Much has been written about the major set piece dramas of World War 2. D-Day, El Alamein, and Stalingrad are battles that are well known. Their stories grow into legend with each recounting. But one of the things I find most fascinating about WW2 is there were thousands of smaller dramas both during and in between the major battles. Many of these episodes are barely known except for the most dedicated historian but occasionally the consequences had an effect on the course of the war. ‘Churchill’s Shadow Raiders’ by Damien Lewis is a book about one of those important smaller dramas which had a dramatic impact on the outcome of the war.
In 1941-42, the British Bomber Command had a big problem. It’s raids across the English Channel were being intercepted and losses were becoming staggeringly high. The British began to strongly suspect and later gained evidence that the Germans had very advanced radars along the coast. This critical advantage had to be neutralized. To accomplish this goal, the British needed to get their hands on one of these systems. So, they turned to their Airborne forces.
Airborne operations were a new thing and after German successes in France, Belgium, and Norway, the British began to muster their own paratroopers. These specially trained troops were given the mission to conduct a daring nighttime raid on a coastal radar site at a point in the war where the Germans were at the height of their military power. 120 paratroopers dropped in the middle of the night and made their way to the objective: the sophisticated German Wurzburg radar. They disassembled the radar under fire and fought their way onto a beach and into a boat, where they were successfully met by the Royal Navy. The analysis of the radar was instrumental in allowing the British to devise countermeasures which allowed them to significantly reduce their losses.
Damien Lewis’s book is an excellent account of raid’s events but more important is how he tells the story. Rather than a dry recounting of the history of the Paras and the raid, Lewis recognizes tells this story as a human drama of daring and bravery. The personalities of the raiders and the challenges they faced makes this book highly readable and gives it a page-turning quality.
Lewis begins with the story of an earlier raid: Operation Colossus. This was a prior company-sized Airborne raid on an objective in Italy which was regarded as a failure at the time. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized that Airborne operations were new, incredibly high-risk, and had their detractors. After Operation Colossus, it wasn’t certain Operation Biting would be approved, and if it had failed, British Airborne operations might not have recovered. But Churchill understood the value of these “ungentlemanly” raids and how pivotal they could be in neutralizing Germany’s advances. Including Operation Colossus frames them as not just operations but as justification for an entire way of fighting the enemy. It’s two amazing Airborne stories in one book.
In summary, Damien Lewis’ book was one of the most readable World War 2 history books I have read in years and it has inspired me to put some of his other titles on by reading list. I strongly suspect if you give this book a chance, you’ll end up doing the same as well.