Guy Ritchie’s next film, “Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, a secret service created by Churchill to operate behind enemy lines during World War II, reminds us that Christopher Lee would have been part of it …
For the most cinephiles, he was the very embodiment of Count Dracula in the horror classics of the Hammer. Unforgettable Scaramanga in The man with the golden gun facing agent 007, Christopher Lee has also passed down to posterity – at least among the younger generations – for his incarnation of the sorcerer Saruman in the river saga of the Lord of the Rings, at Peter Jackson. Prolific actor with such a serious and distinguished voice showing on the counter more than 230 roles just for the cinema, this giant of 1m98, big fan of Metal music in front of the eternal even to the point of recording an album of Symphonic metal in 2010 at the age of 87, was a true jack-of-all-trades. Actor of course, but also producer, speaker, musician, opera singer, and even photographer.
Known in 2009, giving him the right to be called “Sir” Christopher Lee, he was also during his youth a real war hero, until he put himself in the Secret Service of His Majesty, like his cousin Ian Fleming, the father by James Bond. And was even, it is said, a Nazi hunter at the end of the war. If some of his feats of arms are indisputable, the person concerned also did not hesitate to embellish his service a little, faced with an audience rarely showing him – if not never – the contradiction.
The announcement of Guy Ritchie’s next project, a film dedicated to Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare set up during World War II by Winston Churchill, which aimed to mount clandestine operations behind enemy lines, and in which Christopher Lee would have just participated, encourages us even more to look back on his glorious past.
Brilliant record of service
Son of a lieutenant-colonel in the 60th Royal Infantry Regiment, Christopher Lee enlisted in 1939, when he was only 17, in the Finnish army. Finland was then in the middle of the Soviet-Finnish war (also called the “winter war”), which began on November 30, 1939 when the USSR had invaded the country. Lee would have remained in the country until 1940, then returned to England. He then joined the Royal Air Force (RAF), while the country has suffered since July 1940 Blitz German who bombarded the country relentlessly. Polyglot, Lee speaks fluent English of course, but also German, French, Spanish, Italian and Greek. Enough to do wonders for the service responsible for decoding German transmissions, even if Lee is still frustrated: an optic nerve failure prevents him from becoming a pilot.
He was then sent to North Africa where he would have joined the ranks of the mythical Long Range Desert Group, the precursor of what will become the SAS, Special Air Service, unit of British special forces which will be born in 1941 in Egypt (then occupied by the British troops), by Lieutenant David Stirling. He then follows the movements of the front between Egypt and Libya, where the English face the troops of the Afrika Korps of German general Rommel, nicknamed “the fox of the desert”. Lee would have participated in commando operations behind enemy lines, including sabotaging Luftwaffe planes and installations at airfields. After the surrender of the troops of the Afrika Korps in 1943, he is apparently poured into the army within the 8th British infantry division, which takes part in the terrible battle for the capture of Monte Cassino, monastery transformed into a fortress by the Germans on the Gustav front line in 1944, in Italy.
After his experience in the LRDG, Lee was reportedly assigned to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) or Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, a secret service set up by Winston Churchill in July 1940 and dedicated to special operations in Europe to the Far East. It is particularly active in Eastern Europe, where the SOE provides assistance and support to various resistance movements in countries occupied by the Nazis. It is in this context that Lee will stay in Yugoslavia and meet Josip Broz, known as “Tito”, the future head of state of the country, but for the time being at the head of the communist resistance. He will even become friends with him. Asked about his years of service within the SAS in 2012 by the Telegraph, Lee replies: “I was attached to the SAS for a while, but we are prohibited from revealing anything about the operations carried out, whether past, present or future. Let’s just say I was in the Special Forces. People can. interpret it as they want “. Not a word on the subject from the person concerned therefore. We still know that Lee retired as an aviation officer in 1946 with the rank of Flight Lieutenant (the equivalent of captain), and that he was decorated for acts of bravery by the Czech, Yugoslav, English and Polish governments.
