‘The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Ending Explained & Film Summary: What Is Operation Postmaster?


Guy Ritchie’s latest film, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, is intended to present a significant piece of history in a light-hearted, action-packed manner, and it succeeds for the most part. Based on the real-life Operation Postmaster by Britain’s special operations units, the spy action thriller tells the story of how a group of brave men and women intelligently changed the shape of WWII. Although adapted from Damien Lewis’ 2014 novel on the subject and also from Winston Churchill’s declassified confidential files, Ritchie’s presentation is heavily fictionalized, with lots of drama and tense action thrown into the mix. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare is not to be taken too seriously and should be enjoyed for the fast-paced Nazi-killing blockbuster that it wants to be.

Spoiler Alert

What historical event is the film based on?

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare begins in 1942, when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany is in control of World War II, having invaded many parts of Europe and also holding a stronghold over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. In this scenario, a Nazi ship spots a suspicious fishing boat somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic and immediately approaches it to take action. Aboard the boat are two drunk men who claim to be Swedish and are simply sailing around for recreation. Their ways make the Nazi leader feel insulted, and he orders the boat to be set on fire, along with the two men on it, while some of the soldiers still search the inner chambers. Just then, a third man hidden inside a wardrobe opens fire on the soldiers, and the two on the deck also swiftly kill all the Nazis. A fourth man belonging to the group returns to the boat after having set explosives under the German ship, and within minutes, the team defeats a large crew of the enemy.

As we are taken back to twenty-five days earlier, it becomes apparent that this group of men will be the very protagonists of the film. At the time, in 1942, Hitler had already marched his army into countries like Poland and Belgium and had also occupied France a couple of years ago. Britain remained the only standing opposition to the Reich, and their resistance was growing increasingly difficult with every passing day. Regular bombings on London and other parts of the country were being conducted by the German warplanes, resulting in severe loss of life and damage to the nation. Although many of Britain’s high-ranking officials, including the leaders of the army and navy, were of the opinion that surrendering to the Germans was the only way forward, Prime Minister Churchill disagreed. As the film presents it, and also in real life, Churchill knew that having the United States of America directly join the war would be greatly effective. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had also taken place in December of 1941, meaning that the Americans were very close to joining the war.

However, in order for the USA to send their men to Europe, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean needed to be cleared first. The Nazis had already deployed their nefarious U-boats, and these killing machines intercepted anyone from the Allied countries whenever they sailed through the Atlantic. Therefore, the U-boats needed to be stopped first, which was an impossible feat because of their sheer strength and number. Together with Brigadier Colin Gubbins, who was the head of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the time, Winston Churchill came up with a plan for a covert operation to stop the U-boats. On a regular interval, the Nazi-controlled Italian ship Duchessa d’Aosta sailed from the Guinean island of Fernando Po to resupply the U-boats in the Atlantic. However, a direct attack on the Duchessa could not be performed since the Germans had strategically placed it at Fernando Po, which was under Spanish control. Britain’s direct attack on the place would quickly increase its enemies, and the other countries would also turn in favor of the Nazis. It was because of this difficult situation that a black-ops mission had to be conducted, and the secretive mission was named Operation Postmaster. It is this very operation that is fictionalized and presented in The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

Why did the mission’s plan have to be changed?

Since Guy Ritchie’s film maintains a comedic appeal throughout its duration, the introduction to its heroes, for the protagonists are really heroic in a stereotypical manner, and it also provokes laughter. When Churchill and Gubbins, codenamed M, think of candidates to lead Operation Postmaster, only one name comes to mind—that of Gus March-Philips. Gus is called upon to a meeting by the small, secretive council, where he pours himself glasses of the finest scotch and takes away as many expensive cigars as he can. The reason for selecting Gus is the man’s inherent tendency to not follow orders and instead do whatever he feels best in any situation, which would really come in handy in such a mission. After all, the covert nature of the operation meant that no proper plan could be made by the government, and so Gus would have to make the entire scheme. It is made clear that if the team is ever found by British officials, then the members would be simply arrested, and if the Nazis found them, then they would be tortured and killed. In no circumstance would the British army or the government step in to save the agents, and they would be completely on their own.

Gus agrees to the proposal and then selects a team of men consisting of Nazi-haters from different backgrounds and with different skill sets. Henry Hayes is an Irishman with great sailing skills whose fishing trawler was sunk by a Nazi U-boat, killing his brother in the process. It is to be noted that the character of Henry is actually based on the real-life Graham Hayes, who was part of the black-ops mission. Freddy Frogman Alvarez is a master swimmer with an avid interest in building bombs, and his desire to rid Europe of Nazi control would be instrumental to the mission. Anders Lassen, a Swedish man, had run away from home at a young age with the determination to kill Nazis after his brother had been tortured and killed in a camp, and his superior physical strength and skills with the bow and arrow would be of great use. The last member of the team would be Geoffrey Appleyard, a British officer known to be a master planner of missions. He had already gone on reconnaissance to Fernando Po and, therefore, had crucial information with him. However, Appleyard had been arrested by the Nazis and was being held captive at La Palma, and so this is where Gus and his men head first.

