SOE Agents attacking a railway line in France. Credit
History

Sabotage And Subversion: The Secret Operations Of The SOE

A closer look at the Special Operations Executive of WWII and its top secret work

SOE Agents attacking a railway line in France. Credit

Kidnapping German Generals, blowing up factories and infiltrating the water supply of a laundrette with itching powder … three real examples of the top-secret war time operations of the SOE, or to give it its full name, the Special Operations Executive.

In 1940, to take on the specific tasks of frustrating the enemy with acts of subversion, a new, top secret organisation called the Special Operations Executive was established under the orders of Winston Churchill

The SOE was established to work abroad, initially in occupied Europe, but later in places as far afield as South-East Asia, conducting missions that were designed to grind the enemy down, not just in terms of operational readiness, but also by attacking their morale.

To do this, the SOE worked almost continuously with local resistance fighters on the ground, and during the five years of the Second World War it was operational the SOE pulled off some incredible acts of daring do. 

SOE agents were frequently captured, tortured and in many cases, executed by the Gestapo.

Here, we take a closer look at the war operations of one of Britain’s most secret organisations… the Special Operations Executive.

Origins

At the outbreak of World War Two there were three sections within MI6 working separately at matters related to intelligence gathering.

The work being carried out by the different groups covered researching the enemy and preparing plans for a possible German invasion of Britain.

Searching questions like how we should manage relationships with foreign resistance fighters, how we should even manage relationships with our own resistance groups should an invasion occur, and important assessments about which pieces of vital infrastructure should be denied to the enemy, were all crucial decisions that needed to be made. 

When Winston Churchill became Prime Minster, he saw that in some respects work was overlapping between the three departments while trying to thrash out such plans, so he and the cabinet decided on bringing them together into one, single sabotage organisation, separate from the activities from the rest of MI6. It would be called the Special Operations Executive.

Upon the formation of the SOE, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said:

“Now go and set Europe ablaze.”

As a demonstration of the plans he had in store, Hugh Dalton, the minister appointed to oversee it, modelled the SOE on that of the IRA during the Irish War of Independence.

Dalton initially started SOE with three departments.

SO1 dealt with propaganda, SO2 focused on operations, and SO3 looked continuously at research.

Evidently, this did not work, so within 12 months department three was merged into SO2, and, following quarrels between government personalities, SO1 (propaganda) was removed from the SOE altogether. The organisation thus became purely operational focused, with control of its own planning and recruitment needs.

From mid-1941, the SOE was made up of numerous sections each given a letter to represent the country in which they would conduct operations.

Some countries had more than one section assigned to it, France had no less than six.

Speaking to BFBS, the author and journalist Michael Smith, whose titles include The Anatomy of A Spy and Britain’s Secret War, discussed how SOE was born out of MI6 and what its operations were intended to include.

Michael Smith said: "Their role really was to guide resistance organisations in what they should do, and how they could best help by destroying railway lines, communications, or by destroying factories that might be productive for the Germans."

Secrecy

The SOE was top secret. In fact, so secret were its operations that each section within SOE had its own headquarters and training establishment. To further conceal the organisation, it was often officially referred to by other names, including the Inter-Service Research Board.

Unofficially, the SOE was dubbed Churchill’s Secret Army and those who worked for it were nicknamed the Baker Street Irregulars in reference to the location of its London base.

So few people knew of its existence that in 1942, exiled governments of five nations collectively called upon the British to establish a single sabotage organisation, and were staggered to learn that actually, there had been one in operation for two years already.

SOE Manual 1943. Credit: Harper Collins.

Every SOE recruit was given the training manual, How To Be An Agent In Occupied Europe. Credit: Harper Collins. 

In 2014, The National Archives released the official 1943 SOE Manual, How To Be An Agent In Occupied Europe - a training guide given to all SOE recruits - which was subsequently published by Harper Collins.

Throughout the manual, frequently, prospective-agents are reminded of the utmost secrecy required in relation to working for SOE:

“You must never recognise anyone whom you have met here if you happen to meet them elsewhere, except on official business.”

In another paragraph, somewhat anxiously agents are told:

“The agent, unlike the soldier, who has many friends, is surrounded by enemies, seen and unseen. He cannot even be certain of the people of his own nationality who are apparently friendly. The agent must, therefore, remember that, like primitive men in the jungle, he has only his alertness, initiative and observation to help him.”

SOE Agents

The SOE attracted recruits from all walks of life.

Although at the time and for many years after, information surrounding the identities of agents were kept as state secrets, nowadays it is known that the talent found within SOE ranged from aristocrats through to convicted, even imprisoned criminals.

But most agents recruited to SOE were regular soldiers from various branches of the army. It attracted the sort of men and women who would today be interested in a career in the SAS.

Other recruits to SOE included several members of the Jewish Parachutists of Mandate Palestine, who had earlier fled Nazi oppression and had signed up to operate as part of British intelligence.

Of these Jewish agents, seven were captured and executed by the Gestapo.

