Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
SOE's Balls of Steel
Operation Rubble, 147 willing volunteers and 25,000 tons of ball bearings
Sophie Jackson The History Press, August 15th, 2013
An eye-catching title by this former editor of the History Magazine. The sub-title tells it (almost) all. There are in fact several subsequent operations to Rubble reported in this paperback. Ball-bearings, machinery to make them, and iron ore, were in short supply by both Germany and Britain even before WW2 broke out. Germany unfortunately had the edge in preventing Sweden from exporting these badly need supplies to Great Britain.
The first chapter relates the key action of Rubble, and the book then rows backwards to explain its background. First of course, Britain’s interests were hampered by Churchill’s flawed Norwegian campaign – as Jackson tells it, it was this failure which led to his usurping Chamberlain as PM. It emerges that Britain had done lamentably little scenario planning in 1939 and before to assess how to tackle Scandinavian and Baltic issues. For a maritime nation Norway appears to have had a very weak navy, and have been pathetically unprepared to defend itself. Both Norwegian and British naval intelligence was found very wanting. This did not prevent some Norwegian sailors such as Thor Horve later showing great courage and aggression; other Norwegian skippers showed themselves only to keen to remain in dock, drawing pay. The Narvik disaster is painted well.
However a recurring issue I have with this book is that the author fails to tell the other side of the story: that the key reason why Norway and Sweden were pushed into neutrality was that they had insufficient population and economic might to defend their extensive territories. Moreover Sweden in particular remained mesmerised by its long aggressive neighbour, Russia, with whom it had had enough wars in the past. Jackson does no more than outline Sweden’s relationship with the Bear. According to my in-house Scandinavian advisor, Jackson is also on shaky ground when she asserts that “Sweden had in fact a better relationship with Germany than with Norway”.
There is interesting colour as to how Britain and Germany danced around the rules of the neutrality of the Scandinavian countries. The central figure of Balls is George Binney, one of those upper class English gentlemen whose drive and mild eccentricity flowered to the nation’s advantage during the war. He was the subject of a thorough biography written by his stepson, Marcus, in 2005. No doubt it is the abundance of this material that causes Jackson to digress needlessly into Binney’s pre-war Arctic exploration.
Binney is the mastermind of the comparatively successful Rubble operation: unfortunately this leads him to a more gung-ho approach, and, with the Germans better prepared to obstruct these loose convoys, disaster ensues. Binney is in the end very disquieted by the fate of many of his men (both Norwegians and British). He was greatly aided by Blücker, the Swedish head of Götebörg’s police.
In an impossible attempt to remain in the good books of both the Germans and the British, the Swedish authorities jumped legal somersaults in putting obstacles in the way of Binney’s further expeditions. Understandably the book loses a bit of pace when these are described. Given the convoys’ cargoes would have been as precious to the Germans as to the British, the ships were equipped with scuttling charges. The efficiency (or not) of these leads to some hair-raising moments. Swedish partiality allows the Germans to take British prisoners within their own territorial waters. Indeed the Swedish Navy emerges from this book with little credit.
In something of a volte-face, Binney decided speedier boats were the answer, so he switched to Motor Gun Boats. Not only were these grotesquely uncomfortable for even the most hardened sailors in choppy North Sea waters, they were very unreliable. Jackson does not attempt to find the culprit for this gross deficiency, and for the original poor procurement decision. Nonetheless one of the last MGB missions, Bridford, was a great success, bringing the total cargoes of the MGBs successfully transported back to Hull to 400 tons.
On aviation aspects, Jackson is behind the curve. She quaintly refers to
“Fast flying Gladiators”, when they were almost the slowest fighter in the RAF’s WW2 fleet. Late in the book she notes the lack of fighter escort to some Eighth Air Force bombing missions as if this were unusual. She makes a rather broad brush overview of Overlord, and then talks incongruously of a “US Marine bombing squadron”. In reporting the fate of some of the sailor-prisoners, they miraculously “threw open their cell doors” in advance of the arriving Russians.
The structure of the book would have been stronger had it been shaped as a biography of Binney. But as that had already been scripted, we are left with a naval Boy’s Own yarn, albeit an interesting one, of an overlooked part of the European war.
An uncharacteristically relaxed Binney