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Sir Colin McVean Gubbins
Sir Colin Gubbins
Born (1896-07-02)2 July 1896
Died 11 February 1976(1976-02-11) (aged 79)
Place of birth Tokyo, Japan
Place of death Stornoway
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Years of service 1914–1946
Rank Major-General
Commands held Executive head of Special Operations Executive, 1943-1946
Awards MC
DSO (1940)
CMG (1944)
KCMG (1946)

Major-General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins KCMG, DSO, MC (2 July 1896 – 11 February 1976) was the prime mover of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in World War II.[1]

Gubbins was also responsible for setting up the secret Auxiliary Units, a civilian force to operate behind the German lines if the United Kingdom was invaded during Operation Sea Lion, Germany's planned invasion.

Early life[edit | edit source]

Gubbins was born in Tokyo on 2 July 1896, the younger son and third child of John Harington Gubbins (1852–1929), Oriental Secretary at the British Legation. He was educated at Cheltenham College and at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich where he graduated 56th out of 70 cadets.[2]

Military service[edit | edit source]

World War I[edit | edit source]

Gubbins was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery in 1914. On the outbreak of war he was visiting the German city of Heidelberg in order to improve his German language skills and had to make a perilous journey back to Britain via Belgium, arriving in Dover the day before Britain entered the conflict. Gubbins served as a battery officer on the Western Front, initially serving with the 126th Battery as part of the British Army's 3rd Corps. He first saw action on 22 May 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres and on 9 June was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. In July 1916 he participated in the Battle of the Somme and received the Military Cross for rescuing wounded men under fire. On 7 October he was wounded in the neck by a gunshot but fully recovered. In the spring of 1917 Gubbins participated in the Battle of Arras and in the winter suffered the effects of mustard gas. In early 1918 Gubbins was promoted to Captain and took part in the Battle of St Quentin. Shortly afterwards he was evacuated from the front with a case of trench fever on 17 April 1918.[3][4][5]

Interwar period[edit | edit source]

In 1919 he joined the staff of General Sir Edmund Ironside in the North Russia Campaign serving as his ADC in Murmansk from 13 April to 27 September 1919. He would later be awarded the Order of St Stanislav for his service.

On 2 December 1919 Gubbins was posted to the 47th Battery of the 5th Division in Kildare during the Anglo-Irish War. He served as an intelligence officer and in 1920 attended a 3 day course in Guerilla Warfare organized by the HQ 5th Division. Gubbins characterised his service in the conflict as "being shot at from behind hedges by men in trilbys and mackintoshes and not allowed to shoot back"[6] Promoted to Brigade Major he provided 18-pounder artillery pieces to the Irish Free State Army for the attack on the rebel held Dublin Four Courts on 28 June 1922. Ten days later he reluctantly provided a gun carriage and six black horses for the funeral of ex-IRA leader Michael Collins who had been assassinated by his former comrades. Eventually he was posted back to England in October 1922.

His experiences in the Russian Civil War and his subsequent experience during the Anglo-Irish War stimulated his lifelong interest in irregular warfare. One of the lessons drawn from the Anglo-Irish War was the importance of captured enemy documents which had provided the security forces with a wealth of invaluable intelligence on the IRA[7][8][9] Upon later establishing SOE one of the key security features introduced was "Commit as little as possible to writing. Memorise if you can. If you must carry documents, select what you must carry. Burn all secret waste and carbons".[10]

After a period with signals intelligence at GHQ India, Gubbins graduated from the Staff College at Quetta in 1928, and in 1931 was appointed GSO3 in the Russian section of the War Office. Having been promoted to Brevet Major, in 1935 he joined MT1, the policy making branch of the military training directorate.

In October 1938, in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement, he was sent to the Sudetenland as a military member of the International Commission. Promoted to Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, he joined GS(R) — later to become MI(R) — in April 1939, where he prepared training manuals on irregular warfare, which were later translated and dropped into occupied Europe. He also made a visit to Warsaw to discuss sabotage and subversion with the Polish General Staff.[11]

World War II[edit | edit source]

When British forces were mobilized in August 1939, Gubbins was appointed Chief of Staff to the military mission to Poland led by Adrian Carton de Wiart. He was among the first people to report on the effectiveness of the German Panzer tactics.

In October 1939, following his return to Britain, Gubbins was sent to Paris as the head of a military mission to the Czech and Polish forces under French command. Gubbins was summoned from France in March 1940 to raise the "Independent Companies" — forerunners of the British Commandos — which he later commanded in the Norwegian Campaign (9 April – 10 June 1940). Although criticized in some quarters for having asked too much of untried troops, he showed himself to be a bold and resourceful commander, and was awarded the DSO.

