Special Operations Executive

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The Special Operations Executive (SOE), sometimes referred to as "the Baker Street Irregulars" after Sherlock Holmes's fictional group of spies, was a World War II organization initiated by Winston Churchill and Hugh Dalton in July 1940 as a mechanism for conducting warfare by means other than direct military engagement. SOE directly employed or controlled just over 13,000 people. It is estimated that, worldwide, SOE supported or supplied about a million operatives.


[edit] History

The organisation was formed out of three existing secret departments: Section D, a sub-section of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6) commanded by Major Lawrence Grand; a department of the War Office known as MI R headed by Major J. C. Holland; and the propaganda organisation called Department EH (from Electra House, its headquarters), run by Sir Campbell Stuart. The propaganda section would later be broken off from SOE to form the Political Warfare Executive.

The mission of the SOE was to encourage and facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines and to serve as the core of a resistance movement in Britain itself (the Auxiliary Units) in the possible event of an Axis invasion. SOE was also known as Churchill's Secret Army and charged by him to "set Europe ablaze".

As an organisation, it was ultimately responsible to the Minister of Economic Warfare (initially Dalton, later Lord Selborne).

There was a certain amount of rivalry between SOE and SIS, which hindered cooperation. Where SIS preferred placid conditions in which it could gather intelligence and work through influential persons or authorities, SOE promised turbulent conditions and often backed anti-establishment organisations such as the Communists in several countries. This also brought it into conflict with the Foreign Office on several occasions, although the organisation adhered to the rule, "No explosions without Foreign Office approval."

The first chief of the service to be appointed was Sir Frank Nelson, who had been formerly head of a trading firm in India, a Backbencher Conservative MP and Consul in Berne. He was to suffer ill health as a result of his hard work, and in April 1942, he was replaced by Sir Charles Hambro, head of the banking firm.

Hambro had been a close friend of Churchill's before the war and had received the Military Cross for his efforts in the Great War. However, in August 1943, he had an argument with a fellow agent. Hambro believed that SOE should remain a separate body and not become part of the British army. He felt that this loss of control would cause a number of problems for SOE in the future. Hambro often said that "it was not good for democracies to know what their governments did in times of war." When the decision was taken by the Cabinet to coordinate SOE's activities with those of the British army against Hambro's advice, he resigned from his position.

As part of the closer ties between the General Staff and SOE, Hambro's replacement from September 1943 was the former Deputy Head of SOE, Major General Colin Gubbins. Gubbins had wide experience of commando and clandestine operations. He was generally known within SOE by the title, "CD".

SOE was dissolved officially in 1946, and much of its sphere of influence reverted to MI6. (It was reported that Selborne told the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, that SOE still possessed a world-wide network of clandestine radio networks and sympathisers. Attlee retorted that he had no wish to own a British Comintern.)

[edit] Locations

The headquarters of SOE was at 64 Baker Street. Another important London base was Aston House, where weapons and tactics research were conducted.

Under the cover name ISRB (Inter Services Research Bureau) SOE set up an establishment where development of equipment for use in the secret war could be undertaken. Called Station IX, this was situated at the Frythe - a former hotel, outside Welwyn. Here ISRB developed radios, weapons, explosive devices, and booby traps for use by agents and clandestine raiding forces.

The initial training centre of the SOE was at Wanborough Manor, Guildford. Agents destined to serve in the field underwent commando training at Arisaig in Scotland, followed by specialist training in skills such as demolition techniques or morse telegraphy at various country houses in England. Finally, they were given parachute training (if necessary) at Altrincham in north-west England and a course in security at Beaulieu in Hampshire.

SOE maintained a large number of training, research and development, or administrative centres. (See List of SOE establishments.)

[edit] Operations

[edit] France

SOE's operations in France were directed by two London-based country sections. F Section was under British control, while RF Section was linked to General De Gaulle's Free French government in exile. Most native French agents served in RF. There were also two smaller sections: EU/P Section, which dealt with the Polish community in France and the DF Section which was responsible for establishing escape routes. During the latter part of 1942 another section known as AMF was established in Algiers, to operate into Southern France.

