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.
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.
On May 5, 1941, the first Special Operations Executive agent parachuted into Nazi-occupied France. Over the next three years, until August 1944, over 400 SOE agents would be dropped into France. Female agents were very much in the fray as well, with the first female agent, Andree Borrel, jumping into France in 1942. She was later captured and executed in 1944.
In 1942, the SOE created the Prosper network. Directed by SOE officials in London, its purpose was to convince the German high command that an invasion was forthcoming in 1943. The Prosper network was a complex system, encompassing the majority of the Resistance groups in France. The network specialized in coordinating train derailments and the assassination of high-ranking Nazi officers.
German intelligence eventually infiltrated the Prosper network resulting in the death of many SOE agents and Resistance volunteers. Making the situation worse, many SOE agents continued to be sent to the Prosper network after it had fallen into the Nazi’s hands thus causing more loss of life. Hitler had issued the Commando Order, which stated that any non-uniformed soldier would be considered a spy, resulting in the torture and subsequent execution of any SOE agents captured.
The Defining Moment for the Special Operations Executive
Leading up to D-Day, the SOE and the Resistance continued to gather intelligence and sabotage rail lines and trains. Railway workers also went on strike and worked at a deliberately slow pace to slow down the spread of the Germans’ railroad system.
About a month before D-Day, BBC dispatched a radio communication to the SOE agents and the Resistance, telling them that an invasion was coming. Another message followed on June 1, confirming an invasion was imminent. The night before D-Day, a final message was dispatched, telling the SOE agents and French Resistance to take “maximum effort” in carrying out sabotage and interrupting German forces.
In support of Operation Overlord and the D-Day invasion, Special Operations Executive implemented Operation Jedburgh. The operation consisted of three-man teams dropping into occupied France on the night of D-Day and the days following. They linked up with the French Resistance and disseminated plans for coordinated sabotage against the Nazi army. These “Jedburgh Teams,” as they came to be known, were comprised of two officers and one radio operator. Members of these teams were American, British, and French. They wore their military uniforms, in the hope of being treated as prisoners of war, instead of spies, in the event of capture. And unlike the covert SOE missions which had been the standard for years prior, this operation was to consist of overt attacks against the enemy.
There was grave risk and uncertainty in this operation. Earlier in 1944, 33 SAS soldiers from the SAS Brigade had jumped into France, to destroy the railway connecting Paris to the southwestern portion of France. The mission was a disaster; the 33 SAS operatives were captured and executed by the SS.
Among all of the success stories of the Jedburgh Operation, one Jedburgh Team’s contributions went above and beyond. Tommy Macpherson, a Scottish British Army officer, and his two other team members successfully halted the movements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division. Tommy and his team managed to siphon the axle oil out of railway cars, on which the 2nd Panzer Division was to be transported. They replaced the oil with abrasive grease, causing the axles to lock up. The team’s contributions were specifically recognized by General Eisenhower’s staff.
The Jedburgh Operation would result in 100 SOE operatives jumping into France, complimented with 6,000 tons of military supplies. General Eisenhower’s staff at the Supreme Headquarters credited the Jedburgh Teams, saying they had “succeeded in imposing more or less serious delays on all the divisions moved to Normandy.”
Back Into the Shadows
Success and victory came with a heavy price. Approximately one out of three of the 42 SOE females and one out of four of the male agents would lose their lives, totaling over 400 dead. Thousands of French Resistance fighters and supporters were killed by the Nazis for assisting the SOE.
The SOE officially shut down in January of 1946. Some members of the Executive entered into a civilian career and others entered into conventional military service. But 280 of the agents would transfer into MI6’s Special Operations Branch. MI6 believed they could learn a lot from the SOE’s training curriculum and research.
In 2014, France requested for the United Kindom’s D-Day veterans to come forward in order to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur. They specifically requested members of the Special Operations Executive and other secret organizations to make themselves known. Many did not come forward. These operatives have kept their secrets since the war ended and it appears that many will continue to stay tight-lipped for the rest of their lives.
This article was published in July 2020. It has been edited for republication.