Gus March-Phillips: The Bold Hero of Operation Postmaster


“Oh Lord, when my time is near, let the god in me rise up and break.” These powerful words encapsulate the essence of Major Gustavus Henry March-Phillips, a man who lived his life with fearless conviction and unwavering dedication. Born in 1908, March-Phillips epitomized bravery, facing risks head-on with a resolve that was both inspiring and unyielding. His life, though tragically cut short at 34, is immortalized in history, particularly through his heroic actions during World War II.

March-Phillips met his untimely end on September 12, 1942, on a French coast, succumbing to a barrage of bullets from German soldiers after a miscalculated landing. Despite the short span of his life, his name and deeds left an indelible mark, especially his leadership in Operation Postmaster, a mission that significantly contributed to the Allied forces’ success in the war.

At the outset of World War II, Britain was under the leadership of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose tenure was marred by a series of military failures. This led to his replacement by Winston Churchill in 1940. Despite Churchill’s previous military blunders, including the disastrous Gallipoli campaign during World War I, he was undeterred and ready to turn the tide of the ongoing war. One of his key strategies was the formation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a covert unit tasked with carrying out clandestine missions in Nazi-occupied territories.

The creation of SOE was shrouded in secrecy, to the extent that even Britain’s allies were unaware of its existence. Churchill’s directive to the SOE was unequivocal: “Set Europe ablaze.” The unit, comprised of about 13,000 agents, was equipped with innovative spy gadgets and fake identities, earning it the unofficial moniker “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”

In early 1942, British intelligence learned of three Axis ships—Duchessa d’Aosta, Likomba, and Bibundi—docked at Fernando Po (now Bioko Island) in West Africa. The mission, codenamed Operation Postmaster, aimed to neutralize these ships without violating Spain’s neutrality in the war, a task that required cunning and precision.

March-Phillips, leading the elite No. 62 Commando unit, embarked on this high-stakes mission. The commandos sailed from Dorset to Fernando Po aboard the disguised corvette Maid Honour, flying a Swedish flag. Upon arrival, the agents orchestrated a party to distract the Axis troops, ensuring their intoxication while the commandos prepared to strike.

In a swift and flawless operation, March-Phillips and his team set explosive charges to sever the ships’ anchors, secured the crew, and navigated the vessels to Lagos, Nigeria, then British territory. The mission’s success was bolstered by a clever counter-narrative penned by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, which misled the Germans and maintained the operation’s secrecy.

Operation Postmaster’s success brought great joy to Churchill and earned March-Phillips and his comrades significant accolades. March-Phillips received the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), and his Danish colleague, Anders Lassen, was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

Beyond the accolades, March-Phillips’ legacy extends to popular culture, inspiring Fleming’s iconic spy character, James Bond. His daring exploits were chronicled in Damien Lewis’ 2014 book, “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops,” which was adapted into a film directed by Guy Ritchie. The film, starring Henry Cavill as Gus March-Phillips and Alan Ritchson as Anders Lassen, blends action and comedy, reflecting the extraordinary yet perilous missions these real-life heroes undertook.

Gus March-Phillips may have lived a brief life, but his extraordinary courage and unwavering dedication have ensured his place in history. His actions during Operation Postmaster stand as a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who fought for freedom in the darkest days of World War II.