On May 5, 1941, Georges Bégué (1911-1993) became the first SOE agent dropped in France who then set up radio communications and met the next agents parachuted into France. Between Bégué's first drop and August 1944, more than four hundred F Section agents were sent into occupied France, to serve in a variety of functions including arms and sabotage instructors, couriers, circuit organisers, liaison officers, and radio operators. RF sent about the same number; AMF sent 600 (although not all of these belonged to SOE). EU/P and DF sent a few dozen agents each.

SOE included a number of women (who were often recruited from the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry); F Section alone sent 39 female agents into the field, of whom 13 did not return. The Valençay SOE Memorial was unveiled at Valençay in the Indre département of France on May 6, 1991, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the despatch of F Section's first agent to France. The memorial's Roll of Honour lists the names of the 91 men and 13 women members of the SOE who gave their lives for France's freedom.

See SOE F Section timeline for a list of significant events in the history of F Section. See also SOE F Section networks for details of the individual networks operated by F Section.

To support the Allied invasion of France in 1944, three-man parties were dropped into various parts of France under Operation Jedburgh, to coordinate widespread overt (as opposed to clandestine) acts of resistance. At the same time, all the various sections operating in France (except EU/P) were nominally placed under a London-based HQ titled EMFFI.

[edit] Germany

Due to the dangers and lack of friendly population few operations were conducted in Germany itself. The German & Austrian section of SOE was run by Lt. Col. Ronald Thornley for most of the war and was mainly involved with black propaganda and administrative sabotage in collaboration with the German section of the Political Warfare Executive. After D-Day, the section was re-organised and enlarged with General Sir Gerald Templer heading the Directorate with Thornley as his deputy. Several major operations were planned, including Operation Foxley - the plan to assassinate Hitler - and Operation Periwig, an ingenious plan to simulate the existence of a large-scale anti-Nazi resistance movement within Germany. Foxley was never carried but Periwig went ahead despite restrictions placed on it by SIS and SHAEF. Several German POWs were trained as agents, briefed to make contact with the Anti-Nazi resistance and to conduct sabotage. They were then parachuted into Germany with the hope that they would either hand themselves in to or be captured by the Gestapo and reveal their supposed mission. Fake coded wireless transmissions were broadcast to Germany and various pieces of agent paraphernalia like code books and wireless receivers were allowed to fall into the hands of the German authorities.

[edit] Netherlands

Section N of SOE ran operations in the Netherlands. They committed some of SOE's worst blunders in security, which allowed the Germans to capture many agents and much sabotage material, in what the Germans called the Englandspiel. SOE apparently ignored the absence of security checks in radio transmissions, and other warnings from Leo Marks that the Germans were running the supposed resistance networks.

Eventually, two captured agents escaped to Switzerland (in August 1943). The Germans sent messages over their controlled sets that they had gone over to the Gestapo, but SOE was at last more wary.

SOE partly recovered from this disaster to set up new networks, which continued to operate until the Netherlands were liberated at the end of the war.

[edit] Belgium

Section T established some effective networks in Belgium, but in the aftermath of the Battle of Normandy, British armoured forces overran the country in less than a week, giving the resistance little time to stage an uprising. They did assist British forces to bypass German rearguards, and this allowed the Allies to capture the vital docks at Antwerp intact.

[edit] Italy

As both an enemy country, and supposedly a monolithic fascist state with no organised opposition which SOE could use, SOE made little effort in Italy before mid-1943 when Mussolini's government collapsed and Allied forces already occupied Sicily. SOE appears to have made no effort to recruit agents from among the many thousands of Italian Prisoners of War.

In the aftermath of the Italian collapse, SOE helped build a large resistance organisation in the cities of Northern Italy, and in the Alps. These harassed German forces in Italy throughout the autumn and winter of 1944, and in the final Allied offensive in Italy, they captured Genoa and other cities unaided by Allied forces.

SOE established a base at Bari in Southern Italy, from which they operated their networks and agents in the Balkans. This organisation had the codename Force 133.

