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St. Ermin’s Hotel and the origins of SOE’s Section D


Each night the Luftwaffe’s incessant bombs fell on London, from the East End to the junction of Caxton Street and Broadway, only yards from St Ermin’s Hotel. Staff of the various intelligence agencies who occupied the hotel would have been working night shifts to maintain SOE’s preparation to send its agents into the field, but they would undoubtedly have dived under their desks as the bombs fell around the hotel.

Work was going on in the hotel as SOE evolved its plans to create its unorthodox and ungentlemanly war, which called for unique responses to the request to keep Europe ablaze. The plan was to drop SOE agents into regions where promising resistance movements were beginning to emerge; agents would then be expected to create and maintain active resistance groups. When the effectiveness of a group was proven they would be supplied with arms, ammunition and other resources needed to attack the Nazi occupying forces. SOE had to find the right candidates to train as agents capable of developing and operating resistance groups in the occupied countries and communicating their activities and needs in ciphered wireless signals back to their control in London. The groups had to be directed to their best effect in the underground war, so there was a great deal to do – but where would they start and how could they set about the task? 

Among the intelligence officers working in Caxton Street was Kim Philby, who had been recruited at an early stage in the war to work for MI6 - and even earlier by the Soviets while he was at Cambridge in the 1930s. He was working in the personnel section responsible for training when he recalled walking into his office in Caxton Street one morning to be surprised to meet an old friend, Guy Burgess, from his days at Trinity College in Cambridge. Burgess had been recruited in 1939 from the BBC Talks Department and told Philby that he had proposed to Lawrence Grand that he would be responsible for establishing a school for training agents in espionage techniques. He asked Philby to help him, and as a result Philby wrote in his book, My Silent War:The Autobiography of a Spy:

“It was an astonishing proposal, not because it was made but because it had not been made before. No such school existed. Guy argued the case for its necessity, obvious now but new then. He outlined the subjects of the syllabus. At the end he suggested that such a college should be named ‘Guy Fawkes College’ to commemorate an unsuccessful conspirator who had been foiled by the vigilance of the Elizabethan SIS. It was a neat touch but he could hardly have suggested the Guy Burgess College. At last I had got my teeth into something. I broke the subject up into its component parts, syllabus, selection of trainees, security, accommodation and so on and produced a memorandum on each subject. I have forgotten most of what I wrote.”

The title, when it was chosen, was less obvious and the school was eventually called the ‘Inter-Service Experimental Department’. But to those who were in the know it was called the ‘D School’. Burgess’ syllabus for the new school included propaganda, organisation of subversive cells, the art of spreading rumour and propaganda, the use of arms and explosives, wireless telegraphy and so on.

The curriculum for the training schools had been established, but by mid-1941 the first SOE agents were just finishing their training and available to place into Europe. It had to meet the practical problems of agent placements, which were complex, but a strong and growing indication of anti-Nazi feelings among the indigenous population in the occupied countries was beginning to be obvious. The problem was to see how to harness the growing feeling for resistance to the needs of the Allied war effort.

Objectives for SOE’s future aggressive cloak-and-dagger operations were being considered, drafted and prepared even while actions to combat the invasion threat in south-east England were still informing the immediate thinking of SOE. As the invasion threat faded, the organisation that had been formed from the merger of the three existing clandestine departments in the Foreign Office, the War Office but the SIS was becoming more belligerent about it.

The Foreign Office had created a propaganda organisation designated ‘EH’ after Electra House (its headquarters) to spread information and misinformation wherever it disturbed the enemy. SIS had formed a Section D (which some say stood for ‘destruction’) to investigate irregular means of weakening the enemy’s infrastructure, mainly by sabotage. The War Office expanded its Military Intelligence (Research) Section (MIR), looking into the possibilities of guerrilla warfare undertaken by regular uniformed troops who later became the elite forces such as the Commandos and the SAS (Special Air Service).

The air of daring and adventure in SOE was still in the process of being created with the help, and sometimes even disapproval, of various government departments, particularly the more hidebound civil servants among them. The objectives of SOE were out of line with the principles of MI6, which felt it needed to lure the enemy into a tranquil state of mind while it probed its secrets – on the other hand, SOE simply wanted to blow things up.

The military did not approve of ‘amateurs’ attacking the enemy in what they saw as such a haphazard way, particularly as the ‘upstarts’ would not wear uniform and, even worse, would be independent of their control. Worse still, the new organisation was being formed from an amalgamation of parts of the sections already formed within the War Office as well as MI6. Section D, within Military Intelligence, and MI6 both had vaguely similar objectives so developing methods of irregular warfare was not an entirely strange idea to them, although the army still disapproved of an undisciplined rabble.

The propaganda arm of SOE never fitted into its structure easily and was separated from the organisation later in the war, but the other two military sections were ordered to co-operate. They came to a working agreement on their division of activities: the MIR participated in irregular operations that could be undertaken by regular uniformed troops such as the Commandos or SAS, while Section D dealt with truly undercover work that was, in Churchill’s words, ‘unavowable’.

Section D was initially housed in the basement of SIS Headquarters at 54 Broadway but soon outgrew its accommodation there, both physically as well as probably not being made welcome by its MI6 hosts. The new organisation chose rooms in a most unlikely venue for a secret organisation – St Ermin’s Hotel, which had already been in use as an informal meeting place for the secret intelligence community for some years. Ever since MI6 moved in at Broadway around the corner the SIS officers had made a habit of lunching, dining and generally entertaining their guests there so the hotel was well known to the staff of Section D. Sometimes extra rooms were taken for interviewing (or interrogating?) potential recruits or other contributors to its body of intelligence knowledge.

The amalgamation of Section D and MIR into SOE began its new life in a few rooms in the hotel, but within a few weeks it began to overflow just around the corner on to the sixth floor of Caxton House and soon the fifth floor as well. As World War II raged on SOE agents (and double agents) worked tirelessly to undermine their enemies both at home and abroad.

Extracted from House of Spies by Peter Matthews

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