Operation Postmaster was a British operation on the Spanish island of Bioko, known then as Fernando Po. The objective was to board Axis Italian and German ships in the harbor and sail them to Lagos, destabilising the Axis Forces. British authorities refused to support the raid, considering it a breach of Spanish neutrality. It was left up to the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to carry out the mission.
Baker Street Irregulars and
a daring plot in Spain
Operation Postmaster was dicey. The plan was to board Italian and German ships in the harbour at the Spanish port of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa, in 1941 and sail them to Lagos.
The British military suspected that the fuel being pumped into German submarines was being transported to Spanish ports by disguised civilian cargo ships.
The British encountered three suspicious vessels, believed to be using radios to secretly navigate for German submarines. All three ships were in Spanish territory.
The problem with the British plan: such a raid by Britain could breach Spain’s neutrality in World War II and even drive the Spanish to join the Axis Powers (The “Axis of Evil”), a coalition of Germany, Italy, and Japan fighting the Allied Powers in World War II.
The go-ahead was given by the British Foreign Office against the advice of British officials in the region who believed the operation constituted an act of piracy.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain put his name to the paper to establish the SOE: “A new organisation shall be formed forthwith to co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas.”
After Cabinet approval SOE officially came into being on 22 July 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, in Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers and to assist local resistance movements.
SOE was sometimes referred to as “the Baker Street Irregulars”, after its London HQ. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.
Its various divisions were concealed for security purposes behind names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office.
SOE employed or controlled around 13,000 people, including about 3,200 women.
The Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) was set up in the early 1940s to carry out raids on the coast of Northern France and the Channel Islands. It was to gather information and take prisoners to be interrogated.
Winston Churchill initiated the “pinprick” raids, believing they would demoralise the German troops stationed along the Channel coast of occupied France.
The SSRF was founded by Major Gus March-Phillipps (above), Major Geoffrey Appleyard and Captain Graham Hayes.
They chose small boats for inshore operations. Members of the force were drawn from The Special Boat Service (SBS), the SOE and nationals from countries including France, Poland, The Netherlands and Czechoslovakia.
An SSRF force
The SSRF raid was carried out by 11 of its men under the command of Major March-Phillipps, with four men from SOE and 17 local volunteers.
The SSRF left home for the Spanish colony in August 1941 aboard the trawler Maid Honour, from Brixham, for the daring raid on the ships at Fernando Po. In Nigeria, Governo, Sir Bernard Bourdillon provided the raiders with two tugs.
The aim was to take over an Italian merchant vessel Duchessa d’Aosta (above), a German tug and a barge that had been impounded by the Spanish Government. Britain feared the ships could be used to supply U-boats operating off West Africa.
Reaching the port late at night on 14 January 1942 the commandos used plastic explosives to break the anchor chains.
They overpowered the crews on the three ships and sailed off with them and 29 prisoners to Lagos.
The mission took just 30 minutes from the time the tugs entered the harbour to leaving with the three ships under tow. There was no loss to the raiding party.
The tugs experienced motor problems on the way and a ship was sent from Lagos to complete the mission.
It was reported that to lure the officers away from the ships, SOE agent Richard Lippett who had taken a job with a British shipping company with an office on the island, and Spanish “friends” threw a party and invited officers from the impounded ships. It was also reported that the officers were offered free use of the island’s brothel.
The operation was a triumph for SOE. The Spanish were furious. Foreign Minister Serrano Suner said of the operation: “It was an intolerable attack on our sovereignty; no Spaniard can fail to be roused by this at of piracy committed in defiance of every right and within water under our jurisdiction. Do not be surprised if we return the answer which the case demands – that of arms.” There was no action.
March-Phillips, Hayes, Appleyard, Lippett and other participants all received honours for their parts in the raid.
British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden denied all knowledge of Operation Postmaster, attributing it to the Free French.
But the truth came to light almost 70 years later. Solicitor Brian Lett, whose father served with the SOE, gained access to documents relating to the top secret raid.
He discovered that the Naval Liaison Officer for Operation Postmaster was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007.
Lett believes the SSRF team was the basis for the creation of the James Bond character: “Before his death, Fleming said 90 per cent of the plots came from his personal experience,” Lett said in an interview.