[edit] Yugoslavia

In the aftermath of the German invasion in 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia fragmented. In Croatia, there was a substantial pro-Axis movement, the Ustaše. In the remainder of Yugoslavia, two resistance movements formed; the royalist Chetniks under Draža Mihailović, and the Communist Partisans under Josip Broz Tito.

Through the royalist government in exile, SOE at first supported the Chetniks. It became evident that the Chetniks were less effective, and even collaborating with the Germans in some areas against the Partisans. After the Teheran Conference, SOE switched its support to the Partisans. Although relations were often touchy throughout the war, it can be argued that SOE's unstinting support was a factor in Yugoslavia's maintaining a neutral stance during the Cold War.

[edit] Greece

Greece was overrun by the Axis only after a desperate defence lasting several months. In late 1942, SOE mounted its first operation into Greece as an attempt to disrupt the railway which was being used to move materials to the German Panzer Army Africa. The party, under Brigadier Eddie Myers, discovered two guerilla groups operating in the mountains; the pro-Communist ELAS and the republican EDES. With aid from these two organisations, Myer's party destroyed the Gorgopotamos Railway Viaduct on November 14, 1942.

Unfortunately, relations between the resistance groups and the British soured. EDES received most aid from SOE, but ELAS secured many weapons when Italy collapsed and Italian military forces in Greece dissolved. ELAS and EDES fought a vicious civil war in 1943 until SOE brokered an uneasy armistice. Some SOE liaison officers in the field were executed by undisciplined ELAS groups.

Eventually, the British army occupied Athens and Piraeus in the aftermath of the German withdrawal, and fought a street-by-street battle to drive ELAS from these cities and impose an interim government under Archbishop Damaskinos. SOE's last act was to evacuate several hundred disarmed EDES fighters to Corfu, preventing their massacre by ELAS.

[edit] Albania

Albania had been under Italian influence since 1923, and was occupied by the Italian Army in 1939. In 1943, a small liaison party entered Albania from north-west Greece. (One of its members was Julian Amery). They discovered another internecine war between the Communist partisans under Enver Hoxha, and the republican Balli Kombëtar. As the latter had collaborated with the Italian occupiers, Hoxha gained Allied support.

SOE's envoy to Albania, Brigadier "Trotsky" Davies, was captured by the Germans early in 1944. Other SOE officers warned that Hoxha's aim was primacy after the war, rather than fighting Germans. They were ignored, but Albania was never a major factor in the effort against the Germans.

[edit] Czechoslovakia

SOE sent many missions into the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia, and later into Slovakia. The most famous mission was called Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of SS leader Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague. From 1942 to 1943 the Czechoslovaks had their own Special Training School (STS) at Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire. In 1944 SOE sent men to support the Slovak Uprising.

[edit] Norway

In March of 1941 a group performing commando raids in Norway, Norwegian Independent Company 1 (NOR.I.C.1) was organized under leadership of Captain Martin Linge. Their initial raid in 1941 was Operation Archery, the best known raid were probably the Norwegian heavy water sabotage. Communication lines with London were gradually improved so that by 1945, 64 radio operators were spread throughout Norway.

[edit] Denmark

The Danish Resistance was able to mount few overt actions before the end of the war. Most of the actions conducted were railroad sabotage to halt German troop movements from and to Norway. However, there were examples of sabotage on a much larger scale especially by BOPA. In all over 1000 operations were conducted from 1942 and onwards. The Danish resistance also saved nearly all of the Danish jews from certain death in German KZ camps. This was a massive overnight operation and is to this day recognized among jews as one of the most significant displays of public defiance against the Germans. They did assist SOE in its activities in neutral Sweden. For example, SOE was able to obtain several shiploads of vital ball-bearings which had been interned in Swedish ports.

[edit] Poland

The distance involved in air travel to Poland was the chief obstacle to SOE's efforts to aid the resistance there. SOE did assist the Polish government in exile to send agents and some equipment to the Armia Krajowa. SOE had little or no contact with the pro-Communist Armia Ludowa, and the London Poles as the government in exile was known, always maintained their own counsel.

Large amounts of arms were finally sent to Poland during the doomed Warsaw Uprising, at heavy cost in aircraft.