Some foreign recruits to SOE had a somewhat strained relationship with the officers commanding the organisation. Those agents’ allegiance lay primarily with the exiled leaders of their occupied nations, Charles de Gaulle for example, and saw the Special Operations Executive as a means to an end.

In a similar vein the SOE itself held relationships, albeit at arm’s length, with organisations it may otherwise not have wanted to engage with, working with the likes of the Soviet NKVD, the precursor of the KGB.

Other groups of people employed by the SOE included gay men, communists, bank robbers, anti-British nationalists and soldiers from the armed forces with bad conduct records.

The SOE took the view that if you were made of the kind of stuff required to conduct the secretive, murky and often below-the-belt nature of the work associated with guerrilla warfare, there was a place for you in the outfit.

The Special Operations Executive was happy to take on just about anybody that was able to deliver. And interestingly, not one instance of betrayal can be found in the pages of SOE history.

They had chosen the right people.

Below, author and journalist Michael Smith outlines the characteristics of a typical SOE agent, and the danger they faced when deployed to places like occupied France.

One such recruit to SOE was the now renowned agent, Odette Hallowes.

Odette was born and raised in France, marrying a British businessman called Roy, who, upon outbreak of war, returned to England with his wife to enlist in the Army.

In 1942, Odette wrote to the War Office outlining some information she thought may be of use, based on her knowledge of France. This information found its way to the SOE, who considered that a native, French-speaking woman like Odette would make a perfect agent for their clandestine operations. She was recruited to SOE.

In 1950, Odette’s story was turned into a major film.

A year after entering the SOE, Odette was captured alongside two other agents in occupied France. In the weeks and months following her arrest, Odette was tortured, beaten, starved almost to death and sentenced to be shot. Twice.

Odette Hollowes Royal Mail stamp.

The Royal Mail issued a stamp in celebration of Odette Hollowes in 2012. Credit: Shutterstock / neftali.

But throughout her terrible internment, she never once gave away a single secret.

Later, she would be awarded the George Cross – the first woman ever to receive the honour – and would be made Legion d’honneur by France. She would go on to live well into her 80s, dying in 1995 fifty years after the end of the war.

Odette Hollowes was one of 3,200 women to serve as agents in the SOE during World War Two.

Operations 

In the book The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader, edited by Michael Smith, SOE activities were discussed frequently in the chapters associated with World War Two.

The book, a compendium of spy writing, included an excerpt from Xavier, written by former SOE agent Richard Heslop. Heslop worked under cover as a French factory worker near Lyon by day, but plotted attacks against the Germans by night.

“Then, all at once, the lights in the room came on and a girl’s voice ordered: ‘Stay where you are. Don’t move.’

“I swung to my left and saw a pretty young girl of twenty-three or twenty-four standing there dressed in a white blouse and blue skirt. In her right hand she held a pistol which was pointing straight at me, but wavering so much the muzzle seemed to be blurred. I fired from the hip. She fired at the same time. Her shot hit the ceiling, mine hit her in the left breast, and I had the crazy thought that my pistol instructor would be proud of me. The heavy .45 bullet flung her across the room and she crashed on her back on the floor. She gasped and started to moan, and the blood seeped into her trim white blouse.

“I should have shot her in the head, snatched the plans and run before the noise of the shots brought searches.

“But I was sickened because I had shot such a pretty girl, so I put down my gun, knelt on the floor beside her and cradled her head in my lap. I stayed like that for some minutes, as the girl gasped her last breaths, and then died.”

Heslop went on to say that the plans in question were that of railway movements carrying German equipment for the war effort in France. However, it turned out that the plans were less significant than he had originally hoped for.

The Secret Agent's Bedside Reader. Credit: Biteback.

Michael Smith edited the Secret Agent's Bedside Reader, published by Biteback. Credit: Biteback. 

Explosive Destruction

Attacking train carriages and sections of railway ware tasks SOE agents frequently found themselves carrying out. Missions like this were discussed in another book, World War II Allied Sabotage Devices And Booby Traps, by Gordon L. Rottman.

In it, Rottman said: "Railroad sabotage was one of the most frequent partisan activities in all theatres of war. Rail lines were difficult to guard effectively; they required only a small amount of explosive to cut; and the payoff was high, both in terms of damage to trains and in the delays caused.”

This sort of sabotage was included, as you would have expected, in the 1943 SOE manual How To Be An Agent In Occupied Europe. But interestingly, the handbook pointed out that the significance of attacking something like a railway line wasn’t necessarily the destruction caused initially.  

“But there is another aspect as well. Whenever a major act of sabotage occurs, the Gestapo swarm all over the district to make enquiries, and they nearly always result in recommendations for increased guards on these or other points. The more extra sentries we can get posted at points we do not intend to attack the better. If we can get whole police battalions diverted to certain areas it is better still.”

