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The Special Operations Executive (SOE) (sometimes referred to as "the Baker Street Irregulars") was a World War II organisation of the United Kingdommarker. It was officially formed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton on 22 July 1940, to conduct warfare by means other than direct military engagement. Its mission was to encourage and facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines and to serve as the core of the Auxiliary Units, a British resistance movement.

It was also known as "Churchill's Secret Army" or "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare" and was charged by Churchill to "set Europe ablaze."

The SOE directly employed or controlled just over 13,000 people. It is estimated that SOE supported or supplied about 1,000,000 operatives worldwide.



The organisation was formed from the merger of three existing secret departments. Immediately after Germanymarker annex Austriamarker (the Anschluss) in March 1938, the Foreign Officemarker created a propaganda organisation known as Department EH (after Electra House, its headquarters), run by Canadianmarker newspaper magnate Sir Campbell Stuart. Later that month, the Secret Intelligence Servicemarker (SIS, also known as MI6) formed a section known as Section D, under Major Lawrence Grand, to investigate the use of sabotage, propaganda and other irregular means to weaken an enemy. In the autumn of the same year, the War Officemarker set up a department, nominally for the purpose of research into guerrilla warfare and known initially as GS (R), headed by Major J. C. Holland. GS (R) was renamed MI R in early 1939.

These three departments worked with few resources until the outbreak of war. There was much overlap between their activities and Section D and EH duplicated much of each others' work. On the other hand, Section D and MI R shared information. Their heads were both officers of the Royal Engineers and knew each other. They agreed a rough division of their activities; MI R researched irregular operations which could be undertaken by regular uniformed troops, while Section D dealt with truly undercover work.

During the early months of the war while based at the Metropole Hotelmarker, Section D attempted unsuccessfully to sabotage deliveries of vital strategic materials to Germany from neutral countries, by mining the Iron Gatemarker on the River Danube. MI R meanwhile produced pamphlets and technical handbooks for guerrilla leaders. The section was also involved in the formation of "Independent Companies", which would later develop into the British Commandos, and the Auxiliary Units, stay-behind resistance groups which would act in the event of an Axis invasion of Britainmarker, as seemed possible in the early years of the war.


On 13 June, 1940, at the instigation of newly-appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Lord Hankey persuaded Section D and MI R that their operations should be coordinated. On 1 July, a Cabinet level meeting arranged the formation of a single sabotage organisation. On 16 July, Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, was appointed to take political responsibility for the new organisation, which was formally created on 22 July. Dalton used the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish war of Independence as a model for the organisation.

The Director of the organisation was usually referred to by the initials "CD". The first Director to be appointed was Sir Frank Nelson, a former head of a trading firm in Indiamarker, a back bench Conservative Member of Parliament and Consul in Bernemarker. Majors Grand and Holland both returned to regular army service and Campbell Stuart left the organisation.


In August 1941, following quarrels between the Ministry of Economic Warfare and the Ministry of Information over their relative responsibilities, the propaganda department (which had been renamed SO1) was removed from SOE and became an independent organization, the Political Warfare Executive.

Dalton was replaced as Minister of Economic Warfare by Lord Selborne in February 1942. Selborne in turn replaced Nelson, who had suffered ill health as a result of his hard work, with Sir Charles Hambro, head of the English banking firm Hambro's. 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.

Selborne and Hambro cooperated closely until August 1943, when they fell out over the question of whether SOE should remain a separate body or coordinate its operations with those of the British Army in several theatres of war. Hambro felt that this loss of control would cause a number of problems for SOE in the future. At the same time, Hambro was found to have failed to pass on vital information to Selborne. He was dismissed as Director, and became head of a raw materials purchasing commission in Washington, D.C.marker, which was involved in the exchange of nuclear information.

Major General Colin McVean Gubbins, Director of SOE from August 1943
As part of the subsequent closer ties between the Imperial General Staff and SOE, Hambro's replacement as Director from September 1943 was the former Deputy Director, Major General Colin Gubbins. Gubbins had wide experience of commando and clandestine operations and had played a major part in MI R's early operations. He also put in practice many of the lessons he learned from the IRA during the Irish war of independence.

