Special Operations Executive: Churchill’s Secret Army

1.0 Introduction

During World War 2, Nazi Germany had a nearly unparalleled success in conquering continental Europe. This speedy domination generated an urgent need for Allied forces to develop clandestine forces able to operate within occupied countries. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was Churchill’s solution to this military necessity. Known as `The Baker Street Irregulars´, also called Churchill’s ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ or `Churchill’s Secret Army´, the SOE provided vital support to resistance movements around the world and laid the groundwork for offences by conventional forces, through sabotage, assassination and subterfuge. After multiple successes within vital operations, the Special Operations Executive proved themselves to be essential to the Allied victory.

2.0 History of the SOE

After Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Axis forces had swiftly occupied all of mainland Europe by June 1940. In light of this, several senior figures in Britain’s establishment saw a growing need to operate behind enemy lines to tackle the Axis war effort. Moreover, they also perceived a need to operate within neutral countries, to support Allied interests. To effectively coordinate such clandestine activities, Churchill instigated the merging of three distinct departments. These departments include:

  • Department EH: Formed by the Foreign Office in March 1938, this department focused on the creation and distribution of propaganda.
  • Section D: Formed by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) in March 1938, this division focused on sabotage and irregular warfare.
  • MI (R): Expanded by the War Office in the autumn of 1938, this section concentrated on researching and planning guerrilla warfare techniques and projects.

On July 19th 1940, PM Neville Chamberlain signed the SOE’s founding charter, which would be placed under the Minister of Economic Warfare. These three sections merged to form the Special Operations Executive on July 22nd 1940, after approval by the cabinet office. The director of SOE was usually referred to by the initials “CD”. The organisation employed or directly controlled more than 13,000 people, of whom some 3,200 were women.

(Source), (source), (source)

3.0 Organisation

3.1 Leadership

Special Operations Executive
Hugh Dalton (Right), Brigadier Colin Gubbins (Centre), Czech Officer (Left).

Initially, Churchill placed the SOE under the political leadership of Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare. Churchill’s selection probably arose from Dalton’s continuous lobbying to create such a force. Moreover, Dalton’s leftist ideology, as a senior member of the Labour Party, made him particularly interested in conducting political warfare within occupied Europe. This included organising sabotage on industrial and military targets, fermenting labour unrest, strikes and riots, propaganda dissemination, and terrorist activity. In 1942 Dalton was replaced by Lord Selborne (source).

Initially, Dalton appointed Sir Frank Nelson as the first executive head (CD) of the SOE. Nelson had previously been a conservative MP and a consul in Basle, which was generally an SIS position. However, Nelson suffered burnout in his efforts to establish and coordinate the SOE and retired in the spring of 1942. Nelson’s second-in-command, Sir Charles Hambro, succeeded him after distinguishing himself through his work with the SOE in Scandinavia (source).

Dalton also had appointed Brigadier Colin Gubbins to be the Director of Training and Operations for the SOE. He was selected due to his experiences of guerrilla warfare in the Irish War of Independence. He had also been involved in planning the establishment of a sabotage unit in Britain (in the event of a German invasion). Thus, Gubbins’ expertise and effectiveness made him integral to the coordination of the Special Operations Executive until its disbanding. In 1943, Gubbins replaced Hambro as CD, until 1946, when the SOE was disbanded (source).

SOE audience in demolition class, Milton Hall, circa 1944.

3.2 Primary Structure of the Special Operations Executive

The structure of the Special Operations Executive evolved throughout the war due to interdepartmental conflicts and bureaucratic reconfiguring. Baker Street, London, served as the location for the primary headquarters of the secret organisation. The first incarnation of the SOE was divided into three main departments:

  • SO1 (formerly EH): Focused on subversive propaganda.
  • SO2 (formerly D):  Focused on special operations.
  • SO3 (formerly MIR (R)): Focused on researching and planning irregular warfare.

