In a war of secrecy, spies, and destruction, Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) was on the leading edge. Formed in July of 1940, under Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, the SOE’s mission was to conduct espionage, sabotage, intelligence gathering, and support resistance organizations in an effort to defeat the Axis powers.

The SOE operated across occupied Europe and into Southeast Asia. The Executive employed over 13,000 people, 3,200 of them being women. Winston Churchill had been the catalyst for the inception of the SOE. After the organization was created, Churchill told Hugh Dalton, “And now go and set Europe ablaze.” Dalton used the Irish Republican Army that fought in the Irish War of Independence, as the framework for setting up the SOE.

All parties were not in support of the SOE, MI6, in particular, had an issue with it, claiming it was “amateur, dangerous, and bogus.” MI6 feared the SOE would interfere with its intelligence gathering missions due to the SOE’s inherent destructive nature. RAF Bomber Command didn’t appreciate the SOE either, due to the fact that they had to dedicate their aircraft to SOE missions. But, the SOE had the only supporter that mattered — Winston Churchill. The SOE wasn’t going anywhere.


A Spiderweb of Activity

In order to train this network of fighters, training centers, marked by Arabic numerals, were set up in country houses all over England. Commandos that would be going into the field, operating behind enemy lines, received specialized weapons and hand-to-hand combat training in Arisaig, Scotland. If candidates passed the “Commando” course, they would receive parachute training with STS 51 and STS 51A in conjunction with the No.1 Parachute Training School RAF. Following parachute training, agents attended schools, learning about security and tradecraft. Finally, depending on the specific missions that the agents would participate in, they would receive further training in demolition and morse code communication.

The radio played a key role in every aspect of SOE operations. Airborne drops were guided in by radios, except for certain missions where they flew in blind, behind enemy lines. Regular communication and mission updates were dispatched by the BBC through radio transmissions from Britain. Specific coded instructions were sent out to each individual Resistance unit. Needless to say, it was a requirement for each resistance unit to have a radio operator.

Within France, there were many different Resistance groups. The beliefs, political views, and agendas of these groups did not always align. Britain knew that in order to make the Resistance a formidable and successful fighting force, they needed organization, materials, and tactical assistance. This is where the SOE came in.

French resistance fighters American paratroopers
French resistance fighters and American paratroopers during the Battle of Normandy. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

From 1941 to 1944 the SOE assisted in sabotage, warfare instruction, coordination of attacks against the enemy, and the collection of intelligence. This dangerous job description didn’t come without serious risk with many agents losing their lives during the war.