So what was the SPECIAL OPERATIONS EXECUTIVE (S.O.E.) and what did they do?

S.O.E. was formed in July, 1940, on Churchill's orders to "Set Europe Ablaze."

With headquarters at 64, Baker Street, London, it was divided into three departments, SOE-1 dealt with propaganda, SO-2 with active operations and S0-3 dealt with administration. Under the command of General Colin Gubbins its first recruits were originally from the armed forces but later both men and women were recruited from the civilian sector. Speaking a foreign language, especially French, was essential before being passed on to Military Intelligence for a security check. Training courses included Parachute and First Aid training at Ringway airfield near Manchester followed by four weeks Radio and Cipher training. Physical Fitness, small arms and map reading, were conducted in various locations.

In the Western Highlands of Scotland all forms of Commando and clandestine warfare were taught to SOE Agents.

Airfields at Harrington,Tempsford and Tangmere were chosen as bases on which to fly out agents on their secret missions.

SOE faced three major problems in Europe;-

1) Confirming that worthwhile resistance movements exist

2) How to maintain contact with these movements

3) How to help these movements actually fight against the Germans


The only way that SOE could overcome these three problems was to get agents on the ground in occupied Europe.

This provided SOE with its next problem - suitable candidates to be SOE agents. Once trained, the most common way of getting agents to mainland Europe was by plane. Parachute drops could be made by Whitley, Wellington or Stirling Bombers. However, these were obvious targets from the ground. SOE needed a smaller plane that was difficult to see but tough enough to land on crude runways. In the Lysander it got the perfect plane and it was in the main utilised for drop off and pick up missions with the larger planes still being used for parachute jumps.

By mid-1941, SOE agents were beginning to land in Europe. All manner of problems were experienced - contacting the 'reception committee', informing them that a drop was going to take place, poor weather at the last minute which might stop a flight etc. The so-called reception committees were very much at risk. By simply being out at night they were breaking curfew regulations imposed by the Germans and informants were a danger that put everybody at risk. 

The work of the SOE became more sophisticated as they became more experienced. The ability of the Lysander to land, allowed SOE to pick-up 'special people' who needed to be de-briefed in London.

There were several subsidiary SOE headquarters and stations set up to manage operations which were too distant for London to control. SOE's operations in the Middle East and Balkans were controlled from a headquarters in Cairo, which was notorious for infighting and conflicts with other agencies. It finally became known in April 1944 as Special Operations (Mediterranean). A subsidiary headquarters was set up in Italy under the Cairo headquarters to control operations in the Balkans.There was also a station near Algiers, established in late 1942 and codenamed "Massingham", which operated into Southern France.

An SOE station, which was first called the India Mission, was set up in India late in 1940. It subsequently moved to Ceylon and became known as Force 136. A Singapore Mission was unable to overcome official opposition to its attempts to form resistance movements in Malaya before the Japanese overran Singapore. Force 136 took over its surviving staff and operations.

There was also a liaison office in New York, formally titled British Security Coordination, headed by the Canadian businessman Sir William Stephenson. This office also coordinated the work of SIS and MI5 with the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

One of the most vital SOE tools was clandestine radio communications. A special wireless set weighing less than 40 lbs was developed. It looked like an ordinary suitcase. The plan was for every SOE organiser to take to occupied Europe, a qualified radio operator. Every SOE operative was trained in parachuting, unarmed combat and self-defence. Those who had particular skills in explosives, trained to perfect these skills. The same was true with wireless operators. SOE schools were set up under the greatest of secrecy to train potential SOE operators. The final part of training for any SOE person was his or her so-called 'cover story'. Each SOE operative had to fit in with his/her background. The slightest mistake would have been punished in the most severe manner. Therefore, no 'Frenchman' would wear shoes made in Great Britain or smoke British made cigarettes.

Its also interesting to note that the inspiration for James Bond came from the ww2 experiences of the producer Ian Fleming, whose own brother was member of SOE. 



Fleming, knew both Maurice Buckmaster and Vera Atkins of the SOE French Section and is reputed to have used at least parts of them to create "M", and "Miss Moneypenny" in his James Bond books. In his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, Fleming is said Its to have based the "Vesper Lynd" character on the SOE agent, Christine Granville.

Other agents that Fleming used for his Bond character were Duane Hudson and Andrew Croft. Chief of SOE Technical Branch and later GS Branch MI6, Charles Bovill was represented in the Bond books as 'Q'.

Some SOE operatives not only provided Allied intelligence with vital information, they also became part of World War Two history - the likes of Violette Szabo, Captain Henry Rees, Pearl Witherington, Wing- Commander Yeo Thomas and Odette Sansom are to name but a few.