullduggery – the infamous Section D

Essentially, Holland conceived his unit’s mission to be a respectable “clearing house for ideas” – a think tank on irregular warfare for uniformed soldiers – rather than an undercover operational outfit. Colin Gubbins favored the latter role, however, and the section’s personnel kept being drawn into it.

To be said in his favor, Gubbins ultimately rationalized a great deal of disparate material on guerilla warfare, thus providing the War Office with clear procedures. In the form of three pamphlets, particularly, he condensed doctrines that formed the basis for much subsequent thinking on the subject.

In its short career, MI(R ) was more successful at formulating new approaches to unconventional war (and rapidly designing deadly devices to support them) than pulling off effective actions in the field. Nevertheless, Atkin devotes several chapters to reviewing the department’s uneven adventures in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, not to mention those in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

On June 7, 1940, Col. Holland wrote “An Appreciation of the Capabilities of a Small Force Operating Behind the Enemy Lines on the Offensive.” This lightly armed, non-civilian “small force” would “disrupt enemy lines of communication, destroy [ammo] dumps, and disorganize HQ.” The compact task group should cooperate with local resistance, avoid open conflict, and coordinate with any friendly conventional troops who crashed through the foe.

Atkin affirms that Holland’s far-sighted ideas became the blueprint for the creation of the early Independent Companies in Norway, the Commandos, the Long Range Desert Group, the D-Day Jedburgh teams, the Chindits, the Special Air Service (SAS), and – ultimately – all elite special forces.

Meanwhile, Holland’s brilliant subordinate, Major M.R. Jeffries, the head of the technical subunit, MI(R)c [later nicknamed “Churchill’s Toyshop” because of the PM’s fascination with it], devised several deadly devices of great usefulness in irregular combat. These included novel mines, such as limpets, several types of delay and anti-personnel switches, explosive darts, and even booby-trapped camel scat, as well as the handy “sticky” bomb.

The latter, in a simplified form, was introduced to an American audience by the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” In one of its scenes, a Ranger captain, played by Tom Hanks, extolled the ability of the quickly made sticky bombs to cripple approaching German tanks.

Holland even envisioned autogiros and helicopters as the ideal supports for his isolated “small force” soldiers. He was confident that short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft could be soon developed, if the Air Ministry gave the go-ahead. Such vehicles would be ideal for inserting, supplying, and rescuing the teams he believed could snarl the capabilities of much larger enemy organizations on their home turf.

But the Air Ministry and Army Council didn’t buy in. Britain first flew helicopters much later, in 1950, during the Malay Emergency. Now, of course, these craft are employed just as Holland envisioned them: standard tools for almost every special forces mission.

By October 1940, MI(R) was reorganized out of existence, although Jeffries’ technical subdivision MI(R)c was folded into the new Ministry of Defense and awarded a brand-new new acronym, MD1.

This book is not an easy read (the plethora of such acronyms adds to the difficulty). It is expertly researched, however, with a reliance on contemporary records, and the author successfully offers an “in-depth analysis of this pioneer of irregular warfare.”

Any serious students of special ops and its origins owe Mr. Atkin’s work their attention.


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Our Reviewer: A former naval officer, Richard Jupa was a senior finance editor at a major credit rating agency for more than two decades. He is also the co-author of Gulf Wars, on the 1991-1992 Gulf War, and has published over a dozen articles on contemporary conflicts. He previously reviewed Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning



StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: Richard Jupa   

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