SOE Agents attacking a railway line in France. Credit
SOE Agents would work with resistance fighters on the ground to carry out sabotage operations (image from 'World War II Allied Sabotage Devices and Booby Traps' by Gordon L Rottman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Blowing up infrastructure like railroads was something SOE agents practiced again and again during training, and with the help of resistance fighters on the ground it was something they became masterful in.

Rottman picked this up in further detail:

“One-man or woman would provide close-in protection, while others would be posted as lookouts further down the tracks in both directions and on their planned escape route. Preferably, they cut rail lines some distance from villages, in the (often vain) hope that the Germans would not carry out reprisals against innocent hostages.”

Reprisals

Reprisals against hostages and innocent civilians were an on-going thorn in the side of the SOE commanders.

The SOE had an often-difficult relationship with the Foreign Office, and specifically with the exiled governments of occupied countries, because of Nazi revenge attacks.

When SOE agents conducted their guerrilla operations, the Gestapo retaliated and frequently that retaliation was by murdering swathes of local innocent civilians, sometimes including whole villages.

Kidnap and Itching Powder

Other operations included that of Ben Cowburn, whom at Troyes one night successfully blew up six railway engines, causing a major blow to Axis operations in the area. Cowburn is also credited with arranging for a consignment of itching powder finding its way into the water supply of a French laundrette.

The facility was the laundrette of choice for many German soldiers and officials, including Gestapo Officers. Operations like this were designed to cause frustration, chipping away little by little on the morale of small sections of the German war effort.

In April 1944, SOE agents Patrick Leigh Fermor and Billy Moss succeeded in kidnapping German General, Heinrich Kreipe.

Working alongside Greek resistance fighters on the island of Crete, the two men mounted the mission with the initial intention of kidnapping another General, a man dubbed locally as the Butcher of Crete, but changed targets after their intended abductee left the island early.

Not wanting to let all the planning and preparation go to waste, Fermor and Moss decided to grab the other General anyway, managing to drive him through 22 Nazi checkpoints in his own car, before defiltration off the south of the island and on to Egypt.

Vemork hydroelectric power plant

The Vemork Hydroelectric Power Plant today. In 1943, a large section of it was destroyed by SOE agents and a subsequent bombing by Allied forces. Credit: Shutterstock.

German Atomic Bomb

Perhaps one of the most famous operations carried out by SOE trained agents was that of the sabotage of the Norwegian Heavy Water facility at Telemark.

Heavy Water is a by-product of Nitrogen and at the time, the Germans were using it to aid the development of an atomic weapon.

In October 1942, the SOE infiltrated a group of Commando trained Norwegian resistance fighters at locations close to the hydroelectric plant. In February the following year, those SOE trained Commandos destroyed the facility by covertly placing explosives in key locations.

After the explosions, production of Heavy Water was halted for some months, but as some of the hydroelectric facility remained, Allied forces followed-up the operation with a large scale bombing raid, resulting in the Germans abandoning the atomic bomb production at the facility.

Like those of Odette Hallowes, the actions of the SOE trained agents at Telemark were tuned into a big budget Hollywood movie starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris in 1965. The film was called The Heroes of Telemark.

Post War

When the war ended, the SOE was absorbed into Mi6.

Many of the agents moved into positions where their core skills of sabotage and subversion could be put to use in the planning for possible future conflicts.

The world in the post war years of the late forties and early fifties was an incredibly fragile place, and as the Cold War became a reality, former SOE agents found themselves tasked with planning operations for what was feared to be a third world war.

According to Michael Smith, those post WWII planning operations were not entirely desk-bound:

“In some countries, obviously Soviet Union was one of those, Poland as well, Iran, there were officers sent in who’d been in SOE, who were now absorbed into Mi6 into what was called the Special Operations Branch.

“Their responsibility was to prepare for war. So, what would you do if there was a war, how would you set that up? Talk to opposition groups obviously. A lot of that stuff went on, and also arms caches being buried, things like that.

“Nowadays of course you send in the SAS or SBS to see what you should do if we are going to have a war with a country. For example, Zimbabwe under Mugabe, the SAS repeatedly went in to check evacuation routes out for British civilians. That sort of work was done then by Mi6.”

In the final part of Michael Smith’s interview with BFBS, the true-life spy writer discussed how work like that of the SOE is conducted to this day.

Eighty years on from the formation of the SOE and its subsequent sabotage operations, it might be amusing to read of missions like that of putting itching powder into laundrettes, but when coupled with stories including preventing Hitler from producing atomic weapons, its easy to conclude that the Special Operations Executive played one of the most important factors in securing victory over the Axis in World War Two. 

And the bravery displayed by agents like Odette Hallowes and Ben Cowburn is still evident in the way our special forces and intelligence services conduct operations ... keeping Britain safe from the modern threats of today.

For more on sabotage tactics, read 'World War II Allied Sabotage Devices and Booby Traps' by Gordon L Rottman, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Michael Smith’s The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader, published by Biteback, is available now. He is also the author of The Anatomy of a Spy, published by History Press.

The SOE Manual: How To Be An Agent In Occupied Europe was published by William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins, and is available online and via Kindle.