SOE cooperated fairly well with Combined Operations Headquarters during the middle years of the war, usually on technical matters as SOE's equipment was readily adopted by commandos and other raiders. This support was lost when Vice Admiral Louis Mountbatten left Combined Operations, though by this time SOE had its own transport and had no need to rely on Combined Operations for resources. On the other hand, the Admiralty objected to SOE developing its own underwater vessels, and the duplication of effort this involved.

SOE's relationships with the Foreign Office and with SIS, which the Foreign Office controlled, were usually more difficult. 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. At one stage, SIS actively hindered SOE's attempts to infiltrate agents into enemy-occupied France.

SOE's activities in enemy-occupied territories also brought it into conflict with the Foreign Office on several occasions, as various governments in exile protested at operations taking place without their knowledge or approval, which sometimes resulted in Axis reprisals against civilian populations. SOE nevertheless generally adhered to the rule, "No bangs without Foreign Office approval."


The organisation of SOE continually evolved and changed during the war. The Director of SOE had either a Deputy from the Army, or (once Gubbins became Director) an Army officer as Chief of Staff. The main controlling body of SOE was its Council, consisting of around fifteen heads of departments or sections. About half were from the armed forces (although some were specialists who were only commissioned after the outbreak of war), the rest were various civil servants, lawyers, or business or industrial experts.

Operations were controlled by Sections, each assigned to a single country. Some enemy-occupied countries had two or more sections assigned to deal with politically disparate resistance movements. (Francemarker had no less than six). Training of agents was also part of the broad "Operations" department.

The other departments were variously concerned with development or acquisition and production of equipment, research (for the purposes of selecting effective targets) and administration, although SOE had no central registry or filing system.

There were several subsidiary SOE headquarters and stations set up to manage operations which were too distant for London to control. SOE's operations in the Middle East and Balkans were controlled from a headquarters in Cairomarker, which was notorious for poor security, infighting and conflicts with other agencies. It finally became known in April 1944 as Special Operations (Mediterranean), or SO(M). A subsidiary headquarters was later set up in Italymarker under the Cairo headquarters to control operations in the Balkans. There was also a station near Algiersmarker, established in late 1942 and codenamed "Massingham", which operated into Southern France.

An SOE station, which was first called the India Mission, and was subsequently known as GS I(k) was set up in India late in 1940. It subsequently moved to Ceylonmarker and became known as Force 136. A Singapore Mission set up at the same time as the India Mission was unable to overcome official opposition to its attempts to form resistance movements in Malaya before the Japanese overran Singaporemarker. Force 136 took over its surviving staff and operations.

There was also a liaison office in New Yorkmarker, formally titled British Security Coordination, headed by the Canadian businessman Sir William Stephenson. This office also coordinated the work of SIS and MI5 with the American Federal Bureau of Investigationmarker and Office of Strategic Services.


Towards the end of the war, Lord Selborne advocated keeping SOE, or a similar body, in being. He proposed that the organisation could be useful against "the Russianmarker menace" and "the smouldering volcanoes of the Middle East", and that it would report to the Ministry of Defence. The Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden, insisted that his ministry, already responsible for MI6marker, should control SOE or its successors. Selborne retorted that "To have SOE run by the Foreign Office would be like inviting an abbess to supervise a brothel." Churchill took no decision, and after he lost the general election in 1945, the matter was dealt with by the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.

Although Selborne told Attlee that SOE still possessed a worldwide network of clandestine radio networks and sympathisers, Attlee replied that he had no wish to own a British Comintern, and closed Selborne's network down at 48 hours' notice. SOE was dissolved officially on 15 January 1946. Most of its personnel reverted to their peacetime occupations (or regular service in the armed forces), but 280 personnel were taken into the "Special Operations Branch" of MI6. Some of these had served as agents in the field, but MI6 was most interested in SOE's training and research staff. Sir Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6 (who was generally known simply as "C") soon decided that a separate branch was unsound, and merged it into the general body of MI6.