Back in Britain, he was directed by General Headquarters Home Forces to form the Auxiliary Units, a civilian force to operate behind German lines if Britain were invaded.[12]

In November 1940 Gubbins became acting Brigadier and, at the request of Hugh Dalton, minister of Economic Warfare, was seconded to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which had recently been established to "coordinate all action by way of sabotage and subversion against the enemy overseas". Besides maintaining his existing connections with the Poles and Czechs, Gubbins was given three tasks: to set up training facilities; to devise operating procedures acceptable to the Admiralty and Air Ministry; and to establish close working relations with the Joint Planning Staff.

Despite many frustrations and disappointments, mainly due to shortage of aircraft, he persevered with training organizers and dispatching them into the field. The first liaison flight to Poland took place in February 1941, and during 1942 and 1943 European resistance movements aided by SOE scored notable successes, including a raid on a heavy water production plant in Norway.

In September 1943 GHQ Middle East, the Foreign Office, and the Joint Intelligence Committee mounted an attack on SOE's autonomy. Despite having the firm support of the Minister, Roundell Palmer, 3rd Earl of Selborne, the resulting modus vivendi placed SOE's field operations under the direction of theatre commanders. Sir Charles Hambro, the executive head of SOE, resigned in protest. Gubbins, by now an acting Brigadier-General, was appointed as his replacement. SOE's position nevertheless remained precarious, and in January 1944 there was a further attempt to dismantle SOE, following the revelation that SOE's operations in the Netherlands had been penetrated by Nazi intelligence.

As head of SOE, Gubbins co-ordinated the activities of resistance movements worldwide. Gubbins' role involved consultation at the highest level with the Foreign Office, the Chiefs of Staff, representatives of the resistance organizations, governments-in-exile, and other Allied agencies including particularly the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It turned out that the organized resistance was more effective than Whitehall had expected; in northwest Europe, where SOE's activities were under Gubbins's personal control, General Dwight D. Eisenhower later estimated that the contribution of the French Resistance alone had been worth six divisions.

Later life[edit | edit source]

When SOE was shut down in 1946 the War Office could offer Gubbins no suitable position, and when he retired from the army he became the managing director of a carpet and textile manufacturer. He remained in touch with people in many of the countries he had helped to liberate, and was invited by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands to join the Bilderberg group. He was also a supporter of the Special Forces Club, which he had co-founded.[13]

Personal life[edit | edit source]

Gubbins's first marriage was to Norah Creina (b. 1894) on 22 October 1919. The couple had two sons, the elder of whom was killed at Anzio in 1944. The couple were divorced in 1944 and on 25 September 1950 he married the Norwegian-born Anna Elise Tradin, née Jensen (b. 1914, d. 2007).[14]

A shooter and fisherman, Gubbins spent his last years at his home in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Harris. He was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of the islands area of the Western Isles in 1976. Gubbins died at Stornoway in the Hebrides on 11 February 1976.

Testimonials[edit | edit source]

His star cryptographer at SOE was Leo Marks, whose book Between Silk and Cyanide (1998) contains a detailed portrait of Gubbins and his work as Marks knew it. At one point (p. 222), Marks describes Gubbins:

Described by Tommy [Marks' closest friend] as 'a real Highland toughie, bloody brilliant, should be the next CD', he was short enough to make me feel average, with a moustache which was as clipped as his delivery and eyes which didn't mirror his soul or any other such trivia. The general's eyes reflected the crossed swords on his shoulders, warning all comers not to cross them with him. It was a shock to realize they were focused on me.

In the book Virtual History (1997), Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson call Gubbins "one of the war's unsung heroes."

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Ashby, Bill. "Major General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins – Founder & First Commander". British Resistance Archive. http://www.coleshillhouse.com/major-general-sir-colin-mcvean-gubbins.php. 
  2. 'Gubbins and SOE' by Peter Wilkinson and Joan Brightly 1993
  3. Gubbins and SOE
  4. Gubbins Private Papers
  5. 29 Brigade War Diary
  6. Gubbins Private Papers
  7. British Voices from the Irish War of Independence by William Sheehan p134
  8. Michael Collins Intelligence War by Michael T Foy p196
  9. A Winter's Tale by Sir Ormonde Winter p295
  10. The World War 2 SOE Training Manual p39
  11. "Kent Auxiliary Units". http://www.kentauxiliaryunits.org.uk/national-overview/colin-mcvean-gubbins/. 
  12. "SPECIAL OPERATIONS EXECUTIVE". http://clutch.open.ac.uk/schools/emerson00/soe_gubbins_marks.html. 
  13. "Special Forces Club". http://www.sfclub.org/about.htm. 
  14. Obituary in Aftenposten 22 August 2007 No. 385

Sources[edit | edit source]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

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