Remembering the Secret War Against the Nazis

Seventy years ago this week, Winston Churchill approved the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British secret service ordered to ‘set Europe ablaze’.

Born in the darkest days of the war, SOE was tasked with encouraging Resistance in occupied countries, carrying out sabotage and training guerilla fighters. In the course of the war it dropped thousands of agents behind enemy lines to destroy the Nazi war effort from within. Known to insiders as ‘The Firm or ‘The Racket’, the regular armed services and MI6 considered it a group of dangerous amateurs, but the bravery of SOE’s agents became legendary.

Recruits came from every walk of life. Shop assistants, lawyers, travelling acrobats and grand prix drivers were all ‘specially employed’ as agents, many of them having fled countries under Nazi occupation. The average life expectancy of an agent was a few months. For wireless operators, whose transmissions could be tracked by German counter-intelligence, it was just six weeks. At secluded country estates converted into training schools, students learned how to blow up bridges and trains, send morse code, live off the land and handle all kinds of weaponry. Their teachers included fieldcraft expert and author of ‘Ring of Bright Water’ Gavin Maxwell, former royal gamekeeper ‘Nobby’ Clark, two specialists in silent killing known as the ‘heavenly twins’, and double-agent Kim Philby, who gave lectures on propaganda at the ‘finishing school’ at Beaulieu before moving to MI6.

Contrary to the romantic portrayals of SOE’s heroes and heroines, working undercover offered little glamour. Most agents lived in a constant state of anxiety, never knowing when they might be given away by local informers. As Resistance groups were in desperate need of arms and supplies, they also faced enormous workloads. Arranging parachute drops, building relationships with rival factions and maintaining radio contact with London soon drained even the toughest operatives.

One of the best circuit organisers in France, Maurice Southgate, was so exhausted after a fortnight of non-stop meetings that he missed the danger signal in the window of a Montluçon safe house he was visiting, and walked straight into a police trap. Flung into a cell for the night, he later reported that ‘for the first time in many, many weeks I had a very sound sleep on the concrete floor’. Fellow organiser Harry Peulevé, operating in nearby Brive-la-Gaillarde, took a break from lookout duty for a few moments, just long enough for two Gestapo cars to pull up outside his hideout. These minor slips cost them dearly. Both were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp, and were lucky to survive. Nearly a quarter of their section did not.

Agents were offered ‘L’ (for lethal) pills before leaving on their missions, as an alternative to facing torture. Gestapo methods of interrogation included the baignoire, near drowning victims in a bath to make them talk; similar medieval practices were also common. The majority of prisoners were deported to Germany or Poland, where they were executed in the last months of the war.

SOE’s big successes included blowing up the Gorgopotamous bridge in Greece, and the stopping of heavy water production at Rjukan in Norway in 1943, foiling the Nazi atomic bomb programme. It also caused havoc on D-Day, disrupting communication lines and tying down German forces to prevent them repelling the Normandy beachheads. Numerous guerrilla attacks delayed the Das Reich Panzer division by more than a fortnight, and in August 1944 Francis Cammaerts’ ‘Jockey’ circuit held open the Route Napoléon for American forces landing along the Cote d’Azur, enabling them to travel unhindered from Cannes up to Grenoble, arriving months ahead of schedule.

There were more unusual victories too. ‘The Racket’ lived up to its name with Operation Remorse, a black market scam run by Walter Fletcher, a half-Austrian smuggler described by one SOE chief as ‘a thug with good commercial contacts’. By selling Swiss watches, diamonds and foreign currencies to Chinese traders at vastly inflated prices, Fletcher made a killing – profits were estimated to be more than £70 million, about £2 billion today.

But SOE also had its fair share of disasters. In 1942 the Dutch section of German military intelligence began the Englandspiel – England game – transmitting bogus messages using captured wireless sets. SOE were duped into continuing their parachute operations, and more than fifty Dutch agents were dropped straight into German hands; a similar operation in France also carried on for a year. After the war a theory circulated that SOE sacrificed them as part of a deception strategy, to obscure the Allied invasion plans. Similar speculations about MI6 sabotaging SOE’s operations in France – also unfounded – have dogged its reputation ever since.

No fewer than five George Crosses were awarded to SOE agents. Three went to women: Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan (the last two were posthumous). Sansom and Szabo became popular post-war heroines after biographies Odette and Carve her Name with Pride were published, both of which were turned into films in the 1950s. The other two went to Forest Yeo-Thomas – the celebrated ‘White Rabbit’ of the French Resistance – and Arthur Nicholls, who died serving with a British Mission to Albania in 1944.