Special Operations Executive


In twelve weeks during the spring of 1940 German troops swiftly occupied vast areas of Western Europe. After the Battle of Dunkirk only the British stood undefeated but with no immediate means of hitting back at their brutal Nazi German adversaries. On 18 July 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill proposed to the British War Cabinet that unscrupulous, underhand methods were the only method by which the war against Germany could be actively pursued. The creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was sanctioned by the War Cabinet on 22 July 1940 with the mission of 'co-ordinating all action by way of subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas'.

From the Headquarters at 64 Baker Street, London, England, United Kingdom the Special Operations Executive was run by Sir Frank Nelson (Sir Charles Hambro from May 1942). The energetic Highlander Brigadier Colin Gubbins, as Director of Operations, set to work to establish the organisation. He was given three tasks: To set up training facilities; devise operating procedures acceptable to the Admiralty and Air Ministry; and to establish close working relations with the Joint Planning Staff. In September 1943 Gubbins, promoted to Major General, would replace Hambro as head of the organisation.

SOE at its inception was faced with such a variety of problems that it seemed unlikely that it would ever be able to achieve success in its complex and important task. Unpopular and resented by existing intelligence organisations whose work it overlapped, the Executive existed throughout the war in a permanent atmosphere of acrimony and odium. It was also regarded as an intruder and was suspected of being under the influence of foreign governments. Many exiles from occupied Europe distrusted SOE's agents who they considered subservient and intent on upstaging native resistance. Norwegians, in particular, refused to co-operate with SOE until 1943 and the Free French under their haughty leader, General Charles de Gaulle, considered it to be just another manifestation of diplomatic slights, duplicity and treachery. British Service Chiefs were similarly opposed to SOE on several counts, one of which was that the organisation consisted mainly of civilian and amateur personnel. They reacted with horror at the idea that this curious crew should not only be allowed to wage war, but should also be given scarce materials and transport. Not until March 1943 did the Chiefs finally give official recognition to SOE although they still continued to consider it to be as a thoroughly renegade outfit.

However, there were no shortage of willing volunteers. The nationals of occupied territories thronged to fight the secret war in their beleaguered homelands. Essentially SOE's agents needed to be fluent in their language, able to work under extreme pressure and be capable of behaving like the local population. Potential agents were sent for training at special SOE schools to teach them the skills needed to carry out acts of sabotage, contacting and training local resistance groups and organise reception committees to meet the arrival of agents, drops of supplies, weapons and money. By 1944 there were 60 such schools (including some in North Africa, Italy and the Far East) turning out graduate spies and saboteurs - about 7,500 for Western Europe and some 4,000 for other areas of SOE operations.


In practice many SOE schools acted as sifting systems. Those who were thought suitable were sent first on a course at a special training school in Scotland, United Kingdom where they would engage in physical fitness exercises, learn basic map reading and weapon skills. The students had to pit themselves against wild inaccessible terrain notorious for its appalling weather to show whether or not they could master the tricks of operating unseen and undetected in open country. For this purpose, students would endure forced marches, crawled through undergrowth, forded ice-cold streams and hunted each other across the rocky inhospitable landscape. There was also said to be a bar to see how potential agents might behave when alcohol was liberally poured. Those who made it to graduation went on to a three-four week course in paramilitary techniques at Arisaig, Scotland, where they received instruction in unarmed combat from two former Shanghai International Settlement (joint British-American sphere of influence in China; it was effectively a colony) police officers named Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn.

Students also received instruction on the use of specialised explosives, like limpet mines, for sabotage and demolition. Intensive training was given in map reading, shooting, and basic infantry tactics. It was expected that the first two courses might weed out 60% of candidates. The rest were sent for further training at Beaulieu in New Forest, Hampshire, southern England. Here they learned about enemy police services and how to stand up to brutal interrogation. They were also taught how to live their cover with conviction, and how to smuggle espionage aids in their possession. At the same time the students were given lessons in intelligence gathering and how to pass such information back to England using elementary codes. At the end of the course the students were tasked with performing a specific mission – sabotage, theft of a STEN gun etc. - which might also require them picking up an accomplice.

Having graduated from Beaulieu the surviving students were sent to Manchester, England for parachute training. This involved jumps from Whitley aircraft into Tatton Park in nearby Cheshire. Their drop suits were developed with pockets for a spade, so that the agents could bury the parachute on landing. There were also specialist courses for other graduates, like the wireless school at Thame Park near Oxford, advanced sabotage techniques at Stevenage north of London, black propaganda at Watford northwest of London, etc. There were courses on safe breaking and clandestine printing. Of those who failed the early courses, many were sent to the 'cooler' at Inverlair, where they were encouraged to 'forget' what they had learned about secret operations.

