Special Operations Executive: Setting Europe Ablaze


    Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a secret British Second World War organization formed in July of 1940 by Hugh Dalton, British Minister of Economic Warfare. Dalton was tasked by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” and create SOE with the mission to conduct espionage, sabotage, intelligence gathering, and support resistance organisations in an effort to defeat the Axis powers.

    Operating in Europe and into Southeast Asia SOE employed and trained over 13,000 agents, of which 3,200 women. Agents operated in countries under the occupation of Nazi Germany such as Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Albania, and Yugoslavia, but also in Force 136, a branch in the Far East. Although it was a secret British organisation and recruited personnel mainly from MI6, SOE later employed people from different nationalities and a diverse military and civilian background. The agents would help support resistance organisations/operations in occupied Europe and the Far East, continuously risking arrest, torture, and execution. Among SOE’s initial critics were MI6 and the RAF Bomber Command since it did not want to use all of its aircraft for SOE missions. MI6 considered the organisation amateurs and did not want SOE missions to overlap with its missions.


    Potential agents had to pass a four-stage training to join the secret British organisation, SOE: Preliminary school, Paramilitary training, Specialist subjects, and ‘Finishing school’ techniques. Preliminary schools included physical training, weapons handling, elementary demolitions, unarmed combat, map reading, and radio communications

    During the first stage, candidates would take assessments to prove that their character and potential were compatible with the organisations’ objectives, without completely knowing what SOE exactly did. If they failed, they would be encouraged to forget any little detail they learnt about the secret British Second World War organisation throughout the process.

    On the other hand, should they meet the criteria to be part of Special Operations Executive, the future agents were trained parachuting at Manchester and Ringway until their “spycraft techniques” were honed at SOE’s finishing schools for spies – known as group B schools – located at Beaulieu, New Forest. Commandos who successfully passed level one would be able to operate behind enemy lines into the field, having received specialised weapons and paramilitary combat training in Arisaig, Scotland.   

    Paramilitary training lasted 3 to 5 weeks and included further training on physical training, weapons handling, map reading, and demolition. At the same time, new training was introduced including compass work, elementary Morse, and raid tactics.

    The trainees came from diverse background and different nationalities with each group being hosted in separate schools following security protocol orders that they should not mix. SOE agents were mainly dropped by parachutes but also, while less often, transported by submarines. In the field, agents had to jump covering a distance of approximately 300-400 feet and had to hit the ground within 10-15 seconds in order to avoid detection by enemy radar.

    Subjects within each school covered a wide range of modules including but not limited to clandestine life, communication in the field, maintaining a cover story, and counter-surveillance techniques. Additionally, special subjects such as burglary and lockpicking were in the SOE agents training. Teaching the trainees lessons on how to handle – as the name reveals – “special situations.”

    Last but not least, Special Operations Executive agents had to undergo a ‘finishing school’ techniques training, which essentially was a module on polishing up tips and tricks regarding quick disguises to protect cover stories. In fact, the secret British Second World War organisation even had a list of plastic surgeons in charge of altering the features of agents that were identified.

    Working Behind Enemy Lines

    Colonel Colin Gubbins was SOE’s first head of training and operations and in charge of organizing in-depth training for personnel in sabotage, unarmed combat, firearms, and wireless communication techniques. His sabotage plan included blowing up bridges, trains, and factories while also cultivating guerrilla warfare in occupied countries.

    SOE also established research and development centres in Hertfordshire—the base of the famed Special Air Service (SAS)—training with firearms, sabotage equipment, and camouflage materials. Depending on missions, agents were trained in demolition and Morse code communication. The radio was a key element in every SOE operation, and it was a requirement for each resistant unit, while regular communication updates were transmitted by the BBC via radio transmissions from Britain.

    Radio transmitters were disguised to look like ordinary suitcases so that they will not catch the enemy’s attention. SOE agents carried it when they parachuted in along with silenced guns, forged papers, and explosives. Suitcase radios were extensively used by SOE as they were supposed to secure the radio communications between SOE headquarters and agents in the field.

    French resistance suitcase radio

    Operating behind enemy lines was extremely dangerous. Numbers show that 118 out of 470 agents who were sent into France did not manage to return due to either miscommunication between headquarters and the field or due to being captured and executed by the enemy.

    The SOE agents conducted many famous operations. In 1942, agents carried out the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich who was the Deputy Chief of the Schutzstaffel (SS) in Czechoslovakia. In 1943, SOE operatives participated in the destruction of the Norsk Hydro Plant in Norway, delaying the Nazi’s atomic bomb programme. One of the most famous and important SOE missions was ‘Operation Jedburgh’ which took place in support of ‘Operation Overlord’ and the D-Day invasion.

    SOE parachuted in three-man teams, landed in France before the D-Day invasion leading the local resistance forces to sabotage the Nazi army and, finally, delay the German troop deployments to Normandy. Unlike the previous cover SOE missions, the “Jedburgh Teams” would conduct overt attacks against the enemy.

    Despite the overall success of the mission, there was risk and uncertainty, especially considering an incident in 1944 when 33 SAS soldiers were captured and executed by the SS in their attempt to jump into France and destroy the railway in Paris.

    Special Operations Executive Final Thoughts

    The secret British Second World War organisation, founded to set Europe ablaze, was charged to collect foreign intelligence and conduct special operations. Covert action “called for a very tight security” at the time, therefore SOE was created to sabotage and defeat the Axis Powers. Offering solid training and equipment to almost 13,000 agents, the secret organisation contributed to some of the most important operations of the Second World War.

    The organisation shut its doors in January of 1946, with some of its Executive members joining the civil service, while others joined the military. It is with no doubt that SOE had a catalytic and determining effect in terms of shaping espionage and covert action not only during the Second World War but even in contemporary politics and international security issues.

    Image: Imperial War Museum (link)

    Image2: Just Collecting News (link)

    Eirini Gouta
    Eirini Gouta
    Eirini is a MA graduate in Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University London and studied International Relations and Economics. During the last year of her BA degree, she worked as an intern for the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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