S is for… the Secret Operations Executive

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a volunteer-based underground army formed in July 1940 to wage a secret way in enemy-occupied Europe and Asia. Following the fall of France, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Hugh Dalton to form a secret organisation with the instruction to “set Europe ablaze!” with espionage, subversion, and sabotage in enemy occupied territories.[1]

Air dropping supplies to the French resistance, 1944

SOE’s first director of training and operations was Commando officer Brigadier Colin Gubbins, and his approach to this kind of warfare was to include blowing up trains, bridges, and factories, fostering revolt and deploying guerrilla tactics in enemy territory.[2] Recruits were trained in several in-depth skills such as unarmed combat, firearms, sabotage, and wireless operating.[3] SOE agents were then parachuted into occupied Europe and Asia to work with resistance movements in enemy territory. These areas included Belgium, Greece, and Italy.

Members of SOE showed incredible courage and ingenuity in their secret war. By working with resistance forces, SOE agents provided a boost to morale across occupied societies. One SOE contribution that was invaluable to the Allied war effort was the involvement of agents in German-occupied France prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Members of SOE provided the Allies with intelligence on German defences, as well as carrying out acts of sabotage to disrupt the war effort.[4]

SOE blade concealed in pencil. The blade hidden within a pencil is the most elaborate of a number of concealed or concealable edged weapons designed during WWII in the workshops of the SOE. A spiral of twine around the blade facilitates its removal from the hollowed-out pencil

Although SOE originally employed the majority of their recruits from MI6, they later began to recruit personnel from a wide range of military and civilian backgrounds, including women (you can read more about women SOE agents in my blog here). Not only were agents sent across Europe to act in covert operations, but departments were also stationed all over Britain with employees working to support their colleagues overseas in areas such as forging paperwork, developing weaponry, recruiting new agents to send across the Channel, and decoding secret communications (read more about the breaking of Enigma in my blog here).[5]

The stories told by the agents of SOE still captivate audiences today, with films such as the 2019 film “A Call to Spy” highlighting the extraordinary work that these agents carried out in occupied territories.[6] However, it is also not unsurprising that many SOE activities remain largely hidden or obscured by classified and top-secret files not yet available for public view in the archives. Nevertheless, what is known about the agents of SOE has led to a plaques being erected throughout London, a fitting tribute to the men and women who hold an invaluable contribution to the outcome of the Second World War.

[1] Imperial War Museum (IWM), “The Secret British Organisation of the Second World War,” last accessed 12 February 2022, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-secret-british-organisation-of-the-second-world-war

[2] National Army Museum, “Special Operations Executive,” last accessed 12 February 2022, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/SOE

[3] IWM, “The Secret British Organisation of the Second World War,” last accessed 12 February 2022, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-secret-british-organisation-of-the-second-world-war

[4] IWM, “Spies, Saboteurs and D-Day,” last accessed 12 February 2022, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/spies-saboteurs-and-d-day

[5] The History Press, “Espionage and the SOE,” last accessed 12 February 2022, https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/world-war-ii/espionage-and-the-soe/

[6] A trailer for this film can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbZgLKjrdnA

[Image 1] National Army Museum, ‘Air dropping supplies to the French resistance, 1944,’ NAM. 1985-11-36-276, https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1985-11-36-276

[Image 2] IWM, ‘SOE blade concealed in pencil,’ WEA 4147, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30003965

[Image 3] Wiki Commons, ‘SOE memorial,’ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SOE_Memorial_(4632753500).jpg

[Image 4] Wiki Commons, ‘SOE plaque, Baker Street,’ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SOE_Plaque,_Baker_Street.jpg

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