The Missions

Preparation for the agents' secret missions were meticulously planned. Their cover stories committed to memory with bonus families, imaginary school teachers and fake home towns all carefully rehearsed. Creating fake identities was only part of the preparation. Forgers printed authentic-looking identity cards and passes that the agents would need to move about in enemy occupied Europe. Continental style clothing and shoes needed to be correctly fashioned, and every item extensively searched to ensure that not one trace of its origin could be found - A careless cigarette butt or cinema ticket might easily betray the agent to the enemy. Even 'continental' suitcases were developed for the 40-pound radio sets agents carried.

The first agents sent to France were Georges Bégué, a radio operator, Pierre de Vomécourt and Roger Cottin who parachuted into the Dordogne region during May 1941 and formed the first SOE circuit, codenamed 'Autogiro', in occupied France. Its nucleus was the de Vomécourt family and their friends. There followed drops of weapons and more agents who landed in September and October. These agents set about establishing radio posts in safe houses to relay their progress back to London, and form their own 'Reseaux' (nets) in both German occupied and Vichy regions.

In the beginning aircraft for SOE's missions were in short supply and at first, SOE had to rely on a single RAF flight. Later, Special Duties or 'Moon' squadrons were formed - No. 138 in August 1941 and No. 161 in February 1942. The squadrons used Whitley, Wellington, and after the Normandy invasion Stirling bombers to parachute agents and supplies into Europe, and for landing and pick-up operations, the Westland Lysander which was able to land and take-off from small lonely fields. The first Lysander mission to France took place on 4 September 1941 when an agent was landed in a field neat Issodun (south of Orleans) and another was collected. The Lysander painted matte black, spent two minutes on the ground. Thereafter Lysanders collected some 129 agents from France and also landed 102 agents (at one time during a 12.5 second landing and take-off carried out under a barrage of German small-arms fire). On early sorties, the pilots were guided down by signals from hand-torches. Later, 'Rebecca Eureka' radio homing beacons were used, with the resistance reception committee and the pilot keeping in touch during the final approach by S-phone (small portable radio telephones).

The extreme dangers inherent in an agent's life soon caught up with them. They frequently risked betrayal, arrest, torture and death. In the beginning SOE made many mistakes which cost numerous agents and their contacts their lives. When Dennis Turbeville was arrested by the Vichy police they found on him a scrap of paper with the address of a safe house written on it. The police watched the house and arrested the agents who arrived there, including Georges Bégué and radio operator André Bloch. Bégué managed to escape in a mass prison break in July 1942 and subsequently returned to England. André Bloch was less lucky. He was tortured, refused to speak and was shot. In fact, out of 480 agents sent into France, 130 were captured and of these all but 26 perished.

Infiltration by German military intelligence would result in one dreadful tragedy in the Netherlands. When ingenious Major Hermann Giskes captured SOE agent Hubertus Lauwers in The Hague with a large pile of back messages in the summer of 1941 it enabled the Abwehr, with the help of a German cipher expert named Sergeant May, to turn this information to its advantage. Undetected, from March 1942, incoming agents were arrested one after another as they parachuted into the Netherlands, together with tons of explosives, weapons and money which all fell straight into German hands. Giskes eventually operated fourteen British radio sets which continued sending for two years and led directly to the capture of fifty-one SOE agents, nine from MI6 and one women from MI9. All but a handful were shot. This calamity would lead to much recrimination - the seriously weakened Dutch Resistance actually going so far as to accuse SOE agents of treachery.

Through 1943, however, the activities of SOE agents in Europe began to achieve ever greater success. With assistance from American aircraft ever larger amounts of explosives, weapons and tools for sabotage were delivered to Resistance groups. Over ninety factories under German control became targets for sabotage. In June 1943 the Michelin works at Clemont-Ferrand, France, where hundreds of tons of tyres destined for German vehicles were made, was destroyed when the plant was blown up under the noses of the German guards. In November, SOE agents and Resistance workers sabotaged the Peugeot motor works at Sochaux, France, which produced turrets for German tanks, with such effect that production was never restarted. Other attacks left a trail of mangled locomotives, power stations and transformers, collapsed pylons and cables, and silenced German radio stations (including the destruction of the radio transmitter at Quatre Pavillons that cut the German's main communication link with their submarines marauding in the Atlantic Ocean). In one month alone (25 October -25 November 1943), 3,000 acts of sabotage against the French rail system took place, resulting in serious damage, derailments and the deaths of many German soldiers. In January 1944, Resistance workers blew up the Usines Ratier airscrew works in south-west France, wrecking it so thoroughly that it never resumed production in wartime.

