Military, WW2

SOE: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British, World War II organisation, created by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in July 1940 after  a meeting at St Ermin’s Hotel in London. Its purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements. It was Churchill’s way of continuing to conduct the war against Germany after the fall of France in any way that he could.

Because their operations were based in Baker Street, London, they were given the nickname ‘the Baker Street Irregulars’.

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The SOE was responsible for organizing and arming resistance movements, espionage, sabotage activities behind enemy lines, and supplying intelligence to the Allied forces. It also provided assistance to prisoners of war and helped to organize escape lines.

The SOE carried out operations in countries such as France, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy. It employed a range of methods and techniques, including secret radio transmitters, secret agents and double agents, sabotage, and assassination. Later in the War, it conducted planning operations in South East Asia for the proposed invasion of Japan.

Who created the SOE?

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was created by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The SOE was initially headed by Major-General Colin Gubbins, with the Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, as its political overseer. After Dalton stepped down in 1941, the SOE was formally placed under the control of the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and Gubbins was made the Director of Operations. After the war, the SOE was replaced by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

Some notable SOE agents:

Violette Szabo
Photo of the French World War 2 SOE agent Violette Szabo. She was captured in June 1944.

Violette Szabo – French resistance fighter and secret agent. She was born in France and worked as a spy for the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. She was captured by the Nazis and executed in 1945.

Odette Sansom – French SOE agent who worked undercover in occupied France. She was the first female secret agent to be awarded the George Cross for her bravery and courage.

Noor Inayat Khan – Indian-born British SOE agent who worked undercover in occupied France. She was the first female wireless operator to be sent into Nazi-occupied Europe. She was captured and executed by the Nazis in 1944.

Nancy Wake – New Zealand-born SOE agent who worked with the French resistance. She became a leading figure in the French resistance and was the Gestapo’s most wanted person at the time. She was awarded the George Medal for her bravery.

Peter Churchill – British SOE agent and double agent who worked with the French Resistance. He was captured by the Nazis and was held in several concentration camps. He was eventually freed by the British in 1945.

Sidney Jones – Australian SOE agent who worked in the Far East. He was the first Allied agent to be parachuted into Japanese-occupied Malaya and became an expert in guerrilla warfare. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery.

Violette Reine – British SOE agent and nurse who worked with the French Resistance. She was captured by the Nazis in 1944 and later died in a concentration camp.

Airey Neave – British SOE agent who worked in occupied Europe. He was the first person to escape from Colditz Castle and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery.

Georges Bégué – French SOE agent who worked with the French resistance.He was a radio operator who sent encrypted messages to London from occupied France. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery.

Andrée Borrel – French resistance fighter and SOE agent. She was captured and executed by the Nazis in 1944.

Notable SOE operations

  1. Operation Anthropoid – A mission to  assassinate SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Governor of Bohemia and Moravia and the head of the Gestapo and the SD. The operation was planned and led by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The two agents involved in the mission, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, parachuted into Czechoslovakia and infiltrated Prague. On 27 May 1942, they attacked Heydrich’s car with a bomb and submachine guns. Heydrich died of his wounds a week later, on 4 June 1942.
  2. Operation Gunnerside – This was an operation planned and led by the British SOE. It was a sabotage mission against a plant in Vemork, Norway, which was used by the Germans to produce heavy water, a key ingredient in the production of nuclear weapons. The mission was carried out on the night of 28–29 February 1943 by a team of Norwegian saboteurs and British SOE agents. After a dangerous climb up a steep cliff, the team successfully destroyed the plant’s  production facilities.
  3. Operation Jedburgh – This operation involved the deployment of three-man SOE teams to support the French resistance in France. They were made up of one officer each from the British Army, the Free French Forces, and the United States Army. The teams parachuted into France and coordinated resistance activities in the field. They were tasked with harassing the German forces and sabotaging their supply lines.
  1. Operation Musketoon – This was a sabotage mission against another heavy water plant in Norway. It was planned and led by the British SOE and was carried out on the night of 16–17 February 1943 by a team of Norwegian saboteurs and British SOE agents. The team managed to successfully sabotage the plant, destroying the Germans’ heavy water production facilities.
  2. Operation Cherokee – This operation witnessed the deployment of SOE agents to support Italian partisans in northern Italy. It was planned and led by the British SOE and was carried out in the winter of 1944–1945. The operation was successful in supplying the Italian partisans with weapons, ammunition, and other essential supplies.
  3. Operation Foxley – This was a plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler. It was planned and led by the British SOE and was scheduled to take place in June 1944. However, the operation was cancelled after the Allied invasion of France.
  4. Operation Postmaster – This was a mission to steal German and Italian ships from a Spanish port in the gulf of Guinea and sail the ships to Lagos. This was a joint SOE and SSRF (Small Scale Raiding Force) mission and was an unqualified success.
  5. Operation Doctor – This was an operation to send an SOE team to assassinate German General Erwin Rommel while he was in Tunisia. The mission was planned and led by the British SOE, but it was cancelled before it could be carried out.

