There are movies about war and then there are war films. And when it comes to World War II tales, two of our favorite subjects are the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). 

And now SOE is going to be the subject of a Guy Ritchie film. The British director has filmed a number of blockbusters including Sherlock Holmes, Aladdin, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Yet, he’s at his best when filming English and American gangster films, such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and The Gentlemen

The film is to be based on Damien Lewis’s book, Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops.

Jerry Bruckheimer and Chad Oman will produce the film. Arash Amel (A Private War), Eric Johnson, and Paul Tamasy (The Fighter) have signed on as screenwriters alongside Ritchie.

Ritchie loads his films with great ensemble casts, superb and at times hilarious dialogue, plenty of plot twists, and an abundance of action. Although the film should have a large budget the book’s story isn’t large in scope, involving only a handful of British operatives.

The Creation of Special Operations Executive

When France fell in the summer of 1940, Britain stood alone against the Nazi war machine. Winston Churchill saw the need to leave behind the “gentlemanly” way of conducting war. Therefore, he created SOE and tasked it with conducting “butcher and bolt” missions along the coasts of Europe. 

SOE was tasked to carry out, as Lewis writes “operations seen as too politically explosive, illegal or unconscionable as to be embraced by the wider British establishment.” Thus, the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare was born. 

According to Lewis, amphetamines and bloodlust wired early SOE operatives. SOE was an unconventional, eclectic batch of warriors, thrill-seekers, and at times criminals. 

Anders Lassen, the Robin Hood Commando
Anders Lassen

Perhaps the movie’s central character will be the indomitable Dane, Major Anders Lassen. He was a silent killing machine whose favorite weapon was the bow and arrow. Yet, the conventional British brass, in its disdain for any special ops units, considered its use “inhuman.” Lassen practiced his own brand of warfare in the forests of Dorset. Known as Andy to his cohorts, he was dubbed the “Robin Hood Commando” by locals. Lassen was an aristocratic cross between Ian Fleming’s James Bond and Ragnar Lothbrok from Vikings

Lassen would bark out orders in German to confuse the enemies. One of his first operations was an act of piracy. Gus March-Phillipps, a wild stuttering British eccentric of high birth, and the bloodthirsty Lassen set out for the far-distant port of Fernando Po in West Africa. There, one SOE agent convinced the German wife of a diplomat to hold a party for German and Italian naval officers. Using the party as a diversion, March-Phillipps, Lassen, and other operatives got the German and Italian ships out of the harbor and towed them to British-ruled Nigeria.

Although a flagrant act of piracy and a breach of neutrality, the British denied any involvement. It was a classic bit of SOE ingenuity that thrilled Churchill.

Anders Lassen’s Glorious End

A brooding Anders Lassen (sweater and binoculars) with his Special Boat Service crew in Turkey. (Variety)

Ultimately, Anders Lassen would not survive the war. On the night of April 8, just a month before the Germans surrendered, Lassen and a small raiding party were tasked with a diversionary attack on German positions. The attack would happen on the north side of Lake Commachio in northeastern Italy. Its purpose was to draw attention away from the main British attack.

But German sentries challenged Lassen’s party as it was moving up an elevated road. Lassen tried a ruse. He pretended that he and his men were Italian fishermen returning from sea. Nevertheless, the Germans opened fire from a sentry position and two blockhouses. Undaunted, Lassen charged the first position alone under withering fire. He destroyed an emplacement with two machine guns and took out the four German soldiers manning them.

Then, he assaulted the second machine gun position and destroyed it with grenades. Since Lassen’s men had taken casualties, he paused long enough to rally and reorganize his small band. He then, singlehandedly, attacked the third machine gun position hurling grenades into it. The Germans yelled that they wished to surrender. Lassen moved to within three-four yards of the blockhouse. He called for the Germans to come out when submachine fire hit him. As he fell, he threw more grenades into the blockhouse. His men swept forward to reach him and mop up the remaining Germans.

Nevertheless, Lassen refused to let his men evacuate him. Instead, he told them that carrying him would slow them down. Therefore, he ordered them to withdraw since they had nearly exhausted their ammunition. Andy would die where he fell, amidst the ruins of six machine guns and 14 dead and wounded German soldiers.

Sir Anthony Quayle, Actor, SOE Operative in Albania

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Of War Films and War Movies

After more than three years of combat operations, Anders Lassen’s bravery was well known. Nonetheless, there may have been another reason he was so determined to kill Germans that day. April 8 was the fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Denmark, his homeland.

Major Lassen received the Victoria Cross for his actions that night but would never see his native Denmark again. His body lies among countless other allied war dead at the Argenta Gap War Cemetery in Italy.

Lassen’s character will resonate with Special Operations troops of all countries who balk at the uniform and grooming standards applied to conventional units. In Italy in 1945, one conventional British officer, aghast at the slovenly appearance of the SOE operatives said to Lassen that his men were “a disgrace.” In retort, Lassen asked what would the Germans think of them if they found them “dead and unshaven.” Lassen’s disdain for the brass carried over to every operational officer’s bane… paperwork. SOE troops were supposed to file detailed reports of operations. Nevertheless, Major Lassen frequently included just five words to his: “Landed, Killed Germans, Fucked Off.”

This story and character are tailor-made for someone like Ritchie to make the next great war film. And we are hoping it comes out as a great war film instead of just another war movie.