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SOE  (Special Operations Executive)

Courtesy of the Special Forces Club web site:

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was created in the summer of 1940 by the amalgamation of three existing organisations. They were: Section D of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), led by Major Laurence Grand of the Royal Engineers, which for two years had been developing plans and resources for undermining Germany’s economy and war potential by such unconventional means as sabotage, subversion and propaganda, but which had begun to get out of control since Grand’s imagination and enthusiasm were not matched by his management ability; MI(R) a ‘think-tank’ of the Military Intelligence Directorate of the War Office, led by Major J.C.F. (‘Joe’) Holland, another Royal Engineer whose staff, among many other initiatives, had made a deep study of the doctrine and methods of guerrilla warfare and had developed the first Special Forces training school at Inverailort in Scotland; and Electra House (EH), the secret propaganda arm of the Foreign Office, formed by Sir Campbell Stuart after the Munich crisis.

SOE’s creation was preceded by some weeks of discussion among ministers and senior officials of the Foreign Office, War Office, Ministry of Economic Warfare and SIS. During these, Hugh Dalton, the dynamic socialist Minister of Economic Warfare, campaigned to be given responsibility for the new organisation, arguing that the best way to defeat the German occupation of Europe was to combine normal military operations from outside with ‘war from within;’ and ‘to coordinate, inspire, control and assist’ opposition, resistance and uprisings by the nationals of all occupied countries.

He also maintained that this task would be more appropriate to the Ministry for Economic Warfare than to the Foreign Office, which oversaw SIS, or to the Armed Services Ministries. Churchill did not like Dalton personally but was enthusiastic about the concept. He decided to accept these arguments and ended his final discussion with Dalton with the words (according to Dalton’s own account):

                                                                      “... and now, set Europe ablaze!"
This quotation has come to be seen as Churchill's founding command to SOE. The less dramatic official definition of SOE’s role was: 'to coordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas.' And in fact it was not only in Europe that SOE operated but world-wide, although naturally its main thrusts were in the Axis-occupied territories of Europe and the Middle and Far East. The development of SOE as an organisation took place at remarkable speed, largely due to Dalton’s dynamism (he became known as ‘Doctor Dynamo’) and his choice of senior staff to lead the organisation. He chose as his CEO Gladwyn Jebb (later Lord Gladwyn), a senior Foreign Office official who was an experienced Whitehall operator thoroughly familiar with the intelligence community.

He became the architect and exponent of SOE’s official policy and structure. Grand, the head of Section D was sacked by Dalton and replaced as chief of the sabotage component of SOE by Sir Frank Nelson, a former Conservative MP who had been SIS’ representative in Basle, which ensured the initial support of the Chief of SIS. SOE’s Director of Operations and Training, with the symbol ‘M’, was Brigadier, (later Major-General Sir) Colin Gubbins, a multi-lingual officer who had worked for MI(R), had written the official Army manuals on guerrilla warfare, which he had studied in various countries, and had trained and commanded special military units in the Norwegian campaign, the Independent Companies, which were the predecessors of the Commandos.

This team, building on a nucleus of the most effective Section D Officers, recruited staff from industrial, commercial and city firms with experience of doing business in foreign countries. Nelson, for example, appointed Sir Charles Hambro, the banker with strong Scandinavian connections, as his Deputy. Senior staff of Courtaulds and of Slaughter and May were among those recruited, the latter giving rise to the joke that SOE was ‘all may and no slaughter’.

They also drew from the Armed Services staff-trained officers who were good planners and organisers and others who had specialist skills, e.g., in intelligence, demolition, small arms and training, or who had served in different countries and had local knowledge and languages.

This mixture of talents proved highly creative and energetic and an effective new Service was created within a few months. Its Headquarters was in 64 Baker Street and it gradually took over several more buildings in the area. Theatre Headquarters were duly established with GHQ Middle East in Cairo and in India and SEAC, where the guerrilla support operations required by Theatre Commanders, e.g., for Greece and Yugoslavia and Burma and Malaya, were more para-military and less clandestine in character than in occupied Europe.

The close cooperation of the Allied Governments in exile in London and their free forces was quickly engaged. Even before the USA came into the war, SOE was helping to advise and train officers of its future Office of Strategic Services at the request of General William (Bill’) Donovan. This was arranged by Donovan’s First World War friend, William (later knighted) Stephenson, a Canadian businessman who had run his own industrial and economic intelligence service before the war, which he had placed at the disposal of SIS, and who was appointed by Churchill as the chief representative in the US and the Western Hemisphere of all British clandestine services for the duration of the war. Stephenson’s close relationship with Donovan and, through him, with Roosevelt did much to help bring the US into the War.

SOE quickly set up training schools in requisitioned country houses (which earned it the jibe that its initials stood for the ‘Stately ‘Omes of England’). Eventually it had some 60, mainly in the UK, but one in Canada and some in the Middle and Far East. The training programme devised for agents by Gubbins was enormously thorough.