[edit] Romania

In 1943 an SOE delegation was parachuted into Romania to instigate resistance against the Nazi occupation at "any cost." The delegation, including Colonel Gardyne de Chastelain and Ivor Porter, was captured and held until the night of the August 23 1944 coup d'état.

[edit] Other Operations in Europe

Through cooperation with the Special Operations Executive and the British intelligence service, a group of Jewish volunteers from Palestine were sent on missions to several countries in Nazi-occupied Europe from 1943 to 1945.

[edit] Abyssinia

Abyssinia was the scene of some of SOE's earliest and most successful efforts. In support of the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie, SOE organised a force of Ethiopian irregulars under Orde Charles Wingate. This force (named Gideon Force by Wingate) caused heavy casualties to the Italian occupation forces, and contributed to the successful British campaign there. Wingate was to use his experience to create the Chindits in Burma.

[edit] South-East Asia

Main article: Force 136

As early as 1941, SOE was preparing plans for operations in South East Asia. As in Europe, after initial Allied military disasters, SOE built up indigenous resistance organisations and guerilla armies in enemy (Japanese) occupied territory. Some of these organisations were to have major effects both during the war and in the post-war period.

[edit] Agents

A variety of people from all classes and pre-war occupations served SOE in the field. In most cases, the primary quality required was a deep knowledge of the country in which the agent was to operate, and especially its language, if the agent was to pass as a native of the country. Dual nationality was often a prized attribute. This was particularly so of France. Many of the agents in F Section were of working-class origin (some even reputedly from the criminal underworld).

In other cases, especially in the Balkans, a lesser degree of fluency was required as the resistance groups concerned were already in open rebellion and a clandestine existence was unnecessary. A flair for diplomacy combined with a taste for rough soldiering was more necessary. Some regular army officers proved adept as envoys, although others (such as the former diplomat Fitzroy Maclean or the classical scholar Christopher Woodhouse) were commissioned only during wartime.

Exiled or escaped members of the Armed Forces of some occupied countries were obvious sources of agents. This was particularly true of Norway and Holland. In other cases (such as Frenchmen owing loyalty to Charles De Gaulle and especially the Poles), the agents' first loyalty was to their leaders or governments in exile, and they treated SOE only as a means to an end. This could occasionally lead to mistrust and strained relations in Britain.

SOE employed many Canadians; the Canadian government routed Canadian volunteers for clandestine service to either SOE or MI9.

SOE was prepared to ignore almost any contemporary social convention in its fight against the Axis. It employed known homosexuals, people with criminal records or bad conduct records in the armed forces, Communists, anti-British nationalists etc. Although some of these might have been considered a security risk, there is practically no known case of an SOE agent wholeheartedly going over to the enemy.

[edit] Communications

SOE was highly dependent upon the security of radio transmissions. There were three factors involved in this; the physical qualities and capabilities of the radio sets, the security of the transmission procedures and the provision of proper ciphers.

SOE's first radios were supplied by SIS. They were large, clumsy and required large amounts of power. SOE acquired a few, much more suitable sets from the Poles in exile, but eventually designed and manufactured their own. Some of these, together with their batteries, weighed only 9lb (4 kg), and could fit into a small attache case, although larger sets were required to work over ranges greater than 500 miles (800 km).

Operating procedures were insecure at first; operators were forced to transmit verbose messages at fixed times and intervals. After several operators were captured or killed (some of them taking one or more Gestapo with them), procedures were made more flexible and secure.

As with their first radio sets, SOE's first ciphers were inherited from SIS. Leo Marks, SOE's chief cryptographer, was responsible for the development of better codes to replace the insecure poem codes. Eventually, SOE settled on One-time pads, printed on silk.

[edit] Equipment

SOE was forced by circumstances to develop a wide range of equipment for clandestine use. Among products developed at Station IX were a miniature folding motorbike (the Welbike) - for use by parachutists, a silenced pistol (the Welrod) and several miniature submersible craft (the Welman and Sleeping Beauty). A sea trials unit was set up in west Wales at Goodwick, by Fishguard (station IXa) where these craft were tested. In late 1944 craft were despatched to Australia to the Allied Intelligence Bureau (SRD), for tropical testing.[1]

An agent working clandestinely in the field obviously required clothing, documents and so on which would not arouse suspicion. SOE maintained centres which specialised in producing foreign clothing and forging identity cards, ration cards etc (even to the extent of manufacturing cigarettes which would pass as the local product).

