|The 1943 SOE Manual; Available in Kindle and Paperback format|
When we think of spies, we conjure images of Ian Fleming's James Bond, the suave 007, the ladies-man, licensed to kill.
But truth is always darker than fiction.
Around the town of Dunkirk in May 1940, the British Army had abandoned most of its tanks and artillery. As the men were transported home, Britain was truly at the‘darkest hour’ of World War 2. The newly appointed Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had a lot to do, and very little time or money to do it with.
Churchill poured every resource into the RAF, for if Hitler wanted to invade Britain, he would need control of the skies. But Churchill had many other plans, hatched in those ‘dark hours’… plans for small units that would survive Britain's defeat; the Commandoes, Long Range Desert Group, British Resistance (GHQ), and the cream of the crop; the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Formed from three separate military intelligence entities, the SOE would be solely responsible for counter-espionage, and behind-the-lines projects. Back then, many thought Britain itself would soon be under German control, and Churchill prepared against it. By the end of 1941, the SOE had a program of Special Training Schools, both in the Home Counties (near London) and in the depth of darkest Scotland, training agents for covert operations.
A manual was written, over 400 pages of studiously crafted courses in espionage, propaganda, cell making, demolition, and many more. Wrap those up with in-depth instruction on close combat, arms training, parachuting, fitness, and Morse code, and you have a ready supply of agents ready for action. But this was no Geneva Convention led syllabus. Agents were taught to shoot first, and ask questions later. One section in the manual, on searching prisoners, has the following advice…
“Searching a Prisoner, if you are armed.... Kill him first. If that is inconvenient, make him lie face to the ground, hands out in front of him. Knock him out, with rifle butt, side or butt of the pistol or with your boot. Then search him."
That’s not exactly like the instruction at boot camp in the regular army. This was preparation for a dirty war, one run by knives in the throat and jackbooted Gestapo interrogations. The gloves were off, and both sides knew it. Nearly 7000 men and women graduated from the ‘schools’ in Britain, but the manual did not stop there. In the event of Britain falling to the Nazis, camps were set up in Palestine, Singapore and Canada. The newly formed OSS (soon to be the CIA) took the British manual and trained their own agents. Soon the SOE-trained agents were operating all over the world.
There are many stories of bravery in the SOE annals, and many thousands of men and women did not come back from their missions abroad. Their biggest day was D-Day, May, 1944. On the night before the invasion, over 1000 different operations were put into place behind enemy lines in occupied France; roads blocked, officers assassinated, railway bridges blown up, communication lines fouled, locomotives put out of action; of the 1000 operations, over 950 were successful, meaning the invasion of France could continue.
In 1940, Churchill told the SOE to “set Europe ablaze”, and they didn’t do a bad job of it.