‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’: Here’s the True Story of Operation Postmaster

NOTE: Major spoilers ahead for “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”

Guy Ritchie’s “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is indeed based on real events, and real people. But, like any movie adaptation, some things are fictionalized, so we’re here to tell you the real story of it all.

In the film, Gus March-Phillipps (Henry Cavill) is recruited by the British government — quietly, by Winston Churchill (Rory Kinnear) and Brigadier Gubbins, a.k.a. “M” (Cary Elwes) — to assemble a team and sail to the Spanish island of Fernando Po, where a Nazi supply ship with enough supplies and ammunition to keep Germany’s U-boats operational almost indefinitely is temporarily harbored.

The mission? Sink the ship. But Fernando Po is full of both German and Spanish soldiers, so it’s not exactly simple. But, that’s where help comes into play.

Babs Olusanmokun plays Mr. Heron, a British operative who effectively runs the island, and, with the assistance of Eiza González’s character Marjorie Stewart, they make sure the men are met with a relatively empty island when they arrive.

Unfortunately, just before the team arrives at Fernando Po’s port, they learn that the Nazi ship’s hull has been reinforced and is now unsinkable. So, they’re forced to improvise, and opt to steal the ship and the surrounding tugboats.

So, how much of this actually happened?

The real story

As you’d expect from a film directed by Guy Ritchie, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” takes a lot of artistic liberties with the events that inspired it — starting with how it came together.

The mission, called Operation Postmaster, was indeed commanded by Major Gustavus March-Phillipps, with Geoffrey Appleyard (played in the film by Alex Pettyfer) as second in command. But unlike the film, where the team comes together specifically for the raid, in real life they were already in operation as the No. 62 Commando Unit, also called the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF).

The British Commandos were created on orders from Winston Churchill in June, 1940, shortly after the Dunkirk evacuation. The idea was to train various “hunter-class” outfits that could inflict, in Churchill’s words, “a reign of terror” along the German-controlled coasts of Europe.

Around the same time, Churchill also ordered the consolidation of three existing clandestine services into the euphemistically named Special Operations Executive (SOE). Handling sabotage, reconnaissance and espionage, the various, extremely top secret members of the SOE were ordered, again in Churchill’s words, to “set Europe ablaze.”

The No. 62 Commandos, formed by March-Phillipps in early 1941, was designed to carry out classified SOE operations. Appropriately, unlike other commando units which tended to have more than 400 members, No. 62 had just 55. These commandos are never actually mentioned in the film as it centers on just the few men who carried out the operation, plus the additional help they received from KB (Danny Sapani). That assistance was real, too.

As for Operation Postmaster, just like in the film, it took place on the island of Fernando Po in January 1942.

But, unlike the film, the goal was never to blow up and sink the Duchessa d’Aosta. (Yes, that was the real name of the real ship; it was an Italian merchant vessel). It was always to steal it, along with two other ships — the Likomba and the Bibundi — and sail them to Lagos, Nigeria.

In the summer of 1941, SOE became aware that German U-boats were refueling in the rivers of Vichy France’s colonial possessions in Africa, and while looking around West Africa for signs of Nazi submarine bases, it learned about the ships docked on Fernando Po. Today, the island is the Equatorial Guinea province of Bioko but at the time, it was part of Spanish Guinea.

Because Spain was neutral, British leaders refused to approve the operation unless plausible deniability could be created. They finally greenlit it in November 1941.

Ahead of the mission, an SOE agent named Richard Lippett, who frequented the island due to his job with a shipping company, learned that the soldiers on the island had a love of parties. So, he arranged for the officers from the Duchessa to be invited to a dinner party. This is, of course, the role that Heron (Babs Olusanmokun) fills in the movie.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the real story and the movie is the execution of the mission, which wasn’t remotely the spectacular bloodbath Ritchie portrays it as.

In the film, Alan Ritchson’s character alone takes out an entire room full of soldiers with his axe, and that’s just one scene. But in reality, No. 62 reportedly met very little resistance on the ships, as there were so few men aboard them.

That said, the Likomba and the Bibundi were moored together, and the SSRF did actually blow up the anchor chains of all these ships, including the Duchessa, in order to tow them out, as the men in the movie did.

In real life, no one attempted to stop them from leaving either. In fact, when the explosions went off, officials on the island thought it was an aerial attack and fired at the sky. The men in the water were silent and went mostly undetected, finishing their mission in under 30 minutes.

On their way to Lagos, they were ‘intercepted’ by British naval forces, who made a show of taking command of the vessels as part of the pretense that this hadn’t been a sanctioned mission. Nevertheless, the Spanish government threatened to retaliate, though it never did.

As the end credits of “Ministry” correctly note, March-Phillips was later awarded the distinguished service order for pulling the mission off, and Lippett was made a MBE.

Henry Cavill’s version of March-Phillipp really bears little resemblance to the man himself, ultimately. Like the film says, he married Marjorie Stewart (González) just a few months after the raid, and he died six months later.

Stewart, by the way, really did work for the SOE, as secretary to agent-turned postwar author Patrick Howarth. There is even some evidence she may have been an agent herself — if true, she was far from the only one. And yes, she became an actress after the war. But she likely had nothing at all to do with Operation Postmaster.

Far from Cavill’s tall, bearded and extremely jacked ex-con, March-Phillips was slight-built with a neatly trimmed mustache. There’s also no evidence that March-Phillipps was ever imprisoned, as viewers find him at the start of “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”

Despite the film’s departures from reality, Gus March-Phillipps did appear to have a taste for reckless, high-risk missions and was apparently a highly inspirational commander for the No. 62 Commandos. His death was a huge blow, and less than three months after his death in Oct. 1942, the group was disbanded and its members assigned to other units.

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