After selection, especially for linguistic ability and motivation, and initial training and assessment within separate national groups, came para-military training in a whole range of special military skills (weapons, demolitions, small boats, survival, silent killing and a great deal of physical exercise) in one of the training schools in the Scottish highlands.

This was followed, as necessary, by parachute training at Ringway and then Finishing Training at Beaulieu in Hampshire, in separate houses on the estate for agents of different nationalities. The training covered the knowledge and skills necessary to support clandestine living and operating in the various occupied countries (local situation, security forces, avoiding attracting attention, resisting interrogation, recruiting, training and running agents, etc.)

There were separate specialist schools for communications and industrial sabotage. In the schools in the Middle and Far East, as well as agents, seconded Armed Services officers were trained in guerrilla warfare techniques for infiltration as British Liaison Officers to support local resistance forces.

SOE further expanded the R and D establishments which SOE had inherited from Section D and MI(R). These were already developing new methods and devices for sabotage and a whole range of equipment for clandestine warfare. These included the invention of the Sten gun and the Limpet Mine, the folding canoe (Folboat) time-delay detonators, and a variety of explosive devices, which were made available to other SF.  The full catalogue of equipment produced by these establishments has been published by The National Archives.

The first SOE-trained agents were parachuted into France in mid-1941, by which time plans for operations in several other countries were well advanced. SIS soon began to see SOE as a threat to its own operations, a competitor for scarce resources (potential agents of different nationalities, communications equipment and operators, aircraft, small boats, etc.) and as an uncomfortably noisy neighbour stirring up local security services by their aggressive operations in countries where SIS needed to run its intelligence agents without attracting hostile attention. There thus developed considerable tension between the two services for the rest of the war, although this seldom interfered with relations at the operational level, which were usually constructive and cooperative.

By 1946, when SOE was wound up, it had records in London of some 40,000 people, including FANY members, seconded servicemen and agents of many nationalities, who had worked in and with it at home and overseas during the course of the war. There were many more locally-recruited ‘foot-soldiers’ working in all continents for groups supported by SOE of whom records were never kept in the UK.

A few of SOE’s operations were of critical strategic importance, e.g., the sabotage of the Norwegian heavy-water plant which stalled the German nuclear research programme; and the capture of the port of Antwerp by Belgian Resistance before it could be destroyed by the retreating Germans.

But most of its operations in all theatres were more tactical and less spectacular in effect; they were aimed at undermining the Axis war economies by sabotage of factories manufacturing military vehicles and aircraft, denying supplies of raw materials from abroad, destroying railway bridges on supply lines or coordinating the operations and supply of resistance groups which carried out operations to divert enemy troops from their main task of fighting the Allied armies.

In France, for example, the German Das Reich Division, ordered to reinforce the German forces in Normandy after D-Day, was delayed in its journey north from the Toulouse area for a critical 17 days by SOE-organised ambushes and sabotage.

Altogether, 10,000 tons of warlike stores were put into France alone by SOE, 4,000 of them before and 6,000 after D-Day and by D-Day, SOE had some 50 W/T (wireless telegraphy) circuits on the air in France. It is perhaps not surprising that the operations of the Western European resistance groups were credited by General Eisenhower with shortening the war by six months.

Writers about SOE have tended to concentrate over-much on SOE’s operations in support of French resistance, for understandable reasons. France was the largest and most important occupied country in Western Europe, which would inevitably become the target of the eventual allied invasion and the dramatic focus of D-Day. The dramatic and often tragic stories of SOE agents in France, particularly of the women agents, have attracted most literary attention. Moreover, the first official history published in 1966 was MRD Foot’s classic ‘SOE in France’. Other official histories have been late in appearing.


But the operations of SOE in other countries and theatres have more recently begun to attract attention, particularly since the SOE Archives were released to The National Archives in the decade to 2002 and the collections of SOE memoirs and material exhibits in the Imperial War Museum have been increasingly augmented and studied. Several of the stories from other theatres rival those from France in heroism, tragedy and achievement.

A lesser-known fact is that, alone of the wartime services, SOE made an overall financial profit, thanks to some imaginative currency manipulation in the Far East. Perhaps there are modern lessons to be learnt from SOE yet.

The achievements and failures of SOE have been debated in many books, some serious and some not. Perhaps, however, SOE’s most important contribution was that it lit a beacon of hope in countries demoralised by defeat and occupation and, through encouraging the spirit of resistance by their own people and helping them to liberate themselves, gave them back their self-esteem and national pride.

The SOE Roll of Honour of those who died in its service contains some 800 names. Of many hundreds more there is no memorial.

More SOE pages



Please note that the reliability of information available on third-party web sites cannot be guaranteed.

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