However, SO3 quickly merged with SO2 as a result of bureaucratic overburdening. Moreover, in August 1941 SO1 became an independent body known as the Political Warfare Executive. This was due to interdepartmental power struggles between the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Economic Warfare.

After this restructuring, the primary ‘Operations’ department oversaw the selection and education of operatives, as well as the ‘Sections’. The ‘Sections’ were the divisions of the SOE that oversaw specific countries. Generally, each Section oversaw the operations conducted in a particular country. However, certain countries had multiple Sections allocated to them to accommodate operating with multiple resistance movements at odds with one another. To maintain secrecy and security, each Section had its headquarters to run operations from.

(Source), (source)

3.3 Subsidiary Headquarters

The Special Operations Executive established multiple subsidiary headquarters around the world, during the war, to oversee more far-flung operations in distant countries. These included:

  • Special Operations (Mediterranean) or SO(M): Established in Cairo and controlled operations in the Middle East and the Balkans. Later this branch controlled station “Force 133” set up in Bari, Southern Italy, that oversaw operations in the Balkans and Northern Italy (source).
  • Massingham: Established near Algiers after the Allied arrival in North Africa, controlled operations in Southern France (source).
  • GS I (K)/ Force 136: Established in India in 1941, but later moved to Kandy, Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) to increase cooperation with Southeast Asia Command. This headquarters controlled SOE operations in South East Asia (source).
  • British Security Coordination (BSC): The SOE also had a branch in New York City, headed by the Canadian businessman Sir William Stephenson. This office coordinated the work of SOE, SIS and MI5 with the American FBI and Office of Strategic Services (source).

3.4 Methods and Objectives

Dalton’s initial statement of the methods to be used by the SOE was “industrial and military sabotage, labour unrest and strikes, continuous propaganda, terrorist attacks against traitors and German leaders, boycotts and riots”. However, this initial enthusiasm for fomenting widespread strikes, civil disobedience and sabotage in Axis-occupied areas was restrained.

Like its direction and organisation, SOE’s goals and objectives changed throughout the war. However, they revolved around sabotage and subversion of the Axis war machine through indirect methods. In general, SOE’s objectives were also to foment mutual hatred between the populations of the Axis-occupied countries and the occupiers and to force the Axis to expend manpower and resources in maintaining its control over the subjugated populations.

Overall, the main objectives of the SOE were:

  • Sabotage of the Axis war effort.
  • Creation of secret armies that would rise to assist in the liberation of their countries when Allied troops arrived or were about to arrive.

These two objectives were perceived as mutually exclusive. This is because the acts of sabotage would provoke retaliation and increased Axis security measures that would make the creation of underground armies more difficult. However, as the tide of the war turned in favour of the Allies, these clandestine armies became more important.

(Source), (source)

4.0 Weapons and Equipment of the SOE

SOE Amphibian Breathing Apparatus

The Special Operations Executive is infamous for its James Bondesque elaborately disguised weaponry and equipment. Department MD1, based in Whitchurch, Buckinghamshire, designed and manufactured weaponry and equipment capable of maintaining the cover of SOE operatives in occupied or neutral states.

Although SOE operatives would use a wide array of weaponry, a list of weapons and equipment has been provided which illustrates the ingenuity of their scientists and weapons engineers.

4.1 Communications


Most of the resistance networks that SOE formed or contacted were radio-controlled directly from Britain or from one of SOE’s subsidiary headquarters. All resistance circuits had at least one radio operator, and all landings were organised by radio, except for some of the early scouting missions sent “blind” into enemy-occupied territory. SOE wireless operators were also known as “The Pianists”.


The BBC also played its part in communications with agents or groups in the field. During the war, it was broadcast to almost every Axis-occupied country. The BBC included in its broadcasts a variety of ‘personal messages’, which might include lines of poetry or seemingly meaningless articles. They could be used, for example, to announce the safe arrival of an agent or message in London, or they could be instructions to carry out operations on a particular date.