In the final months of the war, he was reportedly assigned to hunt down wanted Nazi war criminals, including senior SS officers, as part of the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, otherwise known by the acronym CROWCASS. This organization, linked soon after to the UN, actively participated in the hunt for the Nazis. “We were given files relating to the crimes they had committed. Then we were ordered to find them, question them as much as we could and hand them over to the authorities concerned. We saw the camps. concentration. Some had been cleaned, others had not. “ the actor told The Times in 2009. And add: “I saw some really, really horrible things, without saying a word. I saw so many men die before my eyes that it hardened me. See what man was able to do to another man. , the result of torture, mutilation, seeing someone fall apart because of a bomb … You forcefully develop a kind of protective shell. But it had to. It had to be, otherwise we wouldn’t have never won the war! ” This relationship to real violence, acting like a catharsis, has also allowed him to be, according to his own words, totally at ease with the bloody fictions of his future years as an actor.
Sixty years after his war years, the memory seems to remain alive with Christopher Lee. When he was filming under the direction of Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings, in which he plays the sorcerer Saruman, the actor explained to the director during the filming of a scene that someone stabbed does not scream, but moans in pain, like a death rattle. “Do you have any idea what kind of noise someone makes when they are stabbed in the back?” he asked Peter Jackson; “because I know”.
The best is still to discover the anecdote of the shooting on video …
Embellished feats of arms?
Veteran of the formidable SAS, ex Nazis tracker … The hunting picture of the war years painted by the Press and especially by the person concerned inspires respect. Still, in the eyes of some, this same picture is undoubtedly a little too heroic to be completely true. For the renowned British historian Gavin Mortimer, specialist in the Second World War and having worked a great deal on the history of the SAS, certain statements made by Christopher Lee do not hold. According to him, he would never have been part of the SAS and the SOE. “He was attached to the SAS and SOE as a Royal Air Force liaison officer for varying periods between 1943 and 1945, but he did not serve in these structures.” The historian also sweeps away the idea always put forward by the actor and widely taken up by the press to the point of becoming a truth, when he explained that he could not speak of his feats of arms under the SAS and SOE. “That’s rubbish! Members of those special forces units that served in wartime are not – and never were – banned from talking about operations. In a sense, Lee was not really lied, but he always encouraged people to believe he played a much bigger role than he actually was. “
Guy Walters, a journalist for the Daily Mail, investigated Christopher Lee’s feats of arms, sometimes pointing to the different versions of the person, such as his Finnish period, which Lee talks about in his autobiography, Lord Of Misrule. “In his memoirs, Lee said that he and a few comrades went to Finland to volunteer in the fight against the Soviet Union. He writes that not only were they given a uniform, but he also went to the front. where they spent some time, before returning to England during the Christmas period “ writes the journalist in a long paper published in July 2015, a little over a month after the death of the actor. “In an interview given a few years ago, Christopher Lee said, ‘We went over there with a group of friends, and said we wanted to help. We could shoot pretty well, but we couldn’t ski. We were thanked for our help offered, but we did not come close to the border there. “If it is possible that Lee traveled to Finland at this time, it is very, very unlikely. Almost 8,500 British people volunteered to join the fight against the USSR with Finland, but only about 200 of them actually made it there, and it is generally believed that they arrived there. the following year when Lee would have come and then left “.
The reporter found no record of the actor in the National Archives in Kew, about his alleged service with the SOE. “It is possible that his file was destroyed; but the point is that no SOE member who operated in the Balkans during the war has ever confirmed Lee’s version.” Guy Walters also evokes another example, when the actor was in full promotion of the film The Lord of the Rings, on Belgian television. “Lee claimed to have been part of the legendary Popski’s Private Army (PPA) during the war. [NDR : unité des forces spéciales britanniques fondée au Caire en 1942 par le major Vladimir Peniakoff, lui-même surnommé Popski]. Yet no evidence has come to support his claims. According to Roy Patterson, the secretary of the PPA Remembrance Association, there is no record of Lee in the PPA’s activity records. In fact, Lee told Patterson that she visited the PPA when it was stationed in Cervia, Italy, in April 1945 “.
What about his past as a Nazi hunter? “Even if he says in his memoir that he was part of CROWCASS, that cannot be possible. Members of this service were based in Paris and Berlin. Their roles were to gather evidence, not to travel the country and roam the camps. When I had the privilege of writing a Nazi-hunting story a few years ago, I was able to meet surviving members of the British War Crimes Unit, whose jobs was to go out and hunt down the Nazis where they were hiding. Not one mentioned that Lee was one of them. “
So, Lee a storyteller? Not really. His war bravery medals were not earned for hanging around behind a desk throughout the conflict. Let us say that the person concerned has certainly and generously enlarged the line on his feats of arms. Not enough either to fundamentally undermine the respect due to the master of the macabre.