A pacy WWII thriller that is both polished and entertaining, Ungentlemanly Warfare has an authentic and timeless feel to it. Howard Linskey raided the Special Operations Executive archives last year for his novel Hunting the Hangman, a fictionalised account of Operation Anthropoid – the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in June 1942 (spoiler alert – they got him!). His new novel, Ungentlemanly Warfare, deals with another SOE project, Operation Jedburgh, which saw small specialist teams dispatched across Europe to support the local resistance efforts. So with this novel we are back in the world of the clandestine operatives and the local heroes whose courage and commitment behind enemy lines remained unrecognised for many years and yet played a significant part in winning the war. Linskey’s story pays homage to the men and women of the SOE and the Maquis, the communist/leftist resistance, in Normandy who fought behind the lines to free France from the Nazis.
In Ungentlemanly Warfare Harry Walsh’s mission could impact on the outcome of the war. Linskey’s fictional story dovetails perfectly with real history in a novel that is gripping and educational, in that it opens a little window into what it must have been like to be an SOE operative at that time. Ungentlemanly Warfare delves into an aspect of the war that is familiar, but which hasn’t received as much attention as it should.

1943. Adolf Galland watches from the ground as the FW190s of his fighter squadron take on the RAF. He would like to be in the air with his men right now. He frequently risks the wrath of the air minister by flying despite explicit orders not to. Today Galland has a meeting with Reichsmarshall Goering in Peenemünder. He abhors the endless photo shoots for propaganda newsreels wearing his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves – pointless publicity stunts. This meeting is different though, Galland is impressed as the small missile like prototype jet flies past at 600mph. If the ME163, the komet, can be developed for the theatre of war it will prevent the allies invading France, they will never have the air superiority necessary to protect a land invasion.

Emma Sterling, codename Madeleine, is twenty three and on her first SOE assignment in Normandy. She has to get Etienne Dufoy on a Lysander and back to Blighty. Dufoy has escaped from the Gestapo while being transported to Fresnes prison. He holds the details of SOE operatives in France in his head. As they approach the rendezvous airstrip a dark figure comes out of the woods, Harry Walsh, he knows that the mission has been compromised. He wants to get Emma home safe as the German troops descent on them.

As air trials proceed, the Messerschmidt ME163 is proving to be a death trap for pilots. The plane keeps crashing because it’s too heavy. Goering drafts scientist and engineer professor Gaerte back on to the project. Failure is not an option.

Harry Walsh and Emma make it out of Normandy but he has left behind a trace of his presence and the Gestapo will be waiting if he ever comes back. At headquarters in Baker Street. Captain Walsh is getting a grilling from his boss, Major Robert Price. Price has a thing about Harry, he’s not one of ‘us’ as it were, his promotion in the field doesn’t make him the right kind of chap and there’s something in the past that Price won’t let go.

Fortunately Price’s superiors don’t agree with his assessment of Walsh. SOE number two, Colin Gubbins, values Harry’s qualities; his ingenuity, his determination and his understanding that war is not a parlour game to be played by a set of rules. The SOE nicknamed “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” by Churchill needs men prepared to fight a dirty war. Intelligence shows that the Germans are building a new jet fighter that could shift the balance of the war. As part of Operation Jedburgh, Harry, an American, Cooper (Office of Strategic Services) and a Frenchman, Valvert (Bureau Central de Renseignnement et d’Action) are sent to Normandy to support the Maquis. Their mission is to stop this new jet project, It’s a dangerous mission.

I love the quotes at the beginning of each chapter, a feature of Linskey’s previous WWII novel, Hunting the Hangman, they add context to the story: “No occupying power can break the spirit and blunt the retaliatory power of a patriotic and proud people.” [Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, Head of F Section, SOE].

Linskey’s passion for his story shines out and that enthusiasm conveys to the reader. There’s a slightly romantic feel to Ungentlemanly Warfare and I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion, it’s a passion that benefits their thriller, a tale of exemplary courage. It’s hard not to be in awe of the valour on display here, this is a fictional representation of the people who fought this kind of war, many of whom didn’t survive it. This is as much Emma Sterling’s story almost as much as Harry’s.

The mix of real events (Operation Jedburgh and the Me163 komet project) and real people, Goering, Philby, Buckmaster, Gubbins et al., with an exciting fictional plot is seamless. Linskey is always respectful of the history, although, of course, this is a primarily an entertainment. The novel is clearly well researched and Linskey has a flair for scene setting and reimagining time and place, this is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling.

Linskey is also the author of the David Blake thrillers (also published by No Exit Press). When I reviewed Hunting the Hangman I said I would welcome more historical fiction from Linskey; Ungentlemanly Warfare delivers and so if he wants to keep raiding the SOE archives I’m in. A really engrossing adventure novel.

Paul Burke 4/4

Ungentlemanly Warfare by Howard Linskey
No Exit Press 9780857303202 pbk Jun 2019