SOE maintained a large number of training, research and development or administrative centres. It was a joke that "SOE" stood for "Stately 'omes of England", after the large number of country houses and estates it requisitioned and used.

After working from temporary offices in Central London, the headquarters of SOE was moved on 31 October 1940 into 64 Baker Streetmarker (hence the nickname "the Baker Street Irregulars"). Ultimately, SOE occupied much of the western side of Baker Street.

Another important London base was Aston House, where weapons and tactics research were conducted. However, the main weapons and devices research was carried out by two establishments; The Firs, near Aylesburymarker in Buckinghamshire, and Station IX at The Frythemarker, a former hotel outside Welwyn Garden Citymarker where, under the cover name of ISRB (Inter Services Research Bureau) SOE developed radios, weapons, explosive devices and booby traps.

Station XV, at the Thatched Barnmarker near Borehamwoodmarker, was devoted to camouflage, which usually meant equipping agents with authentic local clothing, equipment and documents. Various sub-stations in London, and Station XIV near Roydonmarker in Essex which specialised in forgery, were also involved in this task.

The initial training centre of the SOE was at Wanboroughmarker Manor, Guildfordmarker. Agents destined to serve in the field underwent commando training at Arisaigmarker in Scotlandmarker, where they were taught armed and unarmed combat skills by William E. Fairbairn and Eric A. Sykes, former Inspectors in the Shanghai Municipal Police. They then attended courses in security and "tradecraft" at Group B schools around Beaulieumarker in Hampshire. Finally, they received specialist training in skills such as demolition techniques or morse code telegraphy at various country houses in England and parachute training (if necessary) by STS 51 and 51a situated near Altrinchammarker, Cheshiremarker with the assistance of No.1 Parachute Training School RAF. at RAF Ringwaymarker (later Manchester Airportmarker)



SOE's operations were usually mounted in order to feel out resistance groups willing to work with the Allies in preparation for invasion. In Francemarker, personnel 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 Frenchmarker agents served in RF. There were also two smaller sections: EU/P Section, which dealt with the Polishmarker 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 Algiersmarker, to operate into Southern France.

On 5 May 1941, Georges Bégué (1911-1993) became the first SOE agent dropped into German occupied France. He then set up radio communications and met the next agents parachuted into France. Between Bégué's first drop in May 1941 and August 1944, more than four hundred F Section agents were sent into occupied France. They served 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 commissioned into women's branches of the armed forces such as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry). F Section alone sent 39 female agents into the field, of whom 13 did not return. The Valençay SOE Memorialmarker was unveiled at Valençaymarker in the Indremarker département of France on 6 May, 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.

To support the Allied invasion of France on D Day in June 1944, three-man parties were dropped into various parts of France as part of Operation Jedburgh, to coordinate widespread overt (as opposed to clandestine) acts of resistance. A total of 100 men were eventually dropped, together with 6,000 tons of military stores (4,000 tons had been dropped during the years before D-Day.) At the same time, all the various sections operating in France (except EU/P) were nominally placed under a London-based HQ titled État-major des Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur .


SOE did not need to instigate Polish resistance, because unlike the Vichy French the Poles overwhelmingly refused to collaborate with the Nazis. Early in the war the Poles established the Polish Home Army, led by a clandestine resistance government known as the Polish Secret State. Nevertheless, there were many Polish members of SOE and much cooperation between the SOE and the Polish resistance.

SOE assisted the Polish government in exile with training facilities and logistical support for its 605 special forces operatives known as the Cichociemni, or "The Dark and Silent". Members of the unit, which was based in Audley End Housemarker, Essex, were rigorously trained before being parachuted into occupied Poland. Because of the distance involved in air travel to Poland, customised aircraft with extra fuel capacity were used in Polish operations such as Operation Wildhorn III. Sue Ryder chose the title Baroness Ryder of Warsaw in honour of these operations.

