The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Special Operations Executive

The Special Operations Executive (SOE), often called "the Baker Street Irregulars" after Sherlock Holmes's fictional group of spies, was a World War II organisation initiated by Winston Churchill in July of 1940 as a mechanism for conducting warfare by means other than direct military engagement. Originally designated as 'Section D' of MI6, the mission of the SOE was to encourage and facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines and to serve as a focal point for the formation of a vestigial resistance movement in Britain itself (the Auxiliary Units) in the possible event of an Axis invasion. Known also as Churchill's Secret Army and charged by him to "set Europe ablaze" (A mission also given to Churchill's other brainchild, the Commandos), the existence of the SOE was not made available to the public at large until many years after the cessation of hostilities.

Head of the SOE from September 1943 was Colonel Colin Gubbins. The head of the French section (south) of the SOE was Maurice Buckmaster. Vera Atkins (1908-2000), assistant to Buckmaster, was the soul of the SOE, so much so that many thought she actually ran the organisation.

The headquarters of SOE were at 64 Baker Street. Another important London base was Aston House , where weapons and tactics research was conducted. SOE's operations in France were directed by two London-based country sections. The "F" Section, under British control, was kept non-political, while the "RF" Section was linked to General de Gaulle's Free French operations. As well, there were two smaller sections: "EU/P" Section, which dealt with the Polish community in France and the "DF" Section which was responsible for escape routes and coordination. During the latter part of 1942 another section known as 'AMF' was established in Algiers.

The principal training centre of the SOE was at Wanborough Manor, Guildford. The SOE included a number of women, its F Section (France) alone placed 39 female agents in to the field, of these 13 did not return. The Valençay SOE Memorial was unveiled at Valençay in the Indre departement of France on May 6, 1991, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the despatch of F Section's first agent to France. The memorial's "Roll of Honour" lists the names of the 91 men and 13 women members of the SOE who gave their lives for France's freedom.

The SOE were highly dependent upon the security of coded transmissions, and Leo Marks, an SOE cryptographer, was responsible for the development of better codes to replace the insecure poem codes.

SOE were particularly active in the following countries: France, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Algeria, Greece, Poland, Czechoslovakia. Through cooperation with the Special Operations Executive and the British intelligence service, a group of Jewish volunteers from Palestine were sent on missions to several countries in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1943-1945.

In March of 1941 a group perfoming commando raids in Norway, Norwegian Independent Company 1 (NOR.I.C.1) was organized under leadership of Captain Martin Linge. Their initial raids in 1941 was Operation Archery), their best know raids were probably the Norwegian heavy water sabotage. Communication lines with London was gradually improved, so that in 1945, 64 radio operators were spread throughout Norway.

On May 5, 1941, Georges Bégué (1911-1993) became the first SOE agent dropped in France who then setup radio communications and met the next drop of agents. Between Bégué's first drop and August 1944, more than four hundred F Section agents were sent into occupied France to serve in a variety of functions such as arms and sabotage instructors, couriers, circuit organisers, liaison officers, and radio operators.

SOE was dissolved officially in 1946, and much of its sphere of influence reverted to the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, better known as MI6.

See SOE F Section timeline for a list of significant events in the history of F Section. See also SOE F Section networks for details of the individual networks operated by F Section.

SOE was known in public by its cover name, the Inter-Services Research Bureau (ISRB ).



Amongst SOE's agents can be numbered:

Numbered stations

SOE operated several "stations" located in country houses and elsewhere. These were given numbers, such as:

  • Station VI - Bride Hall, the weapons acquisition section.
  • Station IX - The Frythe estate near Welwyn Garden City, which began as a wireless research unit (Special Signals), then became a weapons development & production centre, then a research and development station. Now a factory belonging to Smithkline Beecham . [1]
  • Station X - Bletchley Park, a radio station, now more famous for its subsequent use as a codebreaking centre. The radio station moved to Aston House when codebreaking activities took over.
  • Station XI - Aston House near Stevenage, a research and development station.
  • Station XII - also at Aston House, the radio station that started at Bletchley Park.
  • Station XIV - Briggens, near Roydon , Essex, contained the forgery section.
  • Station XV - Thatched Barn - on the Barnet bypass at Borehamwood, Hertfordshire - camouflage section, for development of booby traps.
  • Station XVA - Kensington, London - prototypes.
  • Station XVB - A training centre for agents and Demonstration Room for briefing officials, at the Natural History Museum in London. [2]
  • Station XVC - photographic and make-up section.
  • Station 53a - Grendon Hall in Grendon Underwood, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire - cryptology centre. Now a prison.

Others, whose code numbers are unknown, included:

  • Gaynes Hall near St Neots in Cambridgeshire - Norwegian section.
  • Poundon Hall - near Aylesbury - decryption.
  • The Firs - Whitchurch, near Aylesbury - explosives testing.
  • Arisaig, Inverness-shire - finishing school [3]
  • Henley-on-Themes - quartermaster
  • Bellasis, at Box Hill, outside Dorking
  • Brickendonbury Manor - sabotage

See also:

Bibliography and filmography

  • The Secret History of SOE - Special Operations Executive 1940-1945, (BPR Publications, 2000), Professor William Mackenzie. ISBN 0953615189
  • Secret Agent - The True Story of the Special Operations Executive, (BBC Worldwide Ltd, 2000), David Stafford, ISBN 0563537345
  • R.J.Minney wrote the book "Carve her name with pride " in 1956, telling the story of Violette Szabo. A film of the same title was made in 1958 starring Paul Schofield and Virginia McKenna .
  • William Stanley Moss wrote the book "Ill met by moonlight " in 1950, giving his first-hand account of an SOE operation in 1944 to kidnap Major General Heinrich Kreipe , the German divisional commander on Crete. The film "Night Ambush", based on the book, was made in 1957, starring Dirk Bogarde and Marius Goring.
  • Jerrard Tickell wrote the book "" in 1949, telling the story of Odette Sansom-Hallowes. The film "Odette", based on the book, was made in 1950, starring Anna Neagle and Trevor Howard.
  • Jean Overton Fuller wrote the book "The Starr Affair", telling the story of John Renshaw Starr.
  • The Heroes of Telemark is a film, made in 1965, based on an SOE operation to sabotage the heavy water plant at Rjukan, Norway in 1943.
  • "" is a 1987 docudrama about Nancy Wake's work for SOE, partly narrated by herself.
  • "Between Silk and Cyanide " by Leo Marks, 1998; Marks was the Head of Codes at SOE and this book is an account of his struggle to introduce better encryption for use by the field agents
  • "Mission Scapula SOE in the Far East " by Arthur Christie, ISBN 0954701003 A true story about an ordinary soldier seconded into MI5 and sent on a mission to Singapore just before it fell. With Freddy Spencer-Chapman.


External links

  • Colin Gubbins, Leo Marks and the SOE
  • Special Operations Executive Records Release 8th Feb 2002 (dead link)
  • Special Operations Executive Records Releases in May 2003
  • 64 Baker Street: The Women of the SOE
  • "Mission Scapula" Special Operations Executive in the Far East.

Last updated: 02-04-2005 13:34:18
Last updated: 05-02-2005 12:28:01