The deadliest weapons production of all was crippled when SOE agents and the Norwegian Resistance (Milorg), sabotaged German's efforts to develop an atomic bomb. In February 1943, at the hydro-electric plant at Vemork in Telemark, Norway. Installations and apparatus used in the production of deuterium oxide (heavy water), a vital ingredient in German atomic weapons development, were sabotaged. It took several months to repair the damage and recommence production again. On 20 February 1944, 15,000 litres of heavy water – six months production - began its journey to Germany by ferry across Lake Tinnsjo, east of Vemork. The night before two SOE/Milorg agents, disguised as greasers, secretly planted bombs on board. Just as the ferry crossed the deepest part of the lake, the charges exploded and destroyed the entire cargo. These two actions in Norway effectively denied the Germans the use of atomic energy as a weapon and as an energy source.

Towards the end of 1943, with the planning for the Normandy invasion already advanced, the British SOE and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were placed under the control of the Allied Supreme Command. In the following spring, with the invasion imminent, several dozen agents and radio operators were flown to France. In England, about 100 'Jedboughs' – three man liaison teams (two officers and a sergeant-radio operator) were prepared whose task it would be to lead and instruct Resistance groups in hounding the Germans from behind their lines.

On the night of 5 June 1944 the Resistance groups, now fully armed and trained, received 500 coded messages, broadcast by the BBC to more than 50 underground radio stations, which signalled a tumult of sabotage and destruction in France and the Low Countries. Explosions rocked and wrecked railway junctions, railway lines, tunnels and bridges. Telegraph, telephone, radio and other tele communications links were cut. Power stations were blown up killing lights and silencing factory machinery. Every conceivable target prone to sabotage was attacked and crippled or destroyed. In France alone, 950 out of 1,050 planned strikes against the rail system were carried out seriously disrupting troop movements toward the Normandy battlefields. In the following months, as the Germans were driven out of France, SOE aided Belgian and Dutch groups to further harass enemy troop columns attempting to beat back the Allied advances.

By promoting underground warfare against the Germans, Special Operations Executive did much more than supply agents, arms, ammunition and other tools to the Resistance. All over Europe millions suffering the degradation and brutality of Nazi German conquest were cheered and encouraged by the knowledge that SOE existed to help them shake off their shackles. SOE gave ordinary folk a chance never previously offered in an organized scale to civilians in war – a chance to strike directly at those who oppressed them and do their own bit to avenge the wrongs.

As the war drew to a close it began to be debated whether SOE would replace MI6. William Cavendish-Bentinck, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, despite being a critic of MI6, strongly opposed the existence of two rival organisations and felt that there would be little requirement for one specialising only in espionage and sabotage in the post-war world. Consequently Special Operations Executive was closed down in 1946. Many of its talented personnel and training schools being transferred across to MI6, though most of them returned to their pre-war civilian or regular military careers.

Brenda Ralph Lewis: Special Operation (War Monthly).
Neil Kagan & Stephen Hyslop: World War II - The Spies and Secret Missions That Won the War (National Geographic, 2017).
Max Hastings: The Secret War (William Collins, 2015).
Katherine Marsh (Editor): Story of World War II (Future PLC).