Secret Intelligence Servicemarker member Krystyna Skarbek was a founder member of SOE and helped establish a cell of Polish spies in Central Europe. She ran several operations in Poland, Egyptmarker, Hungarymarker (with Andrzej Kowerski) and France, often using the staunchly anti-Nazi Polish expatriate community as a secure international network. Non-official cover agents Elzbieta Zawacka and Jan Nowak-Jezioranski perfected the Gibraltarmarker courier route out of occupied Europe. Maciej Kalenkiewicz was parachuted into occupied Poland, only to be executed by the Sovietsmarker. A Polish agent was integral to SOE's Operation Foxley, the plan to assassinate Hitler.

Thanks to cooperation between SOE and the Polish Home Army, the Poles were able to deliver the first Allied intelligence on the Holocaust to London. Witold Pilecki of the Polish Home Army designed a joint operation with SOE to liberate Auschwitzmarker, but the British rejected it as infeasible. Joint Anglo-Polish operations provided London with vital intelligence on the V-2 rocket, German troops movements on the Eastern Front, and the Soviet repressions of Polish citizens.

RAF 'Special Duties Flights' were sent to Poland to assist the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis. The rebellion was defeated with a loss of 200,000 casualties (mostly German executions of Polish civilians) after the nearby Red Army refused military assistance to the Polish Home Army. RAF Special Duties Flights were refused landing rights at Sovietmarker-held airfields near Warsaw, even when requiring emergency landings after battle damage. These flights were also attacked by Soviet fighters, despite the U.S.S.R.marker's officially Allied status.


Due to the dangers and lack of friendly population few operations were conducted in Germanymarker itself. The German and 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 Major General Gerald Templer heading the Directorate, with Thornley as his deputy.

Several major operations were planned, including Operation Foxley, a 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 SISmarker and SHAEF. Several German prisoners of war were trained as agents, briefed to make contact with the anti-Nazi resistance and to conduct sabotage. They were then parachuted into Germanymarker in the hope that they would either hand themselves in to the Gestapomarker or be captured by them, and reveal their supposed mission. Fake coded wireless transmissions were broadcast to Germany and various pieces of agent paraphernalia such as code books and wireless receivers were allowed to fall into the hands of the German authorities.

The Netherlands

Section N of SOE ran operations in the Netherlandsmarker. 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 their chief crytographer, Leo Marks, that the Germans were running the supposed resistance networks.

Eventually, two captured agents escaped to Switzerlandmarker in August 1943. The Germans sent messages over their controlled sets that they had gone over to the Gestapomarker, 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.


Section T established some effective networks in Belgiummarker, in part orchestrated by fashion designer Hardy Amies, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Amies adapted names of fashion accessories for use as code words, while managing some of the most murderous and ruthless agents in the field.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Normandymarker, British armoured forces liberated 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 Antwerpmarker intact.

After Brussels was liberated, Amies outraged his superiors by setting up a Vogue photo-shoot in Belgium. In 1946, he was Knighted in Belgium for his service with SOE, being a Named Officier de l'Ordre de la Couronne.


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. Italian partisans harassed German forces in Italy throughout the autumn and winter of 1944, and in the Spring 1945 offensive in Italy they captured Genoamarker and other cities unaided by Allied forces.

Late in 1943, SOE established a base at Barimarker in 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 German invasion in 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslaviamarker fragmented. In Croatiamarker, 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 Tito.

Mihailović was the first to attempt to contact the Allies, and SOE despatched a party on 20 September 1941 under Major "Marko" Hudson. Hudson also encountered Tito's forces. Through the royalist government in exile, SOE at first supported the Chetniks, but it became evident to British Military Intelligence from decrypted German radio messages that the Chetniks were less effective, and were even collaborating with the Italians and Germans against the partisans in some areas. Hence British support was redirected to the partisans, even before the Tehran Conference in 1943.

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. However, accounts vary dramatically between all historical works on the "Chetnik controversy".


SOE was unable to establish links or contacts in Hungarymarker before the regime of Miklós Horthy aligned itself with the Axis Powers. Distance and lack of such contacts prevented any effort being made by SOE until the Hungarians themselves dispatched a diplomat (László Veress) in a clandestine attempt to contact the Western Allies. SOE facilitated his return, with some radio sets. Before the Allied governments could agree terms, Hungary was placed under German military occupation and Veress was forced to flee the country.

