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Zelenskyy’s secret ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’

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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Hardly a day goes by now without reports of yet another derring-do Ukrainian commando raid on targets in Russian-occupied Ukraine — sometimes even with hints of Kyiv-organized sabotage, or possibly assassinations, inside the Russian Federation.

Last week saw an especially dramatic raid, when Ukrainian commandos skimmed the western Black Sea on rigid-hull inflatable boats to retake a couple of oil drilling platforms just east of Snake Island. Nicknamed the Boyko Towers, these platforms had been seized long before the invasion of February 2022 — they had been grabbed by Russia in 2015, after Crimea’s annexation in 2014.

Ukraine’s defense ministry was quick, as it always is, to tout the military accomplishment, and the country’s military intelligence agency noted that the raid was of strategic significance, stating: “Russia has been deprived of the ability to fully control the waters of the Black Sea, and this makes Ukraine many steps closer to regaining Crimea.”

These Ukrainian raiders may well have been trained by the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines and Army Commandos, who trained around a thousand of Ukraine’s elite soldiers on how to conduct small-boat amphibious attacks earlier this year in Britain.

And this training has clearly been used to good effect — not just on the westernmost edge of the Black Sea but for multiple raids across the Dnipro River, as well as an incursion on the Crimean peninsula itself in which scores of Russians were reportedly killed last month.

But rather like the British during World War II, Ukraine may be claiming greater military significance and value for their commando raids than they may possibly warrant, and the assessment of their impact can be overstretched.

Britain’s Royal Marines and Army Commandos trace their history back to World War II.

After the evacuation of British forces from France in Dunkirk, wartime leader Winston Churchill wanted to see hit-and-run attacks along Nazi-occupied coastal Europe. “Enterprises must be prepared, with specially-trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts, first of all on the butcher-and-bolt policy,” he noted on June 6, 1940.

Part of Churchill’s thinking was that such coastal raids would lift British morale, while also demonstrating Britain’s determination to never surrender to the enemy. With luck, it would inspire others in occupied countries to resist too, and undermine German morale.

Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy | Omar Marques/Getty Images

That was also the thinking behind United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order for the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo — he wanted to boost morale after the shameful attack on Pearl Harbor, and the best way to do that would be to take the war right to the heart of Japan’s capital — much as the Ukrainians have been doing with drone attacks on Moscow.

But despite the claims made in the many books and movies churned out over the years, the wartime British Commando raids were arguably of varying success and military importance, though they were daring, dangerous and inspiring and boosted morale.

The most successful was Operation Chariot in 1942 — an amphibious attack on the heavily defended port of Saint-Nazaire in German-occupied France, when an obsolete U.S. destroyer packed with explosives was rammed into the dry dock and detonated. The facility was useless for the rest of the war, forcing German warships in need of major repairs to return to German waters and risk dangerous encounters with Britain’s powerful Home Fleet.

But even Operation Chariot — dubbed by some as “the greatest raid of all” — came at a considerable cost. Most of the 18 smaller landing craft that were transporting the commandos tasked with destroying other facilities at the port were sunk by German gunfire, and without means of escape, many of them were killed or forced to surrender when they ran out of ammunition.

Of the 612 commandos on the raid, only 228 managed to return to Britain — among them, on a personal note, my father — 169 were killed, 215 were taken captive. And as the war progressed, raids were slowly discontinued, as they were no longer thought effective and led Germany to strengthen coastal defenses.

Shortly after the British Army Commandos were starting to form, Churchill also ordered the establishment of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), tasked with conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance, as well as assisting resistance groups in German-occupied Europe. “Go and set Europe ablaze,” Churchill told the overseeing minister, Hugh Dalton.

But as with the Commandos, so with the SOE, which eventually grew to 13,000 operatives — 3,000 of them women. And while no one doubts their sheer courage, there has been considerable debate on the real military impact of what came to be dubbed “Churchill’s Secret Army” — or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”

Some historians have argued that many of the SOE’s high-profile operations — including the assassination of the vicious Reinhard Heydrich, acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and one of the architects of the “Final Solution to Jewish Question” — served little practical purpose and were potentially counterproductive.

And after the war, both historians and critics within the SOE argued these operations only resulted in mass reprisals and the break-up of resistance networks — the main purpose of which was to ultimately develop underground armies ready to strike and assist Allied forces when the tide of war had turned, and liberation was at hand.

“SOE was inefficient as an organization, unnecessarily dangerous to work for, ineffective in its pursuit of its aims, and counter-productive in the results achieved,” concluded John Keegan, one of Britain’s foremost military historians.

Others aren’t so dismissive though. In his book “The Secret War,” Max Hastings noted that by sponsoring resistance groups, the SOE “made possible the resurrection of self-respect in occupied societies,” allowing all European nations to “cherish their cadres of heroes and martyrs.”

Ukraine certainly has its heroes and martyrs. But only once the war is over will we have the chance to assess exactly how impactful its commandos have been.

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