The most secure method of communication in the field was mail. At the beginning of the war, most of the women sent as field agents were employed as couriers, on the assumption that they would be less suspect of illicit activities.

Another, albeit less secure, method used was the use of postal services. This was slower, less reliable and the letters were almost certainly opened and read by Axis security services. In training courses, agents were taught to use a variety of readily available substances to make invisible ink, although most of these could be detected by a cursory examination. They were also instructed to hide coded messages in seemingly innocent letters. Telephone services were even easier for the enemy to intercept and listen in on and could only be used with great care.

(Source), (source), (source)

B MK II receiver and transmitter (also known as the B2 radio set).

5.0 Notable Operations of the SOE

The SOE was very active throughout the war. While some of its missions remain a mystery, here are some of its most famous operations:

5.1 Operation Anthropoid

The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is arguably one of SOE’s most memorable operations. Heydrich was the chief of the Reich Main Security Office and one of the main architects of the ‘final solution’. In September 1941 he was named ‘Protector of Bohemia and Moravia’. And tasked with bringing order and suppressing resistance within the occupied Czech territory. Heydrich became known as the ‘Butcher of Prague’ due to his brutality.

The Czechoslovak intelligence services in exile planned Operation Anthropoid with the SOE, after Gubbins’ approval. Following the testing of 24 of the most capable exiled Czech soldiers at an SOE commando training facility, the SOE chose two for the mission. Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš underwent extensive training and were parachuted into Czechoslovakia on December 28th 1941. After several months of coordinating and planning, with the aid of resistance groups and sympathetic locals, the operatives decided to strike on May 27th 1942.

The two assassins attacked Heydrich in Prague during his daily commute in his open-top car. After the jamming of Gabčík’s Sten submachine gun during the assassination attempt, Kubiš threw a grenade at Heydrich’s vehicle. The blast severely wounded Heydrich and following several days in hospital he died on June 4th. The two assassins subsequently killed themselves to avoid capture on June 18th. The assassination of Heydrich resulted in ruthless reprisals, with German forces indiscriminately killing 5,000 men, women and children in two nearby villages.

(Source), (source), (source)

The car in which Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated.

5.2 Operation Gunnerside

Operation Gunnerside is potentially one of the most significant operations the Special Operations Executive conducted in ensuring an Allied victory. The use of deuterium oxide (Heavy water) was identified early on as a means of moderating the production of Plutonium-239, which Nazi scientists were using to attempt to build an atomic bomb. The Nazi regime was developing Heavy water at a facility in Vemork in occupied Norway.

To stifle German atomic efforts, the SOE trained four Norwegian commandos to be the advance force to scout out the facility and coordinate with British engineers dropped at a later date to destroy the plant. In October 1942, the commandos were successfully dropped into Norway in Operation Grouse. In November, however, the dropping of the British engineers, Operation Freshman, was an unmitigated failure.

Nevertheless, the success of Operation Grouse led to SOE commanders planning a follow-up mission to capitalise on the presence of an active Norwegian commando unit in the area and ensure the destruction of the Heavy water facility. Therefore, six more SOE-trained commandos were dropped into Norway in February 1943. After successfully rendezvousing with the Grouse commandos, the SOE operatives collectively planned to carry out their attack on February 27th. As a result of the blueprints of the facility’s layout and personnel schedules being provided to the SOE by a planted Norwegian agent, the operatives successfully infiltrated the Vemork facility and blew up the Heavy water electrolysis chambers, thereby significantly hindering German efforts to develop an atomic bomb.

(Source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

5.3 Operation Jedburgh

Operation Jedburgh was launched to support the Allied invasion of occupied Europe. The SOE developed Operation Jedburgh in the fall of 1943, in cooperation with the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Free France Central Bureau of Intelligence and Action and the exiled Dutch and Belgian armies. The primary aim of the operation was to arm and coordinate with local resistance in preparation for D-day.

