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Special Operations Executive 

The War Scenario


By June 1940 Poland, Norway, Denmark, France and the Low Countries had fallen under German occupation and Britain stood alone in her fight against the shadow of Nazi domination in Europe. The United States of America, while mostly sympathetic to the British cause, looked on while retaining an isolationist stance.

An Unconventional War

Due to the scale of Nazi occupied territory, Britain was unable to invade and wage a conventional war. There was to be no chance of conventional military action for Britain for some time. 'Unconventional warfare' was a different matter.


In July 1940 the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, held secret meetings with Hugh Dalton, his Minister for Economic Warfare, to discuss the possibility of creating an organisation to carry out sabotage and subversive operations and to organise resistance groups in enemy held Europe.

What was needed was a new organisation to coordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants. We needed absolute secrecy, a certain fanatical enthusiasm, willingness to work with people of different nationalities and complete political reliability. The result of those meetings, held at 2 Caxton Street, Westminster, was SOE - the Special Operations Executive. The best summary of its remit was Churchill's now famous instruction to Hugh Dalton ' set Europe ablaze!'


With Brigadier Colin Gubbins as Director of Operations, SOE operated as both cloak and dagger. This Top Secret organisation was given the dangerous tasks of coordinating, inspiring and supporting resistance activity against the enemy by all means possible including disguise, deception, bribery, blackmail, black propaganda, forgery, burglary, sabotage guerrilla warfare, murder and assassination. It was also involved with running escape and evasion lines alongside MI9.


Most agents were infiltrated into mainland Europe to inspire and assist the resistance movements in German-occupied territories. Infiltration was sometimes by sea, using both submarine and surface vessels but more commonly, particularly within Europe, by Lysander and Hudson light aircraft that actually landed to deposit its agent passenger.


Others were parachuted from Halifax 4-engined bombers.  Arms, ammunition and other supplies were generally delivered by parachute to predetermined Dropping Zones. Most of the huge variety of specialist equipment  (referred to as 'toys'!) required for the undercover warfare role of SOE was designed and manufactured at Aston house, Stevenage, known only as Station 12.

Rupert Turrall SOE-4.jpg

Major Rupert Guy Turrall DSO MC



Although the organisation could not be revealed, potentially useful recruits were identified from Service records. SOE also had authority to demand personnel from the Armed Services and many potential candidates were spotted among acquaintances of the original staff. Where possible, service or civilian, male or female, were selected for their linguistic ability.


Many were of dual nationality and had first-hand knowledge of a target country.  Some had no previous military training or experience.  For administrative purposes, and the potential leadership roles they would have with Resistance networks, it was necessary for civilian recruits to have military commissions; thus they were gazetted, mostly to the General List. Women were commissioned into the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY).



Basic Training


Following an interview, recruits would undergo a two or three week pre-selection and induction course at Wanborough Manor, near Guildford, with plenty of cross country runs, elementary map reading and some training with pistols and submachine guns. There was always a well stocked bar; it was important to find out as soon as possible how would-be agents would behave after a few drinks.

Fairbairn Sykes knife

Training – Arisaig


Then followed a much more intensive 3/4 week period of paramilitary training in Arisaig on the West coast of Inverness. This included small arms training, unarmed combat and silent killing. Following this period of training some decided that the life of an undercover agent was not for them. The syllabus went on to cover demolitions, railway sabotage, intensive map reading and basic infantry training culminating in how to lay an ambush. Following this module as many as a third of the students was told that they were not suitable for the task that had been foreseen for them.



Beaulieu - Finishing School for Secret Agents

January 1941 - June 1945


Those who survived Arisaig moved on to Beaulieu in the New Forest to the 'Finishing School'. The school was located on the estate of Lord Montagu. It was here that students were made fully aware that they were being prepared to go into occupied territory to raise hell for the enemy. The main task of Beaulieu was to live their cover: - to be two people; one in reality and quite another in appearance - vitally important as their survival depended on it.

The Curriculum


During this stage of their training the students were separated into their various country sections and began in earnest to learn the specifics of the country in which they were to operate. They were taught details of the enemy forces they would be facing and, in particular, the police/security services they would have to evade.


Men dressed in Gestapo uniform would wake students in the middle of the night and, without warning, they would be dragged off to face interrogation. In addition to all this they would have to master the basic tradecraft of covert activity - how to spot and then shake surveillance, maintain their cover, use a dead letter box, how to pass a message discreetly in a public place, set up meetings and arrange fall-back positions.


As communication would form a vital part of their everyday duties the agents were taught message writing, how to compile a brief but effective report and then how to code their messages for transmission to home station. 

Unique pistol

The curriculum included subjects as diverse as: codes, safe blowing, disguises, silent killing, black propaganda, espionage crafts, sabotage, resistance to interrogation, surveillance and counter surveillance, agent handling, housebreaking, arson and blackmail. Parachute training took place at Ringway, near Manchester.


Local training facilities were established with the UK and around the world. Those students destined to be radio operators, considered to be the most dangerous of all SOE duties, went on to Thame Park, near Oxford, where they learnt clandestine wireless procedures, including advanced coding and cipher skills. They were also taught the enemy methods of detecting such clandestine radio traffic and the dangers posed by direction-finding teams.


Those who were to be involved in either carrying out or training local resistance in the art of sabotage or weapon handling attended a course of instruction at Station XVII at Brickendonbury in Hertfordshire.  A select few women worked as field agents, usually as couriers or radio operators, while many more were employed as home based radio operators, coders and secretarial staff.



Intelligence Corps personnel provided security for the various training establishments and several Field Security Sections (FSS) were dedicated to this role, both at home and abroad. One or more FSS personnel were attached to each group of students and accompanied them from one school to another, participating in their training and submitting regular confidential reports on each student.


Every facet of their on and off-duty activities and personal habits were carefully scrutinised: their general security awareness and discretion; drinking habits; behaviour with others, and whether they displayed any personal foibles likely to make them stand out when eventually operational in the field. In all areas this vetting included practical testing and any student receiving an adverse report would quickly find him or herself quietly removed from the training programme.


For obvious reasons of security, those students who failed to make the grade could not simply be released back into their normal life and were accommodated in one of several isolated locations maintained specifically for that purpose.


Intelligence Corps in SOE


Over six hundred members of the Intelligence Corps served with the SOE in a wide range of roles, as operational field agents, as members of the Inter-Allied Missions, as instructors in the training establishments, in the Research and Development area, as Heads of Country Sections and with the Field Security Sections supporting SOE.  To its great pride Intelligence Corps expertise was available at every phase of SOE development and in the field. This could range from initial assessment of an individual for dangerous duties to actual participation by Corps members behind enemy lines.


15 members of the Corps, both Officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers, died while serving with SOE.  Of these, some were killed in direct action with the enemy; some were captured, tortured and executed in concentration camps and others died of sickness, ill treatment and neglect while a prisoner.  

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