Although SOE used some assassination weapons such as the De Lisle carbine, it took the view that weapons issued to resisters should not require extensive training or care. The crude and cheap Sten was a favourite. For issue to large forces such as the Partisans in Yugoslavia, SOE used captured German or Italian weapons. These were available in large quantities after the surrender of Italy, and the partisans could acquire ammunition for these weapons (and the Sten) from enemy sources.

SOE developed a wide range of explosive devices for sabotage, such as limpet mines, shaped charges and time fuses. These were also used by commando units. Other, more subtle sabotage methods included lubricants laced with grinding materials, incendiaries disguised as innocuous objects and so on.

Some of the more imaginative devices included exploding pens with enough explosive power to blast a hole in the bearer's body, exploding rats and land mines disguised as cow or elephant dung. For specialised operations or use in extreme circumstances, SOE issued small fighting knives which could be concealed in the heel of a hard leather shoe or behind a coat lapel. Given the likely fate of agents captured by the Gestapo, SOE also disguised suicide pills as coat buttons.

[edit] Transport

With the continent of Europe closed to normal travel, SOE had to rely on its own air or sea transport for movement of people, arms and equipment.

SOE controlled several "Special Duties" flights or squadrons of aircraft. Many stores, and some agents were dropped by parachute. Some aircraft such as the Lysander often landed in enemy-occupied territory to deliver or collect agents. There was often conflict with Bomber Command, which was invariably unwilling to make long-range aircraft available to SOE.

There were similar difficulties with the Royal Navy, which also was usually unwilling to allow SOE to use its submarines or Motor Torpedo Boats. However, SOE often used clandestine craft such as fishing boats or caiques, and eventually ran quite large fleets of these, from Algiers, the Shetland Islands (a service termed the Shetland Bus), Ceylon etc.

[edit] See also

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] Official publications / academic histories

  • Professor M.R.D. Foot. The Special Operations Executive 1940-1946 (Pimlico 1999 ISBN 0-7126-6585-4)
The best book to read for an overview of SOE and its methods. Foot won the Croix de Guerre as a SAS operative in Brittany, later becoming Professor of Modern History at Manchester University and an official historian of the SOE. All his SOE books are well worth reading.
  • Professor M.R.D. Foot. SOE in France (orig. 1966, Government Official Histories, pub Frank Cass revised edition 2000, further edition 2004 ISBN 0-7146-5528-7)
Written with access to F Section files, (according to Ian Dear, see below) later revised
  • Professor William Mackenzie. The Secret History of SOE - Special Operations Executive 1940-1945, BPR Publications, 2000, ISBN 0-9536151-8-9
Written at the end of WW2 for the British Government’s own use without any intention of publication - in effect a confidential “official history”
  • David Stafford, Secret Agent - The True Story of the Special Operations Executive (BBC Worldwide Ltd, 2000), ISBN 0-563-53734-5
Professor David Stafford has written several books on resistance and the secret war, and contributed the foreword for MFD Foot's book.
  • Frederic Boyce & Douglas Everett. SOE – the Scientific Secrets (Sutton Publishing 2003, ISBN 0-7509-4005-0)
SOE had its own laboratories and workshops inventing and developing new weapons, explosives and sabotage techniques.
  • Denis Rigden SOE Syllabus: Lessons in Ungentlemanly Warfare World War II (Secret History Files, National Archives 2001 ISBN 1-903365-18-X) (Introduction).Authentic training manuals used to prepare agents covering the clandestine skills of disguise, surveillance, burglary, interrogation, close combat, and assassination. Also published as “How to be a Spy”.
  • Para-Military Training in Scotland During World War 2 (Land, Sea & Islands Centre, Arisaig 2001) An account of SOE training around the Arisaig area.
  • Ian Valentine, Station 43: Audley End House and SOE's Polish Section, ISBN 0-7509-4255-X, Sutton Publishing 2006
  • Gerald Steinacher Passive grumbling, rather than resisting. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Austria 1940-1945. First results of a research on the newly released Austrian SOE files of the Public Record Office Kew, in: International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, vol. 15, number 2 summer 2002, p. 211-221. in: eforum-zeitgeschichte, [2]

