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

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.

Odette Sansom

Lieutenant Odette Marie-Céline Sansom.

Codename Lise was 28 years old when she joined SOE. She had to leave her three young daughters to join the fight as her husband was already in the war, and threats of the Nazis invading her home were just around. SOE recruited her when she accidentally sent her photos on the French coastline requested by the Admiralty to the War Office instead. She worked as a courier for Spindle, Capt. Peter Churchill’s network, who also became his lover. In April 1943, the Gestapo arrested her and Churchill, and she was interrogated and tortured. Her back was scorched with a hot poker, and her toenails were plucked. Still, she didn’t say anything. Instead, she convinced them that Churchill was a relative of Prime Minister Winston Churchill in hopes that would keep them alive. She was then sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, which she survived. After the war, she testified at the Hamburg Ravensbrück Trials, which resulted in Ravensbrück camp commandant Fritz Suhren’s execution.

Andrée Borrel

Andrée Borrell (1942). Records of Special Operations Executive (United Kingdom Government), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not only was she part of SOE, but Borrel also served in the French Resistance and helped Allied evaders get out of France. SOE recruited her in 1942, where she was trained to become a field agent; she learned how to spy, sabotage, and kill the Axis. She parachuted into France in September 1942, becoming the first female SOE agent to do so. She worked as a courier for the new “Prosper” circuit run by Francis Suttill, who was impressed by her performance and made her a second in command. She participated in sabotage, combat training, and creating circuits in Paris and northern France. She and other members of the Prosper circuit were arrested in June 1943 by the Gestapo. She was interrogated, but she remained silent. She also managed to slip notes written on cigarette papers to her sister. Later on, she was tragically executed in the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in France.