In July 1940, a secret British organisation was formed to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers. It was called the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Hundreds of agents were sent to countries including France, Belgium, Greece, Norway, Albania, Yugoslavia and Italy. Their missions were very dangerous and few people were even aware of their existence.

Background

Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, to take political responsibility for the SOE. Churchill’s instruction was to 'set Europe ablaze'. From its headquarters near Baker Street, London, SOE began to recruit men and women to serve in the field. Their backgrounds were diverse and they came from many different countries. They received special training, including advanced espionage techniques, unarmed combat and self-defence, and wireless radio skills.

Missions

Many of the operations were successful. One of the first was Operation Josephine in June 1941. SOE agents attacked a power station at Pessac, south of Bordeaux. Using explosives, they destroyed six of the power station’s eight transformers. As a result, a vital German submarines base at Bordeaux was put out of action for months.

In March 1942, Allied forces attacked the German-held dry dock at St Nazaire, France, in an operation codenamed Operation Chariot. The old destroyer HMS Campbeltown was filled with explosives and rammed into the dock gates, putting the dock out of service for the remainder of the war. German warships in need of repairs were forced to take a more dangerous route back to home waters.

In February 1943, SOE agents destroyed the Norsk Hydro Plant plant at Vemork, Norway. The operation, known as the Telemark Raid, prevented the German nuclear energy project from acquiring 'heavy water' which could have been used to produce nuclear weapons.

Other missions were more controversial. Operation Anthropoid in May 1942 saw an SOE-trained team of Czech and Slovak soldiers assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a prominent Nazi who oversaw the Gestapo. In retaliation, the German SS killed 5,000 civilians in two villages near Prague.

By 1945, SOE had more than 13,000 men and women in its ranks with networks extending across occupied Europe and the Far East. Its work was considered an important part of the Allied victory.

Commemorating SOE

Many agents were captured, interrogated and executed. The majority have no known grave. The Brookwood 1939-1945 Memorial bears the names of 81 operatives. Among them are six female agents, including Violette Szabo, one of only four women ever to receive the George Cross.