In 2012 Brian Letts published the book, Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster – the untold top secret story (Pen and Sword Books). Letts argues (probably reasonably that the people involved in the operation were the inspiration for Fleming’s series of nine James Bond books.
March-Phillipps was killed during Operation Aquaint in September 1942, Hayes was captured on the same operation and a German firing squad eventually executed him in 1943. Appleyard joined the SAS and on the same day Hayes was executed, he was reported missing in his plane while on an aerial mission.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was approved by Cabinet and officially formed by Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton on 22 July 1940, to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, also in occupied Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.
It was formed from a merger of Department – MI R, the Ministry of War Section D (sabotage), the secret service SIS/MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) and the team of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Propaganda.
SOE’s first headquarters were three floors of the Victorian St Ermin’s hotel in central London, close to St James Park Tube Station and also close to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.
Later, the headquarters were established at 64 Baker Street, under the contracted name Union Trading Company. It had facilities in the main cities of Europe and Africa, including Stockholm, Lisbon, Madrid, Bari, Algiers. SOE agents were trained in England and on the west coast of Scotland.
Those who were part of SOEor who had contact with it were sometimes referred to as the “Baker Street Irregulars”, after London HQ location. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.
Many of its activities were disguised by names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office. As well as Ian Fleming, another notable member included actor Sir Christopher Lee.
The organisation was officially dissolved on 15 January 1946. The memorial to all those who served in the SOE during the Second World War was unveiled on 13 February 1996 on the wall of the west cloister of Westminster Abbey. Another memorial to SOE’s agents was unveiled in October 2009 on the Albert Embankment by Lambeth Palace in London. A Valençay SOE Memorial honours 104 SOE agents who lost their lives while working in France.
There were more than 40 female secret agents operating for the SOE overseas during its lifetime.
The Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) was created in 1942 by the Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten, a maternal uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
He believed in the use of specialist soldiers trained in sabotage. The SSRF was to be an amphibious force of no more than 50 men. It was placed under Mountbatten’s command.
The force in essence already existed as the Special Operation Executive’s Maid Honour Force named after the converted trawler it used. Though Mountbatten had control over the SSRF, it remained on the SOE’s role as Station 62. The SSRF was commanded by Major Gus March-Phillipps (sometimes spelled Phillips).
The unit undertook raids on German targets. Members worked only in small groups, in the belief that such groups would be far more detect. However, on the night of September 12 1942, the SSRF attacked St Honorine in Normandy but most in the raiding force were killed, including March-Phillipps. The command of the force passed to Major Geoffrey Appleyard, previously its second in command.
The SSRF raids buoyed Allied spirits and helped undermined the morale of the Germans troops.
The SSRF was disbanded in April 1943; other commando units were getting larger and there were divisions arising between the roles of SSRF and SOE.
Ian Lancaster Fleming was born on 28 May 1908 in Mayfair, London.
His parents were well off and he spent his school years at top British schools Eton and Sandhurst military academy. He took up writing while schooling in Kitzbuhel, Austria. He failed entrance requirements for the Foreign Service and joined the news agency Reuters as a journalist.
He worked in the financial sector for the family bank, but just before World War II and was recruited into British Naval Intelligence where he excelled. He rose to the rank of Commander, which later became his nickname.
After the war Fleming retired to Jamaica where he built a house called “Goldeneye,” took up writing full-time and created the character that made him famous – British Secret Service agent James Bond, in a novel called “Casino Royale,” the first of nine in his 007 series.
Fleming spent the rest of his life writing and traveling as his Bond character reached new heights of popularity on movie screens.
He also wrote the novel “Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car” which was released in three volumes from October 1964, after his death. The main character was Commander Caractacus Pott.
It became a successful musical-fantasy film in 1968, starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, Adrian Hall, Heather Ripley, Lionel Jeffries, Benny Hill, James Robertson Justice, Robert Helpmann, Barbara Windsor and Gert Fröbe.
Roald Dahl was a co-writer of the screenplay.
Fleming’s health began to fail and he died of a heart attack (his second) in England in August 1964 at the age of 56.
This article is an extension of a chapter in Elite Special Forces, 75 Years of Covert Action, Chris McLeod, Wilkinson Publishing.