Two missions subsequently dropped "blind" i.e. without prior arrangement for a reception party, failed. So too did an attempt by Basil Davidson to incite a partisan movement in Hungary, after he made his way there from northeastern Yugoslavia.


Greecemarker was overrun by the Axis only after a desperate defence lasting several months. In the aftermath, SIS and another intelligence organisation, SIME, discouraged attempts at sabotage or resistance as this might imperil relations with Turkey, although SOE maintained contacts with resistance groups in Cretemarker. When an agent, "Odysseus", a former tobacco-smugger, attempted to contact potential resistance groups in Greece, he reported that no group was prepared to cooperate with the monarchist government in exile in Cairo.

In late 1942, at the army's instigation, SOE mounted its first operation, codenamed "Operation Harling", into Greece in an attempt to disrupt the railway which was being used to move materials to the German Panzer Army Africa. A party under Colonel (later Brigadier) Eddie Myers, assisted by Christopher Woodhouse, was parachuted into Greece and discovered two guerrilla groups operating in the mountains; the pro-Communist ELAS and the republican EDES. On 25 November 1942, Myers's party blew up one of the spans of the railway viaduct at Gorgopotamosmarker, supported by 150 Greek partisans from these two organisations who engaged Italians guarding the viaduct. This cut the railway linking Thessaloniki with Athens and Piraeus.

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 (the Plakamarker agreement). When the British needed once again to disrupt the railway across Greece, the resistance groups refused to take part, rightly fearing German reprisals against civilians. Instead, a six-man commando party from the British and New Zealand armies carried out the destruction of the Asoposmarker viaduct on 21 June 1943.

Eventually, the British Army occupied Athensmarker and Piraeusmarker 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 Corfumarker, preventing their massacre by ELAS.


Albaniamarker 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 northwestern Greece. SOE agents who entered Albania then or later included Julian Amery, Anthony Quayle, David Smiley and Neil "Billy" McLean. 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. Some 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.


SOE sent many missions into the Czech areasmarker of the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and later into Slovakiamarker. The most famous mission was Operation Anthropoidmarker, the assassination of SSmarker leader Reinhard Heydrich in Praguemarker. From 1942 to 1943 the Czechoslovaksmarker had their own Special Training School (STS) at Chicheley Hallmarker in Buckinghamshire. In 1944, SOE sent men to support the Slovak National Uprising.


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


Most of the actions conducted by the Danish resistance were railway sabotage to hinder German troop and material movements from and to Norway. However, there were examples of sabotage on a much larger scale especially by BOPA. In all over 1,000 operations were conducted from 1942 and onwards.

In October 1943 the Danish resistance also saved nearly all of the Danish Jews from certain death in German concentration camps. This was a massive overnight operation and is to this day recognised among Jews as one of the most significant displays of public defiance against the Germans.

The Danish resistance assisted SOE in its activities in neutral Swedenmarker. For example, SOE was able to obtain several shiploads of vital ball-bearings which had been interned in Swedish ports. The Danes also pioneered several secure communications methods; for example, a burst transmitter/receiver which transcribed Morse code onto a paper tape faster than a human operator could handle.

There are a series of Historic Notes written by David Lampe in his "The Danish Resistance" also called "The Savage Canary".


In 1943 an SOE delegation was parachuted into Romaniamarker to instigate resistance against the Nazi occupation at "any cost" (Operation Autonomous). The delegation, including Colonel Gardyne de Chastelain, Captain Silviu Meţianu and Ivor Porter, was captured by the Romanian Gendarmerie and held until the night of King Michael's Coup on 23 August 1944.

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.


Abyssinia was the scene of some of SOE's earliest and most successful efforts. SOE organised a force of Ethiopianmarker irregulars under Orde Charles Wingate in support of the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie. 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 Burmamarker.

