The Background to SOE

For the visitor to France today, like the SOE agent before him, it is essential to become familiar with the origins of SOE (Special Operations Executive). To do this, two sites are of paramount importance: one located in London, the other near Sandy in Bedfordshire, some forty miles to the north of London and easily accessible by the A1. In London: the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, for the permanent exhibition ‘Secret War’ which provides the best and most concise overview of SOE.

Here you will find a wealth of original equipment including X-type parachutes; Michelin maps used by agents and Reception Committees; weapons and sabotage equipment; memorabilia including clothing, forged identity papers, photographs and souvenirs of such agents as Yvonne Cormeau and Tony Brooks.

The displays trace SOE’s history, its training and operational procedures, RAF and BBC involvement, and the results achieved. You can crawl inside the fuselage of a four-engined Halifax bomber and get some inkling of an agent’s experience.

In London, a visit to Westminster Abbey for the SOE Memorial should not be overlooked.

Tempsford Airfield

The site near Sandy and Everton, close by the A1 and just forty miles north of London, is that of Tempsford Airfield from which the majority of SOE agents departed for France on nights of the full moon. Even today a visit to the Dispatch Hut and other old RAF buildings on Gibraltar Farm, set in the lonely, wind-swept farmland, is both evocative and deeply moving. The original barn still stands close to the crumbling runway and a clear path leads from the road directly to it. Inside the barn the poppy wreaths of Remembrance Day and other memorabilia transport the visitor back to those nights in the 1940’s when RAF planes took off on clandestine missions with their courageous cargo of specially trained young men and women headed for the war in the shadows and a destiny fraught with danger and, too often, torture and death.

Tempsford Airfield as it appeared during the war years. Over a thousand agents set off for enemy-occupied territory from this secret base from 1942 to 1945.

Gibraltar Farm where agents were supplied with equipment prior to their departure.

Tempsford today – some of the huts have survived. Aircraft types used by the two squadrons, 138 and 161, engaged in clandestine operations: the Westland Lysander and Halifax Mk II.

In Tempsford take a drink in the ‘Wheatsheaf’ where Kerry and Christine Sabine can brief you on local history. The ‘White Hart’ is no more but St Peter’s church has its SOE memorial and the ‘Wheatsheaf’ will give you the atmosphere of those days.

There are many other SOE sites in Britain: over fifty primary ones including the several SOE HQs in Baker Street. But now we must come to an understanding of SOE’s history.

Some of the memorial plaques attached to saplings close by the Memorial Barn at Tempsford.

The History of SOE

SOE was founded by Winston Churchill and derived from the War Council Memorandum of 1 July 1940. Its purpose: ‘To set Europe ablaze!’ Liddell Hart’s Strategy of Indirect Approach was to be employed: suddenness, subterfuge and flexibility. From it unfolded a drama almost unparalleled in history.

A red-bordered card in Churchill’s ‘Hole in the Ground’ in Whitehall (ref: INTREPID No B/SOE/1) read:

‘a reign of terror conducted by specially trained agents, fortified by intelligence, so that the lives of German troops in Occupied Europe be made an intense torment’.

This unease was to so divert the German commanders, and their collaborators, that it would lead to the loss of a battle, a campaign, the war.

Later, the Americans were to join in. Their equivalent organisation was OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, under the command of ‘Wild Bill’ General William Donovan, the most decorated man in American history. He was a close friend of Churchill’s INTREPID, Sir William Stephenson, founder of BSC (British Security Coordination) in New York, himself a friend of President Roosevelt. BSC was a kind of god-parent to both SOE and OSS just as the latter was to be to the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).

SOE came under the command of Sir Colin Gubbins and its French Section, Section F, under Major Maurice Buckmaster assisted by Vera Atkins, described as ‘really the most powerful personality in SOE’. F Section was British (with agents of both British and French origin) and separate from RF Section which was responsible for setting-up cooperation with de Gaulle’s Free French forces, although de Gaulle, at the start, showed little interest in clandestine warfare.

Sir Collin Gubbins

Recruitment usually began with an individual’s meeting with Selwyn Jepson, a man, in Michael Foot’s words, ‘with a particular talent for this sort of work’. Found acceptable, be they male or female, this was followed by basic commando training and an even stiffer para-military course on the west coast of Scotland.

Maurice Buckmaster

Vera Atkins

Demolition work, parachute training, clandestine techniques and security, codes and ciphers, weapons and unarmed combat training were included and, for the wireless operators, wireless techniques, Morse code and set maintenance. Psychological training was based on four premises: an aggressive attitude to work in France; the absolute necessity for patience; indifference to disappointment; and the need for flexibility of thought and opportunist action. Simulated Gestapo interrogations prepared the agent for some of the worst which might befall him or her.

