"Malcolm Munthe's Sweet is War is a war memoir that reads like a novel. From a lovelorn London youth we follow Munthe through the banalities of boot camp to the British volunteer battalion sent to Finland to fight the Russians during the Winter War. Caught up in the fall of Norway, the wounded Munthe makes a heroic trek to the safety of neutral Sweden, preparation for his work as 'Red Horse', the ubiquitous director of resistance against the Nazis in Scandinavia. From the headquarters of covert operations in London, the young major moves out to North Africa to prepare the ground for the invasion of Sicily and the long hard struggle to liberate Italy.
Malcolm Munthe knew well the casual brutality of war, its monstrous waste and random cruelty. He passed through ordeals which tested his sense of humanity to the full. Yet he retained his delight in the irony, comedy, beauty and heroic bravery to be found in this world. This bitter-sweet memoir of the Second World War reads like a real life version of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. Mr Munthe, who had been a page in the Swedish court as a boy was one of those few survivors of the way of life of pre-1914 Europe,. His youthful war adventures are consistently farcical, yet take place amidst the horrors of war. The result is a gripping book, sure to appeal even to those who do not usually read war memoirs."
Munthe was a British soldier, writer, and curator, and son of the famous Swedish doctor and writer Axel Munthe (physician to the Swedish royal family and author of gThe Story of San Micheleh) and his second wife Hilda Pennington-Mellor (an English society lady whom Axel met and married early in the 1900s). Brought up between the Swedish court, Italy, and Britain, where his mother owned two large houses, gHellensh in Herefordshire and gSouthside Househ in Wimbledon, Malcolm Munthe became a British citizen at the outbreak of World War II in order to fight, since he expected Sweden to be neutral throughout the war. In his youthful pre-war years, he studied for a Politics degree at the London School of Economics at the same time as he ran a boys' club in a deprived quarter of Southwark, preparing himself for a career in the Conservative Party and taking part in the social round of debutante balls and London clubs. In 1939 he was offered the comparatively safe Tory seat of East Ham South, but the war intervened and he declined a political career to enter the military. He would end WW2 as a Major, winning the MC for bravery in the process.
Born in 1910 and 29 years of age on the outbreak of WW2, Malcolm Munthe was of Anglo-Swedish origins and had joined the British army as war broke out. He was assigned to the Gordon Highlanders for no other reason than his first name's Scottish roots and was immediately commissioned as an Officer. Almost immediately after thwe Winter War broke out, he was recruited by the War Office for special operations in Scandinavia due to his Swedish background. . This was an irregular operation set up well before the establishment of the Special Operations Executive and Munthe was sent off to Finland to arrange the supply of munitions to the Finnish Army, carrying with him some experimental explosive devices. He was also to act as an advance party for the British volunteers and he was almost certainly the first British soldier to make it to the Finnish front-lines, a story he recounts in his wartime autobiography, gSweet is War.h In his own words, "I was to instruct some Finns under a lieutenant, whose name was Antila, in our anti-tank devices. We went west to Rovanjemi, and for some days to Kemijarvi, and then onwards by sledge. We were near a lake, beyond which were the Russian lines. I never saw a battle while I was there. Antila spoke no English, but we conversed to the best of our ability in Finnish-Swedish. His ski patrol was to be used for special raids to harass the enemy lines.
We slept fourteen in the tent, a circular contraption strung up on a central stovepipe, which carried away the smoke from the wood-burning stove in the middle of the floor. Christmas-tree branches covered the ground; they gave out a delicious smell when the place grew hot. We lay, feet to the middle and heads to the tent wall, with the equipment and rucksack of each man next to his head. I was put between Antila and his second in command, who was a sergeant. It was a tight fit. As I roll around in my sleep, I used to fling out an arm and hit one or other of them, but luckily Antila was just as bad. When we woke at reveille the appalling muddle would have to be straightened out.
Antila was sturdy, with thick dark hair and a permanent grin on his face. I imagine he was only a little older than I and it soon became obvious they had orders to coddle me. I was never allowed to accompany them on raids and was generally protected from even the mildest dangers. I spent my time making gclamsh to blow up tanks. g808 or gplastich was the explosive used for these charges, with a block of guncotton to hold the detonator and fuse. The whole was then wrapped in a piece of mackintosh, proof against damp, and fitted with magnets so as to make it cling, clam-like, to the tank. The tent was redolent with a smell of almonds and geraniums emanating from the explosives, and I got rather bored with sitting cross-legged on my blankets and gradually covering it with neat little rows of these samples of my handicraft. When I protested, Antila patted my hair and asked with a superior air, "Want to die young?"
One freezing cold day after a particularly severe air raid out of an icy blue sky, I was sent back to Kemi, where a charming, spirited lady of the Swedish Red Cross drove me around in her lorry to some first-aid centres and field hospitals. She spoke excellent English. At one of the posts she introduced me to a Swede who was roaring down the telephone. "You must send them along to us more or less straightened out; otherwise, when they arrive here stiff, we have to spend hours limbering them up again before we can get them to fit into the coffins.".....
Later recruited to the Special Operations Executive, he worked behind enemy lines in occupied Scandinavia - both in Norway and Sweden - as a spy and saboteur, famously blowing up a Nazi munitions train only miles from his own family home in Leksand, Dalarna. After a harrowing escape, recounted in his wartime memoir gSweet is Warh, he was put in charge of SOE's activities in Southern Italy, where he participated in the Anzio landings. In Scandinavia, Major Munthe had established a network of gFriendsh which he called the "Red Horse", in imitation of the Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel. In Southern Italy, he took the mimicry further, dressing as a (large) old lady to smuggle a radio transmitter past Nazi lines and coordinate SOE activity in the occupied zone. Munthe was also instrumental in the rescue of liberal philosopher Benedetto Croce and his family, held captive in Sorrento, and their flight to Capri where his father Axel Munthe's house Villa San Michele provided shelter.
After the war, Major Munthe continued to work in the military, and became active in social projects (described in his book The Bunty Boys). In 1945, he married the Right Hon. Ann Felicity Rea (born 15 January 1923), whom he met through her father Philip Russell Rea, 2nd Baron Rea, who was personal staff officer to Brigadier Colin Gubbins (the Head of SOE), and later leader of the Liberal party in the British House of Lords. After an abortive attempt at a political career with the Conservative Party, Munthe re-directed his work towards maintaining the family homes in England, Sweden and Italy. He sold his father's remaining properties on Capri (the Villa Materita, inter alia), and bought the Castello di Lunghezza, a 108-room castle outside Rome. He opened Hildashol, the property Axel Munthe had built for his wife Hilda in northern Sweden, to the public, and did the same for Hellens and Southside House in England under the auspices of the Pennington-Mellor-Munthe Charity Trust, now (2007) chaired by his eldest son Adam John Munthe. Munthe dedicated his later years to running those properties, and writing, including a history of Hellens, Hellen's, Much Marcle, Herefordshire and the Special Forces Club.He died at Southside House in November 1995.