Sabotage and subversion were the two main goals for the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). British Prime Minister Winston Churchill created the SOE in July 1940 to counteract German brutality by means of sabotage and subversion. SOE sabotage campaigns intended to damage the German economy through the destruction of railroads, electrical and chemical plants. Subversion, on the other hand, supplied the underground resistance fighters with weapons and equipment. The SOE and the French resistance fighters (the Maquis) carried on a wartime relationship that combined both sabotage and subversion campaigns. Churchill gave Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, responsibility of the SOE and famously told Dalton to “set Europe ablaze.”
As an organization, the SOE had many responsibilities. They gathered intelligence through code breaking as well as through wireless communication with the agents in the field. Workers produced new weapons and gadgetry while others research and recruited. Although the majority of the SOE’s estimated 13,000 personnel worked in offices and factories, most of their efforts went to assist their agents behind enemy lines. In order to carry out sabotage and subversive actions, the SOE needed to send men and women into Europe, North Africa and Asia.
At different points during the war, the SOE targeted separate areas that were important to the German war effort. In the beginning, German petroleum stocks were targeted. The war then moved to the seas because the Germans built up a navy that contested the force of the British navy. The agents changed their focus to the U-boat production facilities. German transport (railroads) and communications lines suffered greatly at the hands of the SOE agents. Railroad sabotage played an imperative role in slowing down the Germans and their allies. Instead of destroying the trains themselves, SOE targeted weak spots that would be harder to repair, such as turntables and rail switches. Agents also demolished bridges and highways in an effort to divert German troops to narrow, country roads where the resistance fighters could then ambush their enemies. Sabotage also had psychological motives. The SOE hoped that workers and troops would become too frightened to work.
Terry Crowdy, in his research on the SOE, discusses Operation Gunnerside, just one of many covert operations undertaken during the war.
One of the most famous operations of the war was the attack on the Norsk-Hydro heavy water plant at Vemork [Norway] on the night of 27/28 February 1943. Heavy water was needed for the production of plutonium and so the loss of the plant held up the German nuclear bomb project indefinitely. After a long ski journey, the party of ten saboteurs approached the plant by climbing down a ravine the Germans had considered impassable. After cutting the padlock to a gate, the saboteurs rushed into the plant and began setting explosive charges on the cylinders containing the heavy water. A Norwegian night watchman was found and held at gunpoint. Just as the team were about to set 30-second fuses, the night watchman asked them to wait while he went and collected his spectacles. With war shortages he said he would be unlikely to find new ones. The saboteurs agreed to wait. Once the charges were set, the team left a Thompson submachine gun behind to show that this had been the work of regular commandos, not an act of resistance by the local population that might result in hostage-taking or reprisal killings .
Since the founding of SOE, and through its lifetime, there was a bitter rivalry between the SOE and MI6, the longstanding British intelligence gathering agency. Formal priority was given to MI6 over the SOE, but there was always a conflict of interest between the organizations in both the intelligence gathering and special operations areas. MI6 accused the SOE of intentionally sabotaging MI6 by drawing the enemy’s attention to MI6’s operations. The SOE accused MI6 of conjuring up false reports with the mere intention of breaking down the SOE. (There is no solid evidence to support either side). Additionally, the SOE and MI6 disputed over the control of wireless communications. In the early years of the war, MI6 handled all of the traffic signals, including those belonging to the SOE. The SOE accused the MI6’s signal chief of holding back certain vital information before passing it on to the SOE.
The SOE also had disagreements with the Royal Air Force (RAF). The SOE stated that the RAF’s bombs often did not hit the intended target and damaged and killed a large number of towns and civilians. The SOE stated that these miss-targeted bombs made the SOE’s efforts in recruiting resistance fighters difficult due to the lack of trust between the civilians and SOE. The SOE also stated that bombing was useless because of the inaccuracy and insisted that an agent with plastic explosives could do the job with more accuracy and with less causalities. Other people criticized the SOE for its excessively dangerous work. They said that the capture of SOE agents and transmitters hindered the intelligence gathering. In addition, the damage done by double agents and the high casualty rate among agents (particularly radio operators) were too excessive, the war ended before substantial change could be done to counteract the high casualty rate.
Immediately following the war, Churchill ordered that the SOE be disbanded and its records destroyed. The best SOE personnel were offered work within MI6 and the SOE’s functions and departments folded into MI6. Specific information about the SOE is still scarce, such as the agent information and mission details. This is because the files either were destroyed or are not yet unclassified. If an agent was killed or presumed killed in action, their files were simply destroyed because they were of no further use to the agency.
Over the course of the war, the SOE and its agents were effective in wreaking havoc on their enemies. SOE historian M.R.D. Foot quoted the Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, who praised the efforts of the SOE:
In no previous war, and in no other theatre during this war, have resistance forces been so closely harnessed to the main military effort. . . . I consider that the disruption of enemy rail communications, the harassing of German road moves and the continual and increasing strain placed on the German war economy and internal security services throughout occupied Europe by the organized forces of resistance, played a very considerable part in our complete and final victory .
– Unlike the military, the SOE readily recruited women for front-line duty. The majority of women worked as secretaries or typist while a large number also worked as wireless transmitters and operators. In addition to these positions, women served as covert agents behind enemy lines. There were forty-nine female agents in France alone. The Germans captured fifteen of those agents and twelve dead in concentration camps after brutal interrogations.
– Ian Fleming, the creator of the infamous spy James Bond, has close connections with the SOE. His brother, Captain Peter Fleming worked with the SOE on a couple of missions. It has been asserted that a few Bond characters were shaped from real SOE members. In Casino Royale, the character of “Vesper Lynd” was modeled after Krystyna Skarbek, a Polish SOE agent known more as Christine Granville. Also, it has been stated that a part of Fleming’s inspiration for “Miss Moneypenny” came from Vera Atkins. Atkins was an intelligence officer in the SOE and recruited female agents. She was second in command of the French section of the SOE.
– During the war, the United States created the Office of Strategic Service (OSS) in partnership with the SOE and it was common for both agencies to carry out missions together. The OSS was the predecessor for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and had recruited a number of famous people such as Julia Child (before she became a famous cook), baseball player Moe Berg, film director John Ford and German actress Marlene Dietrich.
[Zim’s Note: Espionage is a vast historical topic often shrouded in mystery, but if one can get past their preconceived ideas of what espionage is, it really is a fascinating subject. I have been interested in the SOE since undergrad, when I did research on female SOE agents. This post only scratches the surface of the SOE, if you are interested in this particular topic take a look below at Further Reading where I have listed the sources I consulted. Check back for more upcoming posts on the SOE and its agents. Trust me when I say that James Bond looks like an amateur compared to some of these agents!]
Cookridge, E.H. Set Europe Ablaze. New York: Crowell, 1967.
Crowdy, Terry. SOE Agent: Churchill’s Secret Warriors. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.
Foot, M.R.D. SOE in France: An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive in France, 1940-1944. Oxford: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1984.
Funk, Arthur Layton. Hidden Ally: The French Resistance, Special Operations, and the Landings in Southern France. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Herrington, Ian. “The SIS and SOE in Norwary 1940-1945: Conflict or Co-operation?” War in History 9, no. 1 (2002): 82-110.
Marks, Leo. Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945. New York: Touchstone: 1998.
Strafford, David. Britain and European Resistance, 1940-1945: A Survey of the Special Operations Executive. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.