Perhaps the most famous of the World War II spy organisations, Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established early in the war out of Churchill’s ambition to ‘set Europe ablaze’. It would become known as ‘Churchill's Secret Army’ – a reference to the shadowy nature of its work. Agents of SOE were tasked with gathering intelligence, carrying out acts of sabotage, and building up and supporting local movements such as the French Resistance.
They also took part in manouevres supporting specific military objectives. Operation Jedburgh saw SOE support the D-Day invasions of June 1944 by coordinating overt resistance across France, while Operation Periwig used black propaganda and deception to conjure up a non-existent anti-Nazi movement, in an attempt to disrupt and discredit the German state.
SOE had departments stationed all over Britain working to support them: forging paperwork, developing weaponry and camouflage, recruiting new operatives and training them in spycraft. Their efforts were supported by other branches of the military and government. The SIGINT and cryptography teams of Bletchley Park provided wireless communications and battled to acquire useful intelligence by breaking the Enigma code, while the BBC included coded communications to agents in its broadcasts.
Spying might have been described as the ‘great game’, but in reality it was a perilous undertaking that required daring and sang-froid. Operatives were parachuted into occupied territory and often had only their wits to rely on for survival. Others, like the ‘White Mouse’ Nancy Wake, lived a double life, using their established positions in their adopted countries as a cover for illegal and dangerous actions under the nose of the enemy. If caught, these spies faced interrogation, torture, imprisonment and even death.
Spy recruits came from all classes and backgrounds, from Indian royalty like Noor Inayat Khan to members of the working classes and even convicted criminals. The infamous Agent Zigzag, who initially worked for Nazi Germany before turning double agent for the British, had served several prison sentences for crimes ranging from petty theft to fraud and safecracking.
Violette Szabó was perhaps recruited because she spoke fluent French and due to her experience in the ATS. During her missions she worked with other famous agents such as Bob Maloubier and Jean Claude Guiet, and demonstrated extraordinary courage. She was sadly captured on her second mission and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp. She became the second woman ever to win the George Cross.
Unsurprisingly the stories of these secret agents continue to fascinate us today. It is perhaps because their activities have remained largely hidden in the classified and top-secret files of the archives, allowing them to be glamourised in fiction. Indeed, one of SOE’s most famous agents, the ‘White Rabbit’ Yeo Thomas, was the inspiration for the most famous fictional spy of them all, James Bond.
A memorial to the agents of SOE now stands on London’s Albert Embankment, a fitting tribute to the men and women whose brave actions contributed so much to the outcome of World War II.