In the dark days that followed the fall of France a new volunteer fighting force was hastily improvised to wage a secret war against Hitler’s armies. This force was called the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and their mission was sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines.
Sabotage meant blowing up trains, bridges and factories whilst subversion meant fostering revolt or guerrilla warfare in all enemy and enemy-occupied countries. On July 16, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed a civilian, Hugh Dalton, to be SOE’s political master and then promptly ordered him to ‘set Europe ablaze!’
Bold words indeed from Churchill considering that SOE only had a few agents in the field and no effective wireless communications.Senior staff in SOE were invariably ex-public school and Oxbridge, but the agents came from all walks and included a former chef, an electrician, several journalists and the daughter of a Brixton motor-car dealer.
In November 1940, as the Luftwaffe pounded Central London, SOE set-up its first headquarters in two family flats off Baker Street. From this unlikely venue SOE began to recruit men and women to fill their ranks.
At the same time SOE’s new head of training and operations, Colonel Colin Gubbins, began to requisition properties across the country to act as agent training bases. In mansions that stretched from the Highlands to the New Forest agents were taught how to kill with their bare hands; how to disguise themselves; how to derail a train; and even how to get out of a pair of handcuffs with a piece of thin wire and a diary pencil.
If an agent survived these tests and a gruelling parachute course they were ready to go.
School for Danger: SOE & French Resistance Fight the German Occupation – Restored 1945
British Secret intelligence of WW2
WW2: The O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services)