[edit] First-hand accounts by those who served with SOE

Marks was the Head of Codes at SOE. He gives easily comprehensible introduction to codes, their practical use in the field, and his struggle to improve encryption methods. Engaging accounts of Noor Khan, Violette Szabo, and a great deal of information on his friend Yeo-Thomas.
First hand story of agent dropped into Brittany to organise resistance activities before and after D-Day.
  • F. Spencer Chapman. The Jungle is Neutral (Chatto and Windus 1949)
Chapman set up first jungle warfare school and operated in Malaya behind Japanese lines. Key figure in SOE in Far East.
A true story about an ordinary soldier seconded into MI5 and sent on a mission to Singapore just before it fell. With Freddy Spencer-Chapman
Author witnessed SOE’s campaign with Yugoslav partisans as Churchill’s representative to Tito.
Firsthand account of Moss and Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s kidnapping of Major General Heinrich Kreipe, the German army commander on Crete. Later turned into a film of the same title.
Covers the stories of a number of operatives, many known personally by Howarth, who was one of SOE’s founding members responsible for sevearl years for organising agent training in UK. Invaluable seven page bibliography of histories and memoirs.
Account of SOE's missions to Albania.
  • David Howarth. The Shetland Bus. (Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd 1950)
Account of the Norwegian vessels which kept Britain in touch with the Norwegian resistance

[edit] Biographies / popular books by authors without personal SOE experience

General chapters on origins, recruitment and training, and then describes in detail thirteen operations in Europe and around the world, some involving the OSS.
  • Bruce Marshall. The White Rabbit (Evans Bros 1952, Cassell Military Paperbacks 2000, ISBN 0-304-35697-2)
Famous biography of Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas who made secret trips to France to meet senior Resistance figures. Epic story of capture, torture and escape, written as told by 'Tommy' to Marshall (who was himself on the HQ staff of RF section).
  • Ray Mears, The Real Heroes of Telemark: The True Story of the Secret Mission to Stop Hitler's Atomic Bomb , ISBN 0-340-83015-8, Hodder & Stoughton 2003, Associated with a three part BBC TV series, Ray Mears followed the route taken in 1943 along with some present day members of Royal Marines and Norwegian Army.
  • Inside Camp X by Lynn Philip Hodgson, with a foreword by Secret Agent 'Andy Durovecz (2003) - ISBN 0-9687062-0-7

[edit] Filmography (in order of release date)

  • The Fight Over the Heavy Water (1948)
A French/Norwegian black and white docu-film titled "La Bataille de l'eau lourde"/"Kampen om tungtvannet" (trans. "The Fight Over the Heavy Water"), featured some of the ‘original cast’, so to speak. Joachim Rønneberg has stated; "The Fight over Heavy Water was an honest attempt to describe history. On the other hand 'Heroes of Telemark' had little to do with reality.”
The Powell and Pressburger film, Ill Met by Moonlight, (released as Night Ambush in the States), based on the book, was made in 1957, starring Dirk Bogarde and Marius Goring. It dramatises the true story of the capture of a German general by Patrick Leigh-Fermor.
  • Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is a well-known classic British-made war-drama set in Thailand during WW2, during the construction of the Siam - Burma railway through virgin jungle and endless hills and gorges, using malnourished, mistreated allied prisoners of war. A counter-story in the film, which collides with the main story at the climax, relates to a mission to destroy the newly-constructed railway bridge by a fictitious cloak and dagger sabotage organisation called 'Force 316', whose training base is in Ceylon. In fact, this is a thinly-disguised reference to the real-life Force 136, part of SOE, who indeed had wartime jungle-training facilities in Ceylon at M.E. 25 - Horona.
  • Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)
A film of the same title was made in 1958 starring Paul Scofield and Virginia McKenna.

[edit] Miscellany/trivia

[edit] External links

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Special Operations Executive

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