150,000 Allied forces fought for the freedom of Western Europe from the Nazis when they landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. We have heard the troops and their guns and tanks and bombs a lot of times, but we don’t often hear about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and their contribution in setting Europe ablaze.
Set Europe Ablaze!
In June 1940, Special Operations Executive, a volunteer force set up to spy, scout, and sabotage German-occupied Europe. Prime Minister Winston Churchill supported this organization, who tasked them to “Set Europe ablaze!” Major-General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins became SOE’s director of operations, who became part of the Irish War of Independence. And so, he was involved in planning the sabotage techniques that the SOE would use against the Nazis.
The SOE developed tons of explosives like limpet mines that used magnets to attach to a target. These time pencils worked by crushing an internal vial of acid that would then spill and corrode the retaining wire inside, the whole processing taking a few minutes to give the saboteur time to escape. They also invented plastic explosives that needed a powerful detonator to explode, making it safe to travel.
Lise de Baissac
De Baissac was born in a wealthy Mauritian family. She immediately joined the SOE when they began hiring multilingual women as agents. On her first mission in September 1942, de Baissac parachuted into Central France along with her jumping partner, Andrée Borrel. She went to Poitiers in western France to form a new center where agents could safely go whenever needed. She also led a network of Resistance fighters that sabotaged Nazi communications by cutting phone lines and blowing up railways and bridges. In June 1944, she found out that the allied invasion was imminent, so she bicycled for three days, slept in ditches, and passed through German formations to reach back her networks near Normandy, where she gathered German intelligence that she passed to England. Her efforts helped in the preparations of the US Army’s Operation Cobra.