Southeast Asia

As early as 1940, SOE was preparing plans for operations in Southeast Asia. As in Europe, after initial Allied military disasters, SOE built up indigenous resistance organisations and guerrilla armies in enemy (Japanesemarker) occupied territory. SOE also launched "Operation Remorse" (1944-45), which was ultimately aimed at protecting the economic and political status of Hong Kongmarker. Through Force 136, SOE engaged in covert trading of goods and currencies in Chinamarker. Its agents proved remarkably successful, raising £77m through their activities, which were used to provide assistance for Allied prisoners of war and, more controversially, to buy influence locally in order to facilitate a smooth return to pre-war conditions.


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 classicist 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 Norwaymarker and Hollandmarker. 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 Canadianmarker government recruited 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.


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, such as the Paraset. Some of these, together with their batteries, weighed only , and could fit into a small attache case, although larger sets were required to work over ranges greater than .

Operating procedures were insecure at first; operators were forced to transmit verbose messages at fixed times and intervals. This allowed German direction finding teams time to triangulate their positions. After several operators were captured or killed, 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 single use ciphers, printed on silk.


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 submarine and Sleeping Beauty). A sea trials unit was set up in West Walesmarker at Goodwickmarker, by Fishguardmarker (station IXa) where these craft were tested. In late 1944 craft were dispatched to Australia to the Allied Intelligence Bureau (SRD), for tropical testing.

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 Germanmarker or Italianmarker 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. Most agents received training on captured enemy weapons before being sent into enemy-occupied territory.

SOE also adhered to the principle that resistance fighters would be handicapped rather than helped by heavy equipment such as mortars or anti-tank guns. These were almost impossible to conceal and required much training in their use. Later in the war however, when the resistance groups staged open rebellions against enemy occupation, some heavy weapons were dispatched, for example to the Maquis du Vercors.

SOE developed a wide range of explosive devices for sabotage, such as limpet mines, shaped charges and time fuses. These were later also used by commando units. They developed powered by multiple rubber bands to shoot incendiary bolts. There were two types, known as "Big Joe" and "Lil Joe" respectively. They had had tubular alloy skeleton "stocks" and were designed to be collapsible for ease of concealment.

The SOE made pioneering use of plastic explosive (the term "plastique" comes from SOE packaged plastic explosive originally destined for France but being taken to the USAmarker instead) It was used in everything from car bombs, to exploding rats designed to destroy coal fired boilers. 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, guns concealed in pipes, 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 Gestapomarker, SOE also disguised suicide pills as coat buttons.


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.

Air Marshal Harris ("Bomber Harris"), the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, appears to have resented the use of bombers for SOE purposes, but he was over-ruled and by April 1942, SOE had the services of 138 and 161 squadrons at RAF Tempsfordmarker. Many stores, and some agents were dropped by parachute. Some aircraft such as the Westland Lysander often landed in enemy-occupied territory to deliver or collect agents.

There were also 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 Algiersmarker, the Shetland Islandsmarker (a service termed the Shetland Bus), Ceylonmarker etc.

Later analysis and commentaries

The mode of warfare encouraged and promoted by SOE is considered by several modern commentators to have established the modern model that many alleged terrorist organisations emulate, pioneering most of the tactics, techniques and technologies that are the mainstays of terrorism as it is commonly known today.

Filmography (in order of release date)

