One of the most famous images of the modern revolutionary is that of the defiant French Resistance fighter, obstructing their German occupiers through acts of sabotage and subterfuge.
Yet the French, and other resistance movements in occupied Europe, were given invaluable assistance, training and weapons supplies by a lesser-known and fascinating organisation, the Secret Operations Executive (SOE). Nicknamed the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare or the Baker Street Irregulars (after its original headquarters), this was a branch of the War Office established in 1940 and tasked by Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’. More specifically, its purpose was to send agents to the continent to help inspire, coordinate and train indigenous resistance movements, and to provide them with weapons, explosives and instruction in using them.
SOE agents went through a gruelling four-stage selection process. Manor houses throughout the nation were turned into secret training centres where potential recruits learnt fieldcraft, navigation, evasion techniques, assembling and handling weapons, assassination, self-defence, cryptography, and finally parachuting. As well as these technical skills, agents had to have absolute and convincing familiarity with both the language and culture of the destination country. Even wearing shoes made in the UK, or using an English turn of phrase, could be enough to betray them. Many SOE recruits were therefore French, Dutch, Belgian, or of dual nationality. They were given cover names and back-stories, and subjected to fake interrogations to ensure they could maintain these covers convincingly even if arrested. If they passed each phase of training, they were ready to enter enemy territory.
Before leaving, WOs (wireless operators, who specialised in cryptography and were in charge of transmitting coded reports) were issued with a compact radio set, disguised as a briefcase, and Benzedrine (amphetamine) tablets to keep them awake during night-time transmissions. All agents were given the relevant papers for their cover identities, and fitted with clothes appropriate to their cover persona. They were also given pea-sized glass ampoules filled with potassium cyanide and encased in protective rubber – suicide pills which could be disguised as coat buttons, signet rings or even false teeth and which, if bitten down on, would kill them within minutes. After being dropped by plane as close as possible to a pre-arranged location, a newly-arrived agent would have to bury their parachute and find their way in unlit countryside to the local resistance team waiting to meet them. Everyone present risked arrest for breaking the curfew imposed by the Nazis in occupied territory.
Like most spy work, the realities of living undercover were far from glamorous or exciting. Amidst the hunger and oppression of everyday occupied life, agents spent months attempting to coordinate the activities of local resistance groups, which they often found internally divided and disorganised. Some resistance leaders were understandably hostile to having British-trained agents suddenly trying to control their actions. WOs spent many Benzedrine-fuelled hours laboriously decoding and encoding monotonous progress reports, all the while aware that German radio detection vans were combing the area to trace their signal. In the early days of the SOE, WOs had to memorise poems and use selected words as the keys to ciphers. Later, they were issued with silk handkerchiefs printed with pre-arranged encryption keys for every transmission, and would cut off and destroy the relevant strip of silk after each message, by burning or even swallowing them. And for all agents there was constant fear: flutters of nerves every time their false papers were examined at checkpoints; gnawing worry that a captured member of their team would betray their identity and location under torture.
So how effective was the SOE? For the first year of its existence, SIS (modern MI6) and Bomber Command campaigned against it as an unnecessary amateur organisation, but it undoubtedly secured many concrete achievements. Most notably, SOE-led operations blew up the Pessac power station in France and the Gorgapotamous railway bridge in Greece, crippling German supply lines; assassinated Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia; ended the nascent Nazi atomic bomb programme by destroying the Vermork water plant in Norway; and exchanged the axel oil of the 2nd SS Panzer division for abrasive grease, delaying its journey north to combat the D-Day invasions for a full 17 days. However, as with most resistance work, many of the most dramatic successes provoked devastating reprisals by the Nazis. 5,000 Czechoslovakian civilians were executed in retaliation for Heydrich’s assassination, and two villages near Prague entirely destroyed.
Was the SOE worth this terrible human cost, and the expense of training hundreds of men and women, many of whom were arrested and died in prisons and concentration camps? It’s hard to say. Certainly, it helped the British government to learn about the situation on the ground in occupied Europe, and about how much local support they could expect when they launched their eventual re-invasion. And it supplied vast amounts of equipment and armaments to bands of local resistors, lessening the sense that they had been abandoned by Britain and helping these few citizens to feel that they were doing something to strike back at their occupiers, that they were not helpless. Like almost all aspects of warfare, the SOE is controversial and fascinating, a resonant example of human inventiveness, brutality and bravery. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare will not be forgotten.