After successfully freeing Geoffrey Appleyard and signing him up to the team, a proper plan to reach the island of Fernando Po without getting caught by any of the countries’ navy guards is made. However, this plan has to be changed slightly when word from Fernando Po reaches Gus’ fishing boat through two other operatives. As part of Operation Postman, agents Richard Heron and Marjorie Stewart were already placed on the island as spies to extract information. While Heron had set up a lavish casino bar and helped the Germans sell off gold from the island, Marjorie was to pose as a gold dealer interested in buying from the Nazis. As part of the intelligence that they gather, the Duchessa supply ship is about to leave the island three days earlier than usual, meaning that Gus and his men need to hurry to the place. Therefore, they scrapped their earlier plan of sailing around any attention and shortened their journey, which led to interventions from the British and Germans. When they finally avoid all trouble and reach the waters close to Fernando Po, the next part of the mission is planned.

Heron gets in touch with a local smuggler and pirate at Fernando Po, Kambili Kalu, and convinces him to help the British fight against the Nazis. As a local man of color, Kalu was naturally frustrated by the Spanish occupation and then the Nazi takeover, and he agreed to have his men help the team led by Gus. A perfect plan is made for Heron to throw two gala parties, one for the higher officials to be held at his bar and the other for the lower-ranked workers to be held in a warehouse near the docks. The purpose of both of these parties would be to distract the Nazis and keep as many of them away from the Duchessa as possible. The lights at the dock would also be shut off by a sabotage carried out by Heron. Making use of the darkness and the lack of guards, Gus and his team would sneak close to the Duchess, steal supplies from it, and then destroy it with bombs. 

However, at the very last minute, while the gala party has already started, Marjorie gets to know that the supply ship’s hull has been fitted with reinforced armor, meaning that the bombs that Gus was bringing would be ineffective. A failed attack on the ship would be even more dangerous for Britain and Europe as a whole, as the Nazis would surely respond violently, and so the plan needs to be changed again. As Heron is able to communicate this message to Gus, it is now decided that the team would take out the Nazis at the docks, board the two tugboats used to pull the Duchessa into the deep sea, and then steal the supply ship instead of destroying it.

How was Marjorie’s identity discovered?

During her personal mission of getting close to the Nazi captain, Heinrich Luhr, Marjorie Stewart often has to fight through an internal conflict, for the vile officer is inherently hateful towards Jews and other races. Luhr is also shown to be unnaturally cruel and perverse, as he is seen holding a native woman captive in his camp, regularly beating her, and sexually assaulting her as well. The captain is a typical Nazi villain, as presented in films, and the subplot of his and Marjorie’s relationship is arguably the weakest in the film. Despite having initial suspicions about her, Luhr grows close to Marjorie, even allowing her to decide his actions for him, all as part of a perverse power play. She is the one to convince him to visit the costume party at Heron’s bar, which is crucial because Luhr does not attend parties, and yet he needs to be kept away from his camp during the attack.

Being a professional singer and dancer, Marjorie displays her skills at the party while also keeping Luhr engaged through her beauty. She performs an English version of Mack the Knife, the original German version of which was written by Bertolt Brecht, a known Nazi-hater who had to flee Germany during the Third Reich’s regime. If this was already not a suspicious matter for Luhr, Marjorie’s choice of the words “yeder veyst” while singing the German lyrics blows her cover. The words, which are of Yiddish origin, make it clear to Luhr that the woman is actually a Jew, and he prepares to torture and possibly kill her. Ultimately, things work out in favor of Marjorie, as the attack at the harbor takes place right away. In the end, Marjorie shoots Luhr dead and then manages to flee with the help of Heron.

What happens to Gus and his team after the operation?

The black ops team manages to skillfully kill all the soldiers at the harbor and also aboard the tugboats and the Duchessa supply ship. As soon as the ship’s heavy chains are blown off with a bomb, the Germans rush to the harbor and start shooting at the fleeing enemies. But the brilliant timing of the operation ensures that no harm is done to the British team, and Heron and Marjorie are also able to escape the island onto the ship without any worry. The film differs from reality in this context, as the operation was actually conducted in just thirty minutes, and the British team did not actually face firing from the Germans. The next day, when they are all out of danger, the Duchessa supply ship is handed over to a British navy ship. It is reported in the newspapers that some Italian ships, the crew of which had left because of a mutiny, had been found and seized by the British navy, ensuring that no word about the secret mission was revealed. Gus and his team are arrested, though, for having disobeyed earlier orders made by the British navy, and they are sentenced to execution back in their homeland. Despite the continued objections from the other officers, Prime Minister Churchill kept his faith in the team and the mission, even after knowing that its failure would most certainly lead to his removal from power.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare‘s ending, has Churchill walk into the execution cell and first share the news about the American army having reached the shores of France, which would go on to change the shape of WWII. Churchill then also pardons the execution order for each of the agents, and they are allowed to serve their nation on further missions. Beside the PM’s side were always his trusted men, Gubbins and a young Ian Fleming, the latter being the same man who went on to write the James Bond novels. Photographs of the real agents and text about them at the very end of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare remind us that Fleming was believed to have written his spy character, James Bond, based on the very real Gus March-Phillips. 

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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