Through the early years of the Second World War, as the Nazi blitzkrieg swept across Europe and Hitler’s troops stood powerful with much of the continent under heel, the Allies faced the very real possibility of defeat. It was in these dark days that the Allied forces launched what would prove to be their most vital offensive – covert operations against the Axis powers. The men and women involved used any means possible to harass the enemy and foment resistance, from code-breaking and elaborate campaigns of mis information to dummy tanks and fake troops.
The Cold War and the Official Secrets Act meant that their extraordinary efforts remained largely unknown, until recently. Just published by The Folio Society, SOE and The Deceivers reveal the ingenuity, daring and self-sacrifice of the covert operatives who helped win the war.
SOE: An outline history of the Special Operations Executive 1940–6 M. R. D. Foot
The Special Operations Executive was such a closely guarded secret that Allied commanders were unaware of the agency’s existence as late as summer 1942. Yet its clandestine operatives were already at work throughout Europe and as far afield as Burma and Malaya. Historian M. R. D. Foot, who fought in France and was for a time a prisoner of war, gives us an eye-opening account of their activities. He describes how a fighting force of just 450 men managed to rout 7,000 Italian and auxiliary soldiers in Abyssinia over 3 days in early 1941; the ‘Cockleshell Hero’ raid on blockade runners at Bordeaux in 1942; and Operation Gunner side, which saw a team of SOE-trained Norwegian agents parachute in to destroy a heavy-water plant near Oslo in 1942.
The deeds of individual operatives are no less impressive. Harry Rée, codenamed César, was ordered to set up a spy circuit (‘Stockbroker’) in northeast France where it was hoped his Mancunian accent in French would pass for Alsatian. After a crash course in espionage and parachute training, Brigadier Edmund C.W. Myers was told to lead 7 companions into Greece in 1942. Violette Szabo, codenamed Louise, was considered the best shot in the SOE. She was captured and executed by the Nazis in February 1945 – a fate that befell a quarter of the SOE’s 55 female agents. Such individual actions – desperate, often heroic and always filled with enormous personal risk – helped change the course of the war.
Also available in The Secret War series