The SOE emerged from several related bodies – the Foreign Office-tied ‘Department EH’, the Secret Intelligence Service’s ‘Section D’ and the War Office department MI(R). In July 1940, the SOE was created under the leadership of then Minister of Economic Warfare, Labour MP Hugh Dalton, who was famously instructed by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”. The SOE’s initial headquarters were in two flats near Baker Street in London, and Major-General Colin Gubbins, who would become SOE director in 1943, ran training and operations.
Support for those lighting these flames was not always forthcoming from the top. Known to some in the corridors of power as the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, disagreements would arise between the SOE and the armed forces, though Dalton was keen that it be seen on equal footing; “Subversion should be clearly recognized by all three Fighting Services as another and independent Service”, he would declare.
The SOE carried out its work across Europe and beyond, and British-trained agents came from across the globe: from France, Canada, Switzerland, Greece and Poland, to America, Ireland, Slovakia, Hungary and New Zealand, and many, many more places beyond. It established headquarters in numerous countries, including: Egypt, to coordinate Middle Eastern and Balkan activities; southern Italy, following Allied invasion; Algiers, following Allied landing in North Africa; Singapore, before its capture by the Japanese in February 1942; and India, before moving to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) in December 1944. Moreover, many SOE agents based in the UK had themselves escaped to the island following the Nazis’ advances. Reconnaissance, sabotage – destroying vital infrastructure such as trains and factories – and subversion – fostering resistance in enemy and enemy-occupied nations – were central tasks of the SOE. This is reflected in three training booklets written by Gubbins and widely used in SOE operations: The Partisan Leader’s Handbook, The Art of Guerrilla Warfare, and How to Use High Explosives.
Its agents were the likes of Odette Sansom from Somerset, who after responding to a call for family photographs of the French coastline mistakenly addressed them to the War Office instead of the Admiralty, and was scouted by the SOE in the process. She would go on to work as part of the SOE ‘Spindle’ network in France, setting up radio networks, organising parachute drops, and arming resistance fighters. Though captured and later sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, she revealed nothing despite enduring extensive torture. She survived, and following the war her testimony was used to convict Ravensbrück camp commander Fritz Suhren and other SS officers of war crimes.
In France alone SOE agents totalled 470 during the war, 117 of whom were killed. The risk was particularly high, and captured agents were often tortured by the Gestapo for information and then shot. The average life expectancy of an SOE wireless operator in occupied France, for example, was just six weeks. If captured, SOE agents were instructed to stay quiet for 48 hours - even if tortured - so that fellow agents and local resistance contacts had more time to escape.
The SOE also trained resistance fighters, such as the 316 ‘Cichociemni’ (“silent and unseen”) Polish guerrilla fighters parachuted into occupied Poland from 1941 onwards. Of these, a number served as leaders of the Polish Armia Krajowa (Home Army), the largest armed resistance movement against the Nazis at its peak. It included the likes of Aleksander Tarnawski, the last living Cichociemni. A chemistry student at the outbreak of the war, he fled to join the free Polish forces in France before its occupation and his later escape to the UK. He underwent training in Scotland, Manchester and Essex, and once dropped back into continental Europe, he took part in a number of missions, including the liberation of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. Though caught by the Soviet secret police, he escaped and hid his past whilst living in communist Poland.
Despite such heroic efforts, the SOE did not become the force that Churchill had first envisioned. His ‘detonator strategy’, that he held as late as December 1941, was that the UK’s efforts to foster resistance abroad would see “the uprising of the local population[s]” to such an extent that they would supply the bulk of “the liberating offensive”. Yet as the historian Evan Mawdsley writes in his analysis of the SOE, despite its efforts “The war was certainly won by ‘armies of the classic type’”, not any hidden army of this sort. Nonetheless, Mawdsley adds that the SOE’s work to foster resistance did “play a significant auxiliary role” when it came to sabotage and intelligence gathering, and none of this discounts “the great political and moral (and propaganda) importance of the resistance, and the role that it came to have in collective memory”.
Two British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents pose in disguise as Corporals of the Feldgendarmerie before the kidnapping of a German General, 26 April 1944.
@Imperial War Museum
THE SOE IN OPERATION
The SOE had a less than glorious record in the Netherlands after much of its operation there was compromised as the Germans took over part of the network. Despite repeated warnings, the SOE kept sending agents there and over 50 perished at the hands of the Nazis. However, a new operation in the latter period of the war, codenamed Operation Gambling, was far more successful.
T Section operated in Belgium and included some of the most ruthless agents in the field. SOE agents, working with local resistance groups, assisted the Allies to bypass German defences and enabled them to capture the Port of Antwerp intact.
Over 1,400 SOE agents were dropped into France during the war. Four hundred of these belonged to F Section and were sent in to act as arms and sabotage instructors to the local resistance forces, couriers, circuit organisers, liaison officers and radio operators.
SOE agents were dropped into France ahead of the D-Day landings in order to work with the French resistance in destroying railway tracks, lines of communications and command centres.
The human cost of this work was huge. About one-third of the 42 female agents of Section F died, as did more than 400 male agents (a quarter of the total) and thousands of French citizens accused of helping them.
During the early part of the war, the SOE supported an anti-fascist uprising in Sardinia.
In late 1943, the SOE established a base at Bari, Southern Italy, from which they operated their networks and agents in the Balkans. This organisation had the codename “Force 133”.
In the aftermath of the Italian collapse, the SOE helped build a large resistance organisation in northern Italy and the Alps. The SOE supplied weapons and other materials to the partisans, including the communist formations (Brigate Garibaldi).
The SOE, working together with the Danish resistance, ran a number of operations in Sweden, including obtaining several shiploads of vital ball bearings which had been interned in Swedish ports.
The SOE established the Norwegian Independent Company 1 for the purpose of performing commando raids during the Nazi occupation. One of its most successful missions was Operation Musketoon, an attack on the Glomfjord power plant in September 1942.
On 27-28 Feb 1943, Norwegian resistance fighters assisted by the SOE attacked the hydroelectric plant at the Rjukan waterfall in Telemark, destroying the only facility able to produce the heavy water needed for the Nazis’ experimental nuclear weapons programme.
SOE provided logistical support and training for the special forces operatives known as ‘Cichociemni’ (“silent and unseen”), a special forces unit of the Polish government-in-exile.
Cooperation between the SOE and the Home Army delivered the first Allied intelligence about the Holocaust in June 1942.
The SOE ran many missions into Czechoslovakia, the highest profile was the March 1942 assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich by SOE-trained Czech resistance fighters.
In 1944, the SOE sent men to support the Slovak National uprising.
In July 1944 the SOE hatched a plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler using German prisoners of war.
In December 1943, SOE agents parachuted into Romania with the aim of instigating resistance against the Nazi occupation at “any cost”. If they were arrested, as in fact they were, they were instructed to tell their captors that the Allies were preparing to land in the Balkans, hoping that this would induce a concentration of German troops to the east and reduce their firepower in Normandy.
An SOE team worked with Communist leader Enver Hoxha to fight the Axis forces.
On 25 November 1942, a SOE team, backed up by 150 local resistance fighters, destroyed the Gorgopotamos Bridge in central Greece, cutting the railway linking Thessaloniki with Athens and Piraeus.