  • Now It Can Be Told (aka School for Danger) (1946)
Filming began in 1944 and starred real-life SOE agents Captain Harry Rée and Jacqueline Nearne. The film tells the story of the training of agents for SOE and their adventures in France. The training sequences were filmed using the SOE equipment at the training schools at Traigh and Garramor (South Morar) and at Ringway.
  • 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."
Based on the book by Jerrard Tickell about Odette Sansom, starring Anna Neagle and Trevor Howard. The film includes an interview with Maurice Buckmaster, head of F-Section, SOE.
The Powell and Pressburger film, (released as Night Ambush in the States), based on the book by W. Stanley Moss, starring Dirk Bogarde and Marius Goring. It dramatises the true story of the capture of a German general by Patrick Leigh Fermor and W. Stanley Moss.
  • Bridge on the River Kwaimarker (1957) is a well-known classic British-made war-drama set in Burma 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)
Based on the book by R.J. Minney about Violette Szabo, starring Paul Scofield and Virginia McKenna.
Based on a well-known 1957 novel about World War II by Scottish thriller writer Alistair MacLean. It starred Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn, along with Anthony Quayle (the same Anthony Quayle listed above as serving with SOE in Albaniamarker) and Stanley Baker. The book and the film share the same basic plot: the efforts of an Allied commando team to destroy a seemingly impregnable German fortress that threatens Allied naval ships in the Aegean Sea, and prevents 2,000 isolated British troops from being rescued, that were holed up on the island of Kheros in the Aegean, near Turkey.
Based on an SOE operation to sabotage the heavy water plant at Rjukanmarker, Norwaymarker in 1943.
A spy thriller and World War II film, made from a story from Duilio Coletti and Vittoriano Petrilli. It is a highly fictionalized account of the real-life Operation Crossbow, but it does touch on the main aspects of the operation.
A spy film directed by Brian G. Hutton and featuring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, and Mary Ure. The film's screenplay and eponymous 1967 best-selling novel were written almost simultaneously by Alistair MacLean.
Based upon a true, dangerous operation in May 1942 to drop a small group of Czech and Slovak S.O.E. agents into their own occupied country with the singular deadly mission to assassinate Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler's protégé, Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor (representing the Nazi protectorate over the Czech puppet-state) of Bohemia and Moravia, hated as The Butcher of Prague. The mission succeeded, but with tragic results.
  • Nancy Wake Codename: The White Mouse (1987)
A docudrama about Nancy Wake's work for SOE, partly narrated by herself.
A television series that was broadcast between 1987 and 1990 featuring the exploits of the women and, less frequently, the men of SOE, which was renamed the 'Outfit'.
Based on a novel by Sebastian Faulks.
  • Churchill's Secret Army
A Documentary about the SOE broadcast on Channel 4 in 2001.
Foyle, a detective in England during WWII, investigates what turns out to be domestic activity of the SOE. The series is known for its attention to historical detail, and many aspects of the real-life SOE are shown.
  • The 11th Day (2006)
A documentary film, with recreation, of the Resistance, on the island of Crete, during the Second World War. Includes a detailed interview with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor with recreation of the kidnapping of German Major General Kreipe.
  • The Bonzos (2008)
A BBC documentary film about the men sent to rescue Hitler's hoard of looted art—including works by Titian, Tintoretto and Van Gogh—which the Nazis had stripped from Europe's greatest galleries and museums and hidden in a salt mine in the town of Alt Aussee in Austria. Including archive footage, eyewitness testimony and contributions from historians.
A French film about five SOE female agents and their contribution towards the D-Day invasions

Fiction books featuring or based on SOE

See also


  1. Foot, S.O.E, p.12
  2. Foot, S.O.E, pp.15-16
  3. Foot, p.17
  4. Hugh Dalton letter to Lord Halifax 2/7/1940
  5. Foot, S.O.E., pp.24-25
  6. Foot, S.O.E., p.32
  7. Boyce and Everett, SOE: The Scientific Secrets, pp.129-158
  8. Foot, S.O.E., p.87
  9. Foot, S.O.E., pp.35-36
  10. Foot, S.O.E., pp.40-41
  11. Foot, S.O.E., p.245
  12. Foot, S.O.E., p.214
  13. Foot, S.O.E., pp.222-223
  14. Orpen, Neil, 'Airlift to Warsaw' ISBN 0806119136
  15. glbtq >> arts >> Amies, Sir Hardy
  16. Ball (2009), p.104
  17. Foot, S.O.E, p.236
  18. M.R.D. Foot, Special Operations Executive 1940-46, p.95
  19. "The Irish [thanks to the example set by Collins and followed by the SOE] can thus claim that their resistance provide the originating impulse for resistance to tyrannies worse than any they had to endure themselves. And the Irish resistance as Collins led it, showed the rest of the world an economical way to fight wars the only sane way they can be fought in the age of the Nuclear bomb." M.R.D Foot, as quoted in Geraghty, The Irish War, p.347
  20. "We must recognise that our response to the scourge of terrorism is compromised by what we did through SOE. The justification... That we had no other means of striking back at the exactly the argument used by the red brigades, the baader meinhoff gang, the PFLP, the IRA and every other half articulate terrorist organisation on Earth. Futile to argue that we were a Democracy and Hitler a Tyrant. Means besmirch ends. SOE besmirched Britain." John Keegan, as quoted in Geraghty, The Irish War, p.346
  21. Churchill's Secret Army, Channel 4 television UK