How the Agents Trained

The soldiers were trained in a variety of physical, tactical and mental skills. They received instruction in basic combat infantry tactics, such as small-unit tactics, patrolling, ambushes, battle drills, and weapons training. They also learned basic first aid, navigation, and survival skills, as well as how to operate and maintain military equipment.

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Additionally, they received instruction in espionage and counter-espionage techniques.

The SOE
Members of SOE in France 1944. Although looking like a ragtag group they were deadly.

SOE agents used a variety of equipment, including weapons, explosives, radios, cameras, maps, and other tools. Agents typically carried a handgun, a Sten gun, a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, and a Fairbairn-Sykes dagger.

They also carried explosives, such as plastic explosives and incendiary bombs, and various types of radio equipment. They used cameras to take photographs of targets and maps to plan operations. They also carried specialized tools such as lock picks and code-breaking devices.

The SOE also ran schools and training camps to teach its agents the skills they needed to be successful in their missions.

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By the end of the war, the SOE had trained over 13,000 agents and sent over 3,000 on missions into enemy-occupied Europe.

SOE Training Schools

The SOE had a network of training schools where agents received specialized instruction in various fields. For example, the Special Training School 21 at Arisaig House in Scotland taught agents sabotage, demolition, small arms and unarmed combat, and radio communication. This became known as commando training.

At the Special Training School 51 in Altrincham Cheshire, agents received instruction in parachute jumping at RAF Ringway. This is now Manchester Airport.

The Special Training School 31 at Beaulieu in England provided instruction in clandestine operations, such as resisting interrogation and creating false identities. In addition to these schools, there were also specialized courses in cryptography, guerrilla warfare, and survival skills. Beaulieu was seen as a finishing school, where agents went before field deployment.

The SOE also had a number of other training schools. For example, the Special Training School 17 at Brickendonbury in England taught agents sabotage techniques.

The Special Training School 103 at Camp-X in Canada provided instruction in disguise, evasion, and mobility. There were also other schools set up. SOE Cairo set up a training school (STS 102) in Haifa.

SOE Weapons

Welrod pistol
A Welrod Mk I silent pistol. Simple but very effective.

The Welrod was a suppressed semi-automatic pistol developed by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II designed to be used in clandestine operations. It was made of steel and had an integral silencer to reduce the noise of the gunshot. It fired a .32 ACP round and had a wooden or metal grip. It was used by SOE agents in Europe during the war and was a favourite of many agents for its quietness and reliability.

The Fairbairn-Sykes (FS) knife is a double-edged dagger-style combat knife developed by William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes for use by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II. It was designed to be used in silent killing, and its double-edged blade allowed for quick and effective slashing and thrusting attacks. The knife had a wooden handle with grooves for a secure grip, and a crossguard to protect the user’s hand. It was made of hardened steel and was resistant to corrosion. The FS knife was widely used by SOE agents in Europe during the war and is still used today by many special forces units.

What Wireless Sets Did the Agents Use?

SOE agents used a variety of wireless sets for communication. The most commonly used sets were the Mark II, Mark III and Mark IV sets. The Mark II was a lightweight, portable set that operated on two frequencies and had a range of up to 12 miles. The Mark III was a more powerful set that had a range of up to 20 miles and operated on three frequencies. The Mark IV was the most powerful set and had a range of up to 50 miles and operated on five frequencies.

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Setting up the wireless sets could be quite difficult, as the agents had to take into account the terrain, weather conditions, and other factors. The agents had to be careful to prepare the sets in a way that did not reveal their position to the enemy. In addition, the agents had to be familiar with how to operate the sets and troubleshoot any problems that might arise.

Secret Radio
A secret MK II receiver and transmitter. These were often hidden in suitcases.

The SOE’s Effectiveness

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a highly effective force during World War II. The SOE’s operations behind enemy lines were a key factor in the Allied victory, as they disrupted enemy supply lines, provided intelligence, and gathered crucial information. SOE agents also carried out sabotage operations, aiding the resistance movements in occupied countries.

The SOE’s actions helped turn the tide of the war and contributed to the Allied victory. The SOE also provided support to the resistance movements in the form of weapons, supplies, and training, allowing the resistance to carry out critical operations against the enemy. The SOE’s actions were instrumental in the Allied victory and the defeat of the Axis forces.