Last Major Update: May 2023

Special Operations Executive Timeline

16 Jul 1940 Hugh Dalton was appointed the political chief of the British Special Operations Executive.
19 Jul 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a proposal to the British War Cabinet suggesting the creation of Special Operations Executive (SOE) to conduct unscrupulous, underhand methods to be pursued against Germany.
22 Jul 1940 The British War Cabinet approved the 19 Jul 1940 document by Neville Chamberlain to create the new secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) organization.
15 Nov 1940 Radio Inconnue, a black radio station operated by the propaganda section (S01) of SOE, began broadcasting from Britain, though claiming to be from Toulouse.
17 Nov 1940 Radio Travail, a black radio station operated by the propaganda section (S01) of SOE, began broadcasting from Britain, though claiming to be from France.
21 Jul 1941 Hugh Dalton informed Winston Churchill that his Special Operations Executive was now ready to support covert operations in German-occupied Europe.
25 Aug 1941 Radio Gaulle, a black radio station operated by the propaganda section (S01) of SOE, began broadcasting from Britain, though claiming to be from France.
4 Sep 1941 The first Lysander mission to France took place when a British Special Operations Executive agent was landed in a field near Issoudun, France, about 100 kilometers south of Orleans, and another was collected. The Lysander aircraft, painted matte black, spent just two minutes on the ground.
4 Jun 1942 Reinhard Heydrich, while en route to the airport, was ambushed by British SOE-trained Czech agent Jan Kubis and Slovak agent ozef GabcĂ­k in the suburb of Liben near Prague, Czechoslovakia. GabcĂ­k attempted to fire a STEN gun at Heydrich's car, but the weapon jammed. Heydrich ordered the driver to stop so he could confront GabcĂ­k, and the thus far unseen Kubis took the chance to throw an anti-tank mine at the car, fatally wounding Heydrich.
11 Oct 1942 Radio Patrick, a black radio station operated by the propaganda section (S01) of SOE, began broadcasting from Britain, though claiming to be from France.
18 Oct 1942 Four Norwegian agents of the British Special Operations Executive were parachuted near the Vemork heavy water production plant in Telemark, Norway on a reconnaissance mission code named Grouse.
26 Oct 1942 Norwegian trawler Arthur, commanded by Norwegian Lieutenant Leif Larsen working for the British Special Operations Executive, entered Trondheimsfjord, Norway with two Chariot manned torpedoes secreted beneath the vessel. The Chariots were torn off the hull when just 10 miles short of their target, German battleship Tirpitz, and the mission had to be abandoned.
15 Nov 1942 Radio Gaulle, a black radio station operated by the propaganda section (S01) of SOE, ceased broadcasting from Britain.
15 Feb 1943 Yolande Unternahrer joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).
28 Feb 1943 Six newly arrived Norwegian agents of the British Special Operations Executive (code named Gunnerside) joined the four agents already in place since Oct 1942 (code named Grouse) in sabotaging the Norsk Hydro-Elektrisk Vemork heavy water production plant in Telemark, Norway, thereby depriving German atomic weapons scientists of 500 kilograms of heavy water and near-future heavy water production capability.
21 May 1943 Radio Travail, a black radio station operated by the propaganda section (S01) of SOE, ceased broadcasting from Britain.
10 Jul 1943 Violette Szabo was selected for training as a field agent by the Special Operations Executive.
25 Nov 1943 Noor Inayat Khan attempted a failed escape attempt from her imprisonment at Sicherheitsdienst (SD) headquarters in Paris, France along with fellow Special Operations Executive agents John Renshaw Starr and Leon Faye.
10 Jan 1944 Radio Inconnue, a black radio station operated by the propaganda section (S01) of SOE, ceased broadcasting from Britain.
14 Mar 1944 Hannah Szenes was parachuted into Yugoslavia as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) operative.
16 Mar 1944 The Calcutta, India based Special Operations Executive mission in the Far East, known as GS I(k), adopted the title Force 136 with the purpose of providing long-range strategic and political intelligence throughout South-East Asia, and to organise local resistance groups against the Japanese.
2 Apr 1944 Radio Patrick, a black radio station operated by the propaganda section (S01) of SOE, ceased broadcasting from Britain.

Special Operations Executive Interactive Map

Did you enjoy this article or find this article helpful? If so, please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even $1 per month will go a long way! Thank you.

Share this article with your friends:


Stay updated with WW2DB:

 RSS Feeds

Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Commenter identity confirmed Alan Chanter says:
29 May 2023 11:40:51 PM

Many thanks for the timeline entries.
2. Will says:
30 May 2023 05:21:13 AM

This was a great read.
Keep up the good work guys.

All visitor submitted comments are opinions of those making the submissions and do not reflect views of WW2DB.

Posting Your Comments on this Topic

Your Name
Your Email
 Your email will not be published
Comment Type
Your Comments


1. We hope that visitor conversations at WW2DB will be constructive and thought-provoking. Please refrain from using strong language. HTML tags are not allowed. Your IP address will be tracked even if you remain anonymous. WW2DB site administrators reserve the right to moderate, censor, and/or remove any comment. All comment submissions will become the property of WW2DB.

2. For inquiries about military records for members of the World War II armed forces, please see our FAQ.

Search WW2DB
Famous WW2 Quote
"All right, they're on our left, they're on our right, they're in front of us, they're behind us... they can't get away this time."

Lt. Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, at Guadalcanal

Support Us

Please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even $1 a month will go a long way. Thank you!

Or, please support us by purchasing some WW2DB merchandise at TeeSpring, Thank you!