Official publications / academic histories

Covers Commando and SOE training in the Highlands of Scotland. It describes the origins of the irregular warfare training at Inverailort House under MI(R) then the move of SOE training to the nearby Arisaig and Morar area.
SOE had its own laboratories and workshops inventing and developing new weapons, explosives and sabotage techniques.
Official history commissioned 1980, companion to Foot, SOE, with access to papers (though researched 20 years later than Foot's book, when many participants had died, see Preface)
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.
(orig. 1966, Government Official Histories, pub Frank Cass revised edition 2000, further edition 2004. Written with access to F Section files, (according to Ian Dear, see below) later revised
Written at the end of WW2 for the British Government's own use without any intention of publication—in effect a confidential "official history".
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".
Professor David Stafford has written several books on resistance and the secret war, and contributed the foreword for MFD Foot's book.
First results of a research on the newly released Austrian SOE files of the Public Record Office Kew

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 agents including Noor Khan, Violette Szabo, and a great deal of information on his friend Yeo-Thomas.
  • Andre Hue. The Next Moon (Viking 2004 ISBN 0-670-91478-9, Penguin 2005 ISBN 0-14-101580-2) Foreword MRD Foot.
First hand story of agent dropped into Brittany to organise resistance activities before and after D-Day.
Chapman set up first jungle warfare school and operated in Malaya behind Japanese lines. Key figure in SOE in Far East.
  • Arthur Christie. Mission Scapula SOE in the Far East ISBN 0-9547010-0-3.
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
  • Fitzroy Maclean. Eastern Approaches (Jonathan Cape 1949, Penguin 1991 ISBN 0-14-013271-6)
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 Cretemarker. Later turned into a film of the same title.
  • Patrick Howarth. Undercover (Routledge, Kegan Paul 1980 ISBN 0-7100-0573-3, Phoenix Press 2000 ISBN 1-84212-240-1)
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.
  • David Smiley. Albanian Assignment (Sphere Books Ltd. 1984 ISBN 0-7221-7933-2)
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
Firsthand documentary account of the kidnapping of Major General Heinrich Kreipe, the German army commander on Cretemarker.
Account of the SOE's mission to Yugoslavia in support of Mihailović and the Chetniks.
  • Dorothy Baden-Powell. They Also Serve: An SOE Agent in the WRNS (Robert Hale Ltd 2004 ISBN 978-0709077152)
A first hand account of one woman's experiences during World War Two within the Special Operations Executive and the WRNS.
  • Nancy Wake. The White Mouse: The Autobiography of the Woman the Gestapo called The White Mouse (Macmillan 1986 ISBN 978-0333400999)
Account of a female SOE field agents' experiences in the F Section.

Biographies / popular books by authors without personal SOE experience

  • Nigel Perrin Spirit of Resistance: The Life of SOE Agent Harry Peulevé DSO MC (Pen and Sword 2008) ISBN 978-1844158553
Biography of the remarkable F Section agent Harry Peulevé, who undertook two missions in France and was one of the few to escape Buchenwald concentration campmarker.
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).
  • Mark Seaman. Bravest of the Brave: True Story of Wing Commander Tommy Yeo-Thomas - SOE Secret Agent Codename, the White Rabbit (Michael O'Mara Books 1997) ISBN 978-1854796509
  • 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
  • Joe Saward. The Grand Prix Saboteurs (Morienval Press 2006, ISBN 978-0-9554868-0-7)
  • Gives tangential account of SOE's operations in the Mediterranean and its quarrels with other intelligence agencies


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