Tomorrow, Wednesday 29 March 2017, is the most significant day in the life of the United Kingdom this century and possibly even of the last forty years. Some go as far as to say it is the most momentous decision taken by this country since the end of the Second World War. Whatever side you are on in the question about whether it is a good or bad thing that Britain is going to leave the European Union, it cannot be denied that invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is a noteworthy event. The Britain of today will look different in two, five, twenty years time. The anxiety must be what that Britain will look like and how will the changes affect all our futures.
|The idyllic Suffolk village of Long Melford, a corner of Old England|
|Sir Colin McVean Gubbins KCMG|
Promoted to major in February 1934, he was posted to the War Office and appointed GS02 in a new section of MTI (Military Training Instruction), which was the policy making arm of the Military Training Directorate. In this role he was sent in 1938 to Czechoslovakia to oversee the withdrawal of Czech forces from the Sudetenland. It was something that he found exceptionally repugnant and it remained a matter of lasting shame to him for the rest of his life. It also gave him a first-hand view of the brutal force of Nazi expansion.
In the summer of 1940, after the fall of France, the invasion of Britain seemed imminent. Gubbins was put in charge of training stay-behind parties of men who would work locally to sabotage Germans stores, blow up bridges and generally slow down their advance parties. When the threat of invasion lessened he was transferred to a new section called Special Operations Executive, known by its nickname Baker Street which was the London HQ. Its aim was to train foreign fighters who would be sent back to their own countries to carry out secret missions.
|Arisaig House, HQ of SOE Special Training Schools|
|Jozef Gabcik (left) and Jan Kubis who were responsible|
for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942
At the end of the war Gubbins’ department was shut down. His biographer wrote of him:
Britain was spared the shame and misery of enemy occupation; without this experience it is difficult to appreciate the part played by clandestine resistance both in restoring national self-respect and in permitting courageous individuals to escape from the ignominy of their situation. . . It was as a resistance leader that he came to fashion Special Operations Executive, and to write his own page in the history of almost every country occupied by the enemy in the Second World War.So respected was he in the countries that had been occupied by the Nazis that the government had to waive the rule that an officer could receive only four foreign honours for services in the war. Eventually he received more fourteen awards including the highest from Norway, Denmark, Greece, France, Poland, Belgium and the United States of America. Gubbins received a knighthood in 1946 and began the second half of his life’s work, which was to promote European Unity. Despite the fact he had spent five years trying to devise every possible lethal means of undermining the Germans, he realized that the only way of securing a lasting peace in Europe was to work together.
In 1946 an old Polish friend, Josef Retinger, asked him to help set up the Independent League for Economic Cooperation in Brussels. This was merged with various others in 1947 to become the International Committee of the Movement for European Unity with Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys as chairman. In 1954 he was asked to represent Britain as a founder member of the Bilderberg Group, an organisation set up to promote a strengthening of US-European relations and preventing another world war. When asked what he considered to be his greatest achievement he said the role he had been most honoured to play was in helping to prevent a further war.
Gubbins died in 1976 at the age of eighty, by which time Britain had been a full member of the European Union for three years. I wonder what he would think of the step his country is about to take on 29 March 2017.
Gubbins' story will be told in full in my next book Behind Closed Doors. It will be published in spring 2018.