Jedburgh forces numbered 276 operatives, with each respective country selecting its most capable men for training and deployment. Jedburgh teams usually consisted of three men, one British, one American, and one from the country they were operating within. Generally, within these teams, three roles were assigned: a radio operator, an executive officer and a commander. Operatives were provided with money and radio phrases to financially support resistance fighters and communicate to allied command.

On June 5th 1944, the first Jedburgh operation was conducted, with teams being sent into Châteauroux, France, to prepare resistance movements for Operation Overlord. France was indisputably the primary focus of Jedburgh’s operations. In total Allied command deployed 93 teams to France between June and September 1944. They proved essential in providing French resistance with ammunition and weapons, as well as providing a means of communication between Allied command and local resistance. Jedburgh teams also operated in the Netherlands from September 1944, with six teams deployed to support Operation Market Garden. Market Garden aimed to establish a salient in Northern Germany, providing a route for an Allied invasion (source).

(Source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

Maquisards (Resistance fighters) in the Hautes-Alpes département in August 1944. SOE agents are second from right, possibly Christine Granville, third John Roper, fourth, Robert Purvis.

5.4 Operation Harling

Operation Harling was conceived in the late summer of 1942 as an effort to stop the flow of supplies through Greece to German forces under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s command in North Africa. To this end, the Cairo office of the SOE decided to send a sabotage team to cut the railway line connecting Athens to Thessaloniki (source).

A group under the command of Colonel (later Brigadier) Eddie Myers, assisted by Christopher Woodhouse, parachuted into Greece and made contact with two local guerrilla groups operating in the mountains: the pro-communist ELAS and the Republican EDES. On 25 November 1942, Myers’ group blew up one of the spans of the Gorgopotamos railway viaduct, supported by 150 Greek partisans from these two organisations who engaged the Italians guarding the viaduct. This was a success, cutting the railway linking Thessaloniki with Athens and Piraeus (source).

5.5 Foreign Currency Extraction

Other than military and sabotage operations, the Special Operations Executive significantly helped deliver the Allied victory by securing currency. By securing foreign currency, of which the Bank of England had a limited supply, the SOE financially sustained not only its operations but also the SIS, the Treasury, the War Office and the Air Ministry. The SOE achieved this through dealing with black markets in neutral capitals throughout Europe and Asia (source).

Lord Selborne, who became Minister for Economic Warfare in 1942, attested to the necessity of SOE in foreign currency procurement. He stated that the SOE was the “principal procurer of foreign currency in the black markets of Europe and Asia”. Furthermore, he stated the SOE procured “over £1,700,000 worth of foreign currencies” for the Bank of England. Additionally, the SOE obtained 700,000,000 francs to support the Normandy landings in Operation Overlord and Operation Jedburgh (source).

As a consequence the Special Operations Executive proved itself to be vital to financing the war effort. With a lack of foreign currency, it is possible that without the work of the SOE, many intelligence and military operations would be unfeasible or at the very least would have more limited chances of success.

6.0 Dissolution

In late 1944, when it seemed that the war would soon be over, Lord Selborne argued for keeping SOE or a similar body in operation, and for it to come under the Ministry of Defence. Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, insisted that his ministry, already responsible for SIS, should control SOE or its successors. The Joint Intelligence Committee, which had a broad coordinating role over British intelligence services and operations, believed that SOE was a more effective organisation than SIS. However, it was against dividing responsibility for espionage and more direct action between different ministries (source).

However, Churchill took no immediate decision and, after losing the general election on 5 July 1945, the matter passed to the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Selborne informed Attlee that SOE still possessed a worldwide network of underground radio networks and sympathisers. However, Attlee replied that he did not wish to own a British Comintern and closed Selborne’s network with 48 hours’ notice. Thus, on 15 January 1946, the SOE network was shut down (source).

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