Colin Gubbins

Colin Gubbins

Colin Gubbins was born in Scotland in 1896. He joined the British Army and as a member of the Royal Artillery won the Military Cross while serving on the Western Front during the First World War.

In 1919 Gubbins went to Russia where he served under General Edmund Ironside and General Anton Denikin in the White Army. After the victory of the Red Army in the Civil War Gubbins returned to England. Gubbins also served on the losing side in the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21.

Gubbins experiences in Russia and Ireland gave him considerable insights into the nature of guerrilla warfare. He joined Military Intelligence and wrote a series of pamphlets on the subject including The Art of Guerrilla Warfare, Partisan Leader's Handbook and How to Use High Explosives.

Gubbins argued that for guerrilla warfare to succeed it needed daring leadership and a sympathetic population. In his pamphlets he provided practical information on how to organize a road ambush, how to immobilize a railway engine and how to kill the enemy.

By the outbreak of the Second World War Gubbins had reached the rank of brigadier. He joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and in November 1940 was appointed director of operations and training.

After the war Gubbins published Resistance Movements in the War (1948). Colin Gubbins died in 1976.

Primary Sources

(1) Patrick Howarth worked for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War and afterwards wrote about Colin Gubbins in his book, Undercover (1980)

The pamphlets for which Gubbins was largely responsible offended against many of the principles of chivalry in warfare as well as the tradition of dogged determination embodied in the concept of the thin red line. Guerrillas were instructed not to undertake an operation unless certain of success, to ensure that a good line of retreat was always available, and never to engage in a pitched battle unless in overwhelming strength. They were advised to use women and children as couriers because they were less likely to be stopped and searched. Among targets recommended were cinemas in which occupation troops were being entertained, as they would be highly inflammable. Instructions were given in the use of the various explosives then available - ammonal, gelignite and dynamite - with detailed calculations of the quantities required to destroy railways, bridges and buildings. Informers in the service of the enemy must, it was pointed out firmly, be killed promptly and, if possible, a note was to be pinned to the body explaining the reasons for death.

(2) In his book Specially Employed, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of Special Operations Executive, explained why he needed to British agents to occupied France.

We quickly learned that the courage, endurance and pugnacity of the patriots living in occupied territory were in direct proportion to the brutality of the occupying force's repressive measures. No occupying power can break the spirit and blunt the retaliatory power of a patriotic and proud people. Conversely, no occupied country can take really effective action against an occupying power without aid from outside. Coordination of effort was essential, for uncoordinated sabotage contributes but little to the destruction of the occupying power's potential. It merely invites reprisals, which in turn provoke further retaliation by the patriots. But if the occupied people feels that it is being neglected or left in the lurch by its allies, if it begins to listen and, by the force of repetition, to accept as truth the enemy's propaganda, the reaction becomes more and more feeble, until it finally peters out.

(3) Major William Fairbairn, was the commander of the Special Operations Executive training school in Oshawa, Canada. He produced a pamphlet explaining how secret agents should kill the enemy.

The Queensberry rules enumerate, under the heading of "fouls", some good targets which the boxer is not trained to defend. This, however, is war, not sport. Your aim is to kill your opponent as quickly as possible. So forget the Queensberry rules; forget the term 'foul methods'. This may sound cruel, but it is still more cruel to take longer than necessary to kill your opponent.

The knife is a silent and deadly weapon that is easily concealed and against which, in the hands of an expert, there is no sure defence, except firearms or running like hell.

(4) General Dwight D. Eisenhower, letter to Colin Gubbins (31st May, 1945)

Since I assumed the Supreme Command in January 1944, until the present day, its work has been marked by patient and far-sighted planning, flexible adaptation to the operational requirements of Supreme Headquarters, and efficient executive action during operations.

In no previous war, and in no other theatre during this war, have resistance forces been so closely harnessed to the main military effort. While no final assessment of the operational value of resistance action has yet been completed, I consider that the disruption of enemy rail communications, the harassing of German road moves and the continual and increasing strain placed on the German war economy and internal security services throughout occupied Europe by the organized forces of resistance, played a very considerable part in our complete and final victory.

The combination of certain sections of your two organizations, first established as Special Force Headquarters under the joint command of Brigadier Mockler-Ferryman and Colonel Haskell, was the means by which these resistance forces were so ably organized, supplied and directed. Particular credit must be due to those responsible for communications with occupied territory. I am also aware of the care with which each individual country was studied and organized, and of the excellent work carried out in training, documenting", briefing and dispatching agents. The supply to agents and resistance groups in the field, moreover, could only have reached such proportions during the summer of 1944 through outstanding efficiency on the part of the supply and air liaison staffs. Finally, I must express my great admiration for the brave and often spectacular exploits of the agents and special groups under control of Special Force Headquarters.