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Foreign Fields.

Reviewing a book by an author for whom one has had an unstinting admiration is not easy and it is also difficult to be concise about such a wide-ranging sphere of diverse activity. Only by reading this splendid autobiography will a reader be able to enjoy this unique panorama of a facet of World War Two about which little has been written. Like many of us growing up in the aftermath of the Great War (1914-18), Lawrence of Arabia was a hero to the author. His war was, however, not in Arabia but in Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Crete, the 'Muddle East', Jugoslavia, a short walk in the Third Reich, Italy and Austria. What a scenario of irregular warfare.

Peter Wilkinson's birth in India in 1914, was shortly followed by the family's return to England and his father's despatch to France where, on February 6th 1915, he died of wounds in the Ypres salient. In 1920, his mother married Frank Cramer-Roberts who had been with the Egyptian Irrigation Service since 1906. As a result, the author's school holidays were spent either with his aunts in England or in Egypt which helped to shape his cosmopolitan background. Prep school, Rugby and Corpus Christi, Cambridge are described with a wealth of amusing detail. During the vacations, he spent much time in Germany and Italy and became more convinced than Neville Chamberlain that war with Hitler's Germany was more than a distinct possibility.

In September 1935 he was commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers. By 1937 regimental peacetime soldiering had begun to pall and he applied directly to the French Section of MI3a for a posting as a language officer. To his delight he was accepted and thus began what turned out to be the beginning of seven years of irregular warfare. In the summer of 1938 when the Sudeten crisis blew up, he answered a call for two volunteers to learn Czech. He was in Prague when the Germans took over and thus had some interesting information to hand over when he got back to the War Office. This adventure was the catalyst which ensured the author never returned to regimental soldiering. On his return, he met Colin Gubbins with the result that he was invited to attend the first course of clandestine warfare.

On the 25th August 1939, he joined No. 4 Military Mission to Poland under Lt. Col. Colin Gubbins. Via Cairo, Athens and Bucharest they eventually arrived in Warsaw by now under heavy attack. How they extricated themselves from Warsaw makes enthralling reading. Back in England, he became Gubbins' rear link to the much reduced No. 4. Military Mission to the Poles and Czechs in Paris and was again lucky to escape via St. Malo when the balloon went up in the summer of 1940. He was soon back in France with General Sikorski to rescue key members of the Polish General Staff. Having handed over No. 4 Military Mission and out of a job, Colin Gubbins asked him to be his 'G2' in his new venture - the Auxiliary Units - to form the nucleus of a British resistance movement in the event of an invasion.

From now on the book is pure SOE with an interesting insight into its development from one who really was involved in the higher echelons of the organisation. He was in Crete when the German parachutists arrived. Gradually the scenario shifts to the main chapters of the book - the author's plan to set up, with his friends Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard and Charles Villiers, an advanced SOE unit in Austria under the operational code-name 'CLOWDER'. As M. R. D. Foot says in his excellent Foreword, his laconic account of his mountaineering scrambles in appalling weather in the Ljubliana Gap make yomping in the Falklands War sound like a picnic. This excursion brought an immediate award of the DSO. Although 'CLOWDER' failed in its objective it did discover that in Austria the 'spirit of resistance' as we knew it in Western Europe did not exist.

Peter Wilkinson spent the final months of the war in Italy. It is little wonder that such a splendid, modest man should have been grabbed by the Foreign Office nor that he finished up as our Ambassador in Vienna. The narrative is full of anecdote and makes compelling reading.

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Author:Lee, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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