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Pioneers of Irregular Warfare (Hardback)

Secrets of the Military Intelligence Research Department of the Second World War

Military WWII

By Malcolm Atkin
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 256
Illustrations: 30 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526766007
Published: 12th April 2021
Last Released: 21st May 2021



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Covert operations and ingenious weapons for irregular warfare were developed rapidly, and with great success, by the British during the Second World War, and the story of the most famous organizations involved like SOE, the SAS and Section D of SIS is now well known, but Military Intelligence (Research), the smallest but one of the most influential of these units is relatively unknown.

Malcolm Atkin’s intriguing and meticulously researched account describes their role at the heart of the War Office in trying to develop a ‘respectable’ arm of irregular warfare and their innovations ranging from the early Commandos, sticky bombs, limpet mines, booby traps, and even helicopters to the creation of the MI9 escape organization. They were an ‘ideas factory’ rather than an operational body but the book describes their worldwide operations including Finland, Norway, Romania, the Middle East and Central Africa.

This is also a story of conflicting personalities between Jo Holland, the visionary but self-effacing head of MI(R) and his ambitious deputy, Colin Gubbins (later head of SOE), and the latter’s private war with SIS.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This was one of the most fascinating book I have ever read on World War II. You hear bits and pieces of the things done during the war that were out of the realm of "traditional" warfare. But this book helped understand the background for these activities.

NetGalley, Larry Carpenter

“Insightful personal dynamics are discussed, which likely would not have been possible without the interviews Atkin conducted."

American Intelligence Journal, Volume 39, No. 1, 2022

"Readers of Atkin's history will learn that British planning in the early war years was naive and often arrogant."

Peter Oleson, Intelligencer: Journal of U.S Intelligence Services

As one would expect from Malcolm Hastings, his book 'Pioneers of Irregular Warfare is well researched and takes the reader through the dark, pre-war days, with shades of John Buchanon and his '39 Steps' or 'The third man'. The story really began with the Lochailort Training School, Scotland, were selected soldiers were chosen to operate behind enemy lines. This spawned similar Training Schools where students they became Chindits in Central Burma, or in China with Force 204. The Australian school students carried out seaborne raids against Japanese held islands in the Pacific, including Singapore where they destroyed enemy shipping. Pursued over 1000 miles, from island to island, they were hunted down, caught, and beheaded.

An intriguing story, a page turner and a book which can be read and reread.

Richard Gough - Historian, writer, author of the Escape from Singapore, The jungle was Red, Outpost of the Empire, SOE Singapore 1941-42. Waiting publication Tony Poe, CIA Paramilitary in SE Asia.

I found this a really interesting read though the rivalries between various government departments, including the War Office who felt that they should have more control over the co-ordination between the aims of the uniformed services and the work of guerrilla forces. Some were good at working with others while others were too concerned with their own agenda/careers. It's a story of a learning process, when some things worked and some things didn't but the sheer breadth of the work that MI(R) did was quite eye opening to me with just how widespread it was in this first year or so of the war.

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Military Model Scene

Military Intelligence (Research) is a much neglected aspect of the British intelligence organisation, which was established during the pre-war period to devise the tactics and equipment to enable irregular forces to wage a highly effective guerilla war against their adversaries under the direct command of British officers, very much in the Lawrence of Arabia mould. It was fated to never truly fulfil its vision, becoming overshadowed by the Special Operations Executive as the preferred method of using agents and resistance groups to wreak havoc, but it nevertheless did much to establish the template for intelligence organisations far beyond the war's end. MI(R) also had a hand in developing the Commandos, as well as the SAS and Jedburgh teams, whose methods of operation in Western Europe were very much in line with their ethos. Their efforts also led to the creation of MI9 which did excellent work in helping prisoners of war to escape. This book traces their fascinating story, from its origins and the personalities which shaped it, to their part in operations across the entire Second World War battlefield; from Western Europe to Africa, and from Asia to the Far East.

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Pegasus Archive

"...a value-added contribution to intelligence history and is recommended for scholars of the period as well as intelligence professionals. By highlighting Holland’s and MI(R)’s wartime contributions, Atkin ably investigates the conceptual roots of the modern special warfare unit while introducing a fresh perspective to the well-traversed topic of the rise of British special warfare."

Brandon Bernick - Journal of Military History, January 2022

"Any serious student of special ops origins owes Mr. Atkin’s work his or her attention."

The NYMAS Review

This is one of those little books that should do well because they celebrate the little known stuff of this case irregular warfare in WWII. We’ve all surely heard of SOE and the SAS etc, but this book follows the path and events of the Military Intelligence (Research) department. The book basically explains how the network was set up and who was recruiting and the various ways of training, there is also quite a bit about some of the devices and weapons they came up with such as the painful sounding De-Bollocker, and I will leave that to your painful imagination. Also from this book, it showed up how the top brass of these intelligence services was rarely able to get on together and there was often conflict between the heads. A really interesting book, probably more one for the people who like slightly obscure bits of history.

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UK Historian

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Painstakingly researched, thoroughly 'reader friendly' in organization and presentation, enhanced with a multi-paged section of historical photos, "Pioneers of Irregular Warfare: Secrets of the Military Intelligence Research Department of the Second World War" is a unique and welcome addition to the growing library of World War II histories.

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Midwest Book Review

Pioneers of Irregular Warfare: Secrets of the Military Intelligence Research Department of the Second World War is a deeply researched study of how the business of irregular warfare got underway and a survey of the operations subsequently undertaken. It provides summaries of these operations and has a multitude of references.

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WW2 Today
 Malcolm Atkin

About Malcolm Atkin

Malcolm Atkin is a former head of the Historic Environment and Archaeology Service for Worcestershire. After becoming a leading authority on the English Civil War, he has more recently made a special study of home defence and the development of British intelligence during the Second World War. His many publications include Cromwell's Crowning Mercy: The Battle of Worcester, The Civil War in Evesham: A Storm of Fire and Leaden Hail, Worcestershire under Arms, Worcester 1651, Fighting Nazi Occupation: British Resistance 1939-1945, Myth and Reality: The Second World War Auxiliary Units, Section D for Destruction: Forerunner of SOE, To the Last Man: The Home Guard in War and Popular Culture and Pioneers of Irregular Warfare: Secrets of the Military Intelligence Research Department in the Second World War.

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