The ribbon of land behind Omaha Beach is now sacred soil, not just in the United States, but in the minds of anyone immersed in the story of Overlord. Look in the churchyard at St Laurent-sur-Mer and you will find a corner of a foreign field where the commando Gus March-Phillips is buried. One of England’s finest; he was killed during the disastrous Operation Aquatint, a raid intended to cause mischief along what became Omaha.

In this absorbing book by Brian Lett, we learn about March-Phillips and the companions he took down to West Africa a year earlier where they sneaked into a Spanish colony and slipped away with three Axis vessels without loss of life to friend or foe. It was a stunning coup that showed the skills of the men who had joined the SOE – the Special Operations Executive and, the author is at pains to suggest, it helped fire the imagination of the naval intelligence officer who supported the mission. His name was Ian Fleming.

The story cracks along at a fair old rate and there is a lot of interesting detail. The author looks for the genesis of James Bond at every turn and this can be the hit or miss element to the saga, depending on your affections for the suave old rogue. I love the Bond books and movies and have a tenuous connection to Fleming through the archive where I do my day job. We are always receiving enquiries about the man.

For me the danger hovering over this book was whether the fictional agent would outshine the very real group of men who carried out Operation Postmaster. In the end the author just about gets the balance right. Linking Bond was a clever device to help put some flesh on the bones of an escapade the British establishment were still keeping secret towards the end of the last century. It allows us to look at what happened out in Africa and what Fleming might have taken from it when he began to develop 007.

Ultimately the real men of the Maid Honor Force were giants in their own right. March-Phillips died in September 1942. His number two, Geoffrey Appleyard, disappeared on a flight dropping commandos during the invasion of Sicily and Anders Lassen found his Valhalla in 1945, by which time he had won the Military Cross three times and earned a posthumous Victoria Cross for his valour at Lake Comacchio just a month before the end of the war in Europe. Some men vanished at the hands of the Nazis while others died with March-Phillips on that sad night in 1942.

I’ve enjoyed reading this book and now wish I had taken note of the reference to Gus March-Phillips in the Holt’s Normandy guide.

Had I done so, I might have found time to stop and pay my respects to him in St Laurent. Perhaps if you’re passing you might want to do the same.

Finding connections between the men of Maid Honor Force and James Bond is an easy bit of wish fulfilment. The author asserts 007is an amalgam of the best of the heroes of Operation Postmaster. I like to think so. There are other people, cars and places in this story that should propel you into getting hold of Casino Royale to see how much you can assign to them. The author has followed this one up with a look at the Small Scale Raiding Force. We can guess that it will end in tragedy, unlike this adventure that was a triumph.

Gus March-Phillips was a writer who might have appreciated my reference to the poetry of Rupert Brooke in the opening paragraph.

Had he survived the war and gone back to the popular espionage fiction he rattled out we might never have heard of the super cool agent with the licence to kill given to us by Ian Fleming. Imagine that!

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for Warhistoryonline

The Untold Top Secret Story
By Brian Lett
Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 178159 000 3

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.