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MoviesThe Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’s true story: how historically accurate is Guy...

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’s true story: how historically accurate is Guy Ritchie’s flick?

Guy Ritchie’s new movie, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, is an action-comedy set in World War II. Like Inglourious Basterds, it’s a men-on-a-mission movie in which a crack unit sets about knocking Nazi heads together and getting as far up Adolf’s nose as possible. Unlike that Quentin Tarantino flick, though, it’s based on real-life events that took place off the coast of West Africa in the dark days of 1941.

Starring in Ritchie’s boy’s own caper are Henry Cavill, Henry Golding, Baby Driver’s Eiza González, Fast X’s Alan Ritchson and Cary Elwes. It’s firmly in the spirit of The Great Escape, The Dirty DozenThe Guns of Navarone and – deep cut – The Sea Wolves. Like that 1980 Roger Moore and David Niven war flick, the story involves hijacking a ship from an unsuspecting enemy.

But how does it weigh up as a piece of history? We asked the movie’s military advisor Paul Biddiss, ex-Para and consultant on movies from Napoleon to 1917, to sort the fact from the fiction.

THE MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE
Photograph: Dan Smith for LionsgateHenry Cavill plays real-life special forces operative Gus March-Phillipps in ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’

Is The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare based on a true story?

Yes. Well, mostly. For the first time, Guy Ritchie has tackled a true-life story on the big screen (and, nope, we’re not including King Arthur: Legend of the Sword). Based on historian Damien Lewis’s non-fiction book, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare follows the exploits of a real Allied special forces unit in the early part of World War II.

Called Operation Postmaster, it targeted Fernando Po (the modern-day island of Bioko), a neutral Spanish colonial port off the coast of West Africa. ‘The plan was to steal a ship – the Italian cargo liner Duchessa D’Aosta – that was being used to communicate with U-boats in the Atlantic,’ explains Biddiss, ‘and drag it into international waters to be found by Allied warships’.
 
Unlike the film, where plenty of Nazis meet their maker, officially nobody was killed in the operation.  ‘At the end of the day, this is a caper rather than a documentary,’ says Biddiss.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
Photograph: Quercus

Are all the characters real people?

Most of them. Henry Cavill’s luxuriantly mustachioed Gus March-Phillipps, the mission leader, was a real person, albeit with less cigar theft and slightly less facial hair.

Fast X’s Alan Ritchson plays real Danish major Anders Lassen, Ungentlemanly Warfare’s answer to Bullet Tooth Tony. ‘He was a complete lunatic,’ says Biddiss. ‘One of his post-mission reports read: “Turned up, killed some Germans, fucked off.”’ 

Alex Pettyfer’s character, Geoffrey Appleyard, was another a real person – although Henry Golding’s demolitions expert Freddy Alvarez and Hero Fiennes Tiffin’s Irish sailor Henry Hayes are both Hollywood constructs. All of the real people paid a heavy price for their heroism. ‘None of them survived the war,’ says Biddiss.

THE MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE
Photograph: Dan Smith for LionsgateAlex Pettyfer as Geoffrey Appleyard in ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’

What’s the story of Churchill’s secret warriors?

When things were looking bleak for Britain, isolated from occupied Europe in the early part of the war, Churchill created a crack organisation to take the fight back to the Germans. As Lewis’s 2014 book recounts, the SOE – ‘Special Operations Executive’ – was formed in secret in July 1940, recruiting and training brave men and women to go behind the enemy’s lines and cause mayhem.

The SOE, which would later spawn the SAS, contained a unit called the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF), which was headed up by Cavill’s character, Major Gus March-Phillipps.

These soldiers were dubbed ‘freelance pirates’ and sent on deniable missions that would occasionally – as in the case of the movie – involve the odd cheeky violation of neutral territory. After the war, the files on many of them were put under lock and key to gather dust. ‘The British just denied it all,’ says Biddiss. 

Were there female agents on the mission?

In the movie, an SOE agent called Marjorie Stewart (Eiza González) plays a key role in duping the port’s German commander. While Stewart was a real person, and married Gus March-Phillipps IRL, she wasn’t involved in Operation Postmaster. ‘There were no SOE women at this time,’ says Biddiss, ‘but they joined later and mainly went to France and Germany.’

What about ‘M’? 

Cary Elwes plays ‘M’ and Freddie Fox is Ian Fleming in the film. Yes, that ‘M’ and that Ian Fleming.

The characters in the film – and the SEO more generally – were a major inspiration for a certain fictional spy. ‘Ian Fleming put these plans together,’ says Biddiss, ‘but because they were locked away under the Official Secrets Act, he couldn’t write about them [after the war]. So he wrote a fictional character – James Bond – based on these personalities.’

Q Branch was real, too. ‘They came up with gadgets like small cameras, a poisoned blade in a shoe like the one Rosa Klebb wears in From Russia with Love, and exploding rats.’ 

Exploding rat
Photograph: The National ArchivesThe SOE’s blueprint for explosive rats

What is the story of Churchill’s secret warriors?

When things were looking bleak for Britain, isolated from occupied Europe in the early part of the war, Churchill created a crack organisation to take the fight back to the Germans. As Lewis’s 2014 book recounts, the SOE – ‘Special Operations Executive’ – was formed in secret in July 1940, recruiting and training brave men and women to go behind the enemy’s lines and, well, kill them.

The SOE, which would later spawn the SAS, contained a unit called the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF), which was headed up by Cavill’s character, Major Gus March-Phillipps.

These soldiers were dubbed ‘freelance pirates’ and sent on deniable missions that would occasionally – as in the case of the movie – involve the odd cheeky violation of neutral territory. After the war, the files on many of them were put under lock and key to gather dust. ‘The British just denied it all,’ says Biddiss. 

THE MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE
Photograph: Dan Smith for LionsgateHero Fiennes Tiffin as Henry Hayes in ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’

When is The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare out?

It’s in US theaters now. It’ll be streaming on Prime Video elsewhere in the world later in 2024.  If you’re keen to fill a Ritchie gap in the meantime, his new crime series The Gentleman is streaming on Netflix now.  

The 24 best movies based on true stories.

Where is Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen Filmed? Inside the real Badminton House behind the Netflix series.

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