Much of the essential and war-winning attention to detail (French dust in trouser turn-ups, clothes cut by French tailors, etc) was due in no small measure to Vera Atkins, credited by many as ‘the brains of the organisation’.

Most agents destined for France were flown by the RAF and parachuted in. Some went by felluca (Portuguese sailing ships) or MTBs or MGBs (Motor Torpedo or Motor Gun Boats). SD Squadrons (Special Duties Squadrons) of the RAF (419 Flight, had three Lysanders and two Whitleys adapted for parachuting agents. Halifaxes, Wellingtons, Stirlings and Hudsons were also used. 138 and 161 Squadrons from Tempsford and Tangmere) flew, with the USAF, a total of 7,498 successful sorties.

Reception Committees were organised in advance; landing sites determined; coded signals established and broadcast by the BBC en clair – the famous messages personnels. On arrival the agent would set up his or her Network (or réseau) with its four-fold task of establishing radio communications; arranging the supply of arms, money and sabotage material; finding safe houses; and organising the supply and training of the Resistance. Many agents were also responsible for leading the Maquis into battle and directing the conflict.

Broadcasting coded messages from a BBC studio in London to agents in France.

A typical F Section team would consist of a leader; a Wireless Operator; and a trained sabotage and weapons instructor. While the men were usually commissioned in one of the armed services, the women were normally commissioned in the FANY (First Ambulance Nursing Yeomanry) while others held WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) commissions.

The multiple responsibilities, and complexities of the political scene on the ground, demanded a high degree of diplomacy and savoir faire. In the words of the Duke of Wellington: ‘The key to victory is the pursuit of all means, however small, which might promote success’. This philosophy was well examplified by SOE.

Operational Plans

Of the many operational plans prepared by SOE perhaps the most successful were Plan Vert and Plan Tortue. Plan Vert (so called because it was typed on green paper) featured maps and drawings prepared by twenty draughtsmen and listed some 800 missions against French railways. Its centrepiece was a series of simultaneous rail cuts designed to prevent designated German units from moving towards the front lines. These rail disruptions were to be maintained while the cross-Channel Allied build-up went forward. Plan Tortue (Tortoise) was designed to delay German reinforcements moving up by road by blowing bridges and cutting highways, thus delaying trucks and armour. It contained information for local Resistants on how best to delay Panzer Divisions heading for Normandy by blocking alternative routes, erecting road obstacles, placing mines and creating bottlenecks and ambushes.

Stages in the kind of destruction brought about by Resistance units to the French rail network.

A blown bridge – one of the many acts of sabotage carried out under Plan Tortue which was designed to delay German forces moving northwards.

Performance and Casualty Rates

At the heart of SOE were the agents themselves, every one a volunteer and fully briefed on the appalling fate which awaited them should they fall into enemy hands. The Nazi policy of Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) ensured that they would vanish into a hell of anonymous torture and violent death.

Totally accurate statistics on the number of agents sent into France are unavailable. About one quarter of the total number sent into France were from F Section. Maurice Buckmaster gives a figure of 480, a quarter of whom did not return. Of F Section’s forty-one women agents over a third did not return. They came from all walks of life and ranged ‘from pimps to princesses’. Of all these it was said, ‘They loved both France and England and hated the thought of either under Hitler’s Germany’.

In material terms, some 10,000 tons of stores and nearly FF 402m in money (new francs) were sent to field agents. Most of the money, all of the wireless sets, all of the aircraft, almost all of the ships, arms and equipment to supply the Resistance throughout France were delivered by SOE. The Vincennes Military Archives give a total of arms supplied by SOE department by department: hand weapons for over 350,000 men, 600 tons of explosives and 800,000 hand grenades.

F Section created about 100 Circuits on French soil. By the Liberation, thirty-one had been eliminated by enemy action; ten had been withdrawn on orders from London; and two had collapsed through internal stresses. On average, an agent’s operational life span was about six months.

As to SOE’s effectiveness, a wide range of professional opinion gives evidence of its success.

General von Rundstedt in 1944:

‘All commanders report a general revolt . . . whole formations were simply killed off’.’

General Eisenhower in 1945:

‘Special Forces played a very considerable part in our... final victory.’

SOE Report No 219/88 of 1944:

‘The Maquis has inflicted losses... out of all proportion to their own.’

SHAEF Combined Chiefs of Staff Report, 18 July 1945:

‘Without... SOE “resistance” would have been of no military value.’

Maitland Wilson, Supreme Allied Commander, Operation DRAGOON (invasion of the south of France):

‘The Resistance reduced the fighting efficiency of the Wehrmacht... to 40%.’

