The Surprisingly True Story of 'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare'

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GUY RITCHIE LOVES a good shoot-’em-up, and The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is no exception. The British director’s (Snatch, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) latest movie stars Henry Cavill, Eiza González, Alan Ritchson, Henry Golding, and Alex Pettyfer in a stylish spy story about the United Kingdom’s secret mission to beat back Nazi Germany’s creeping takeover of Europe. The action comedy, out now only in theaters, doesn’t shy away from grisly violence—or laughs. It has the snappy, vicious-then-charming quality of a Quentin Tarantino film, along with plenty of Nazis who meet their rightful end. And the critics mostly like it.

But what does separate Ungentlemanly Warfare from, say, Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes? Well, this one is true. Or rather, it’s (very loosely) based on the 2014 book Churchill's Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII by Damien Lewis (the author, not the actor), a more faithful telling of the real-life Operation Postmaster during the Second World War.

In Ritchie’s highly fictionalized take on Operation Postmaster, Cavill’s Gus March-Phillipps is called upon by the British government in Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear) and Brigadier Gubbins (Cary Elwes) to bring together a team who then sail to the Spanish island of Fernando Po. The goal: to sink a Nazi ship with a crucial load of supplies and ammunition.

Enter badasses mowing down Nazis with automatic rifles. But how did the actual Operation Postmaster unfold? Here’s everything you need to know about the true story that inspired The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

What was Operation Postmaster?

If you remove Ritchie’s rejiggering of Operation Postmaster, here’s what you get: The operation, only recently declassified, was initiated by the British War Office and carried out by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), tasked with handling espionage activities. The team that took on the operation was indeed led by Major Gustavus March-Phillipps, with Geoffrey Appleyard (played by Pettyfer) as second in command. But unlike in the film, they were already active as the No. 62 Commando Unit, or Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF).

The formation of these commandos was ordered by Winston Churchill in June, 1940, following the Dunkirk evacuation (another piece of World War II history you undoubtedly know about from a certain other movie). Churchill wanted a “hunter class” of troops that would strike a “reign of terror” on German-occupied coasts, per the UK’s National Army Museum.

The No. 62 unit was a selective group of 55 men (only a few of whom are featured in Ritchie’s movie). The operation on Fernando Po took place in January 1942, about three years before Nazi Germany surrendered in the war.

How did the "ungentlemanly warfare" in the actual operation go down?

Well, not quite as cinematically as in Ritchie’s version. The aim was not to blow up one boat. Instead, it was to steal three boats and sail them far, far away from Nazi hands. The UK government didn’t approve the Fernando Po operation at first, owing to the fact that Spain was neutral. But the covert nature of No. 62 gave them just the right amount of distance for Churchill to back the raid.

Based on a tip that the Nazi soldiers on the island loved to party, the British managed to create a diversion, hosting two parties for the Nazi officers and soldiers as well as harbor crew. But the blood splatter was not significant. In fact, No. 62 reportedly met with almost no resistance once they boarded the ships (owing to all those unsuspecting Nazis busy getting their food and drink on). The British agents did have to destroy the anchor chains, not the ships, in order to remove them.

Finally, No. 62 sailed the Nazi load to Lagos, Nigeria. The ships were retrieved by British naval forces, who made a show of taking over the ships since it wasn’t an officially approved mission. But Churchill scored the key success he sought all the same.

So exactly how true is the movie?

Well, the proper historical outline is there. “The story itself and the elements are true,” Arash Amel, one of the Ungentlemanly Warfare screenwriters, told the Los Angeles Times.

But characters get combined and recreated, and are brought to life with a lot more gruesomeness than in the historical record. Some suspenseful turns (like Cavill’s imprisonment), too, were made up. And then there are the perfectly cheeky lines that the Brits probably couldn’t immediately come up with in the moment. Hey, that’s what Ritchie is here for.

Why does this all remind me so much of a Bond movie?

Well, James Bond creator Ian Fleming not only worked for the British government, but he was also closely involved with the SOE during WWII. And he's a character in Ritchie's The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

Bond appears to be an amalgamation of different real agents, and the film itself alludes to him being based on Cavill's Gus March-Phillipps. “[They] became the forerunners of James Bond,” Amel said of No. 62, “but it was a coming together of this multicultural coalition of the misfits. It wasn’t just your classical story of the British fighting the Germans.”

In other words, Ungentlemanly Warfare serves history, but with a distinct, Bond-like twist.

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