William Casey, ex-CIA chief, in Washington in 1982:

‘The Germans held the French Resistance in much higher regard than did some of our own generals.’

No less a critic, and Resistant, than André Malraux declared:

‘The general organisation of a plan which made military action possible was the work of SOE.’

While the Resistance came into the open and did battle with the enemy, the SOE necessarily remained more in the background. This Guide should, therefore, throw some light on the war in the shadows.

Seventeen years old FANY volunteer Daphne Marion Walker (assistant to Lieutenant Colonel Musgrove, commander of the JEDS at Milton Hall) with Lieutenant Bob Mundinger of JED TIMOTHY, at the time of their engagement in Piccadilly, London, 1943.

Jedburgh sergeants during a radio practice session at Milton Hall.

As well as the SOE Circuits there were the Jedburgh Teams, uniformed groups of three men, one British, one American, one French, who were dropped behind enemy lines on or after D-Day to liaise with the Maquis and to disrupt enemy forces. American Operational Groups (OGs) operated in much the same way as the Jeds, usually being composed of four officers and some thirty men. Both Jeds and OGs were in action against Das Reich. Finally, the Special Air Service (SAS) made its particular contribution to the battle and their BULBASKET Mission forms a separate chapter in this Guide.

Special Operations operatives arriving at Gibraltar Farm, Tempsford prior to take off when darkness falls.

F Section Circuits against Das Reich


Operational Dates

Time Span


May 1941 – November 1942 & January – August 1944

27 months


June 1942 – August 1944

26 months


November 1942 – Sept 1944

23 months


January 1943 – March 1944

15 months


April 1943 – August 1944

17 months


September 1943 – Oct 1944

14 months


January – September 1944

9 months


March – September 1944

7 months


May – September 1944

5 months


May – October 1944

6 months

Organisation of the French Resistance

In the minds of French veterans, the role of Pétain at Verdun in World War One made him a very respected figure during 1940-1942. However, after Montoire (where he shook hands with Hitler) his popularity declined drastically. ‘Resistance’ was the virtue of the few and called for unparelleled heroism. Tony Brooks told me that, while the high-ups in the Gendarmerie tended to be collaborationist, the men on the ground were normally OK. A simple description of the organisation of the French Resistance is almost a contradiction in terms. On the one hand an elaborate, structural system was erected in London under de Gaulle, a structure which underwent frequent alterations, additions and revisions. de Gaulle’s BCAR (Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action) was formed in 1942, nearly two years after the inception of SOE.

On the ground, in France, many Resistance groups sprang up spontaneously as from 1940, some of which remained autonomous, as in the case of the Maquis, while others were integrated into a national Resistance organisation, the National Resistance Council (CNR) in May 1943 under the direction of Jean Moulin, perhaps the greatest of France’s Resistance heroes. In addition, a number of secret Resistance groups still remain unknown.

Jean Moulin.

A familiarisation with some of the major French Resistance organisations will help the visitor to appreciate the context of individual actions.

Amongst the earliest on-the-ground organisations were COMBAT; the CONFRÉRIE de NOTRE DAME of Colonel Rémy; LIBÉRATION; and ALLIANCE directed by Marie-Madelaine Fourcade, which developed into ARCHE de NOÉ. Separately, the OCM (Organisation Civile et Militaire), FRANCS-TIREURS and the CDLR (Ceux de la Résistance) came into being. In the south west, particularly in Périgord and the Limousin, the BRIGADISTES, former Spanish Republicans, and RÉSEAU F2 was formed by Polish officers demobilised in 1940.

The four most important movements were COMBAT, LIBÉRATION-SUD, FRANCS-TIREURS et PARTISANS (FTP) and the ARMÉE SECRÈTE (A/S) under General Delestraint. These were later fused under the title MOUVEMENTS UNIS de la RÉSISTANCE (MUR). In 1944 the ARMÉE SECRÈTE, the ORA and the FTP combined, under General Koenig, and became known as the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur).

Maquisards in a forest camp, during the summer of 1944, await orders to move against the Germans.

The Maquis, begun in 1941, was not an organisation. It consisted of small, isolated units all over France but particularly in forested or mountainous areas and developed rapidly with the introduction of compulsory labour in Germany (the STO).

Various political and ideological motives drove these different organisations making co-operation difficult and sometimes impossible. This division was largely overcome by the politically neutral British agents of SOE who operated with all of them. Indeed, the British identity was sometimes crucial in saving lives. That said, the common cause was always against the same enemy and always for the liberation of France.

German Mountain Troops repair damage to a road bridge as their comrades stand by to provide covering fire should they be attacked by the Maquis.

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