REVIEW: Secret War- The Story of SOE-Britain’s wartime sabotage organization

Nigel’s book details the foundation and early years of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) created in 1940. This organization has always been shrouded in secrecy due to the nature of its wartime and peacetime objectives. Formed during WWII it was instrumental in inserting men deep into enemy territory in the European, South-East Asia, Middle East and South American theaters of operation.

Overall the author does a great job of detailing the formation and activities of the SOE. Initially SOE was an amalgam of two existing clandestine units: the black propaganda staff known as Electra House and SIS’s sabotage branch known as Section D. The SOE was formed to foment subversion (raise hell) across the world. Churchill wanted them “to set the world ablaze”. This book covers extensively the first two years, SOE activities in the Middle East, Scandinavian operations, SOE in the low countries, operations in France, North Africa, Balkans, Greece, South-East Asia as well as India. I virtual who is who in the spy world, this book covers most of Britain’s SOE events that shaped the WWII spy craft type of operations and continued on through the Cold War era.

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The SOE’s involvement in Normandy during the critical days after the beach landings was a significant contributing factor to the overall success of the allied operation. Dozens of SOE operatives displayed extraordinary personal gallantry on numerous occasions throughout WWII. Often done without proper logistical support and  political backing.

Most of the resistance networks which SOE formed or worked with were controlled by radio directly from Britain or one of SOE’s subsidiary headquarters. All resistance circuits contained at least one wireless operator, and all drops or landings were arranged by radio, except for some early exploratory missions sent “blind” into enemy-occupied territory.

Initially SOE’s radio traffic went through the SIS-controlled radio station at Bletchley Park. After June 1942 SOE started using its own Grendon Underwood in Buckinghamshire and Poundon.

SOE depended on Communications Security (COMSEC) by means of three factors: the physical qualities and capabilities of the radio sets, the security of the transmission procedures and the provision of the provided ciphers. As with their first radio sets, SOE’s first ciphers were inherited from SIS. Leo Marks, SOE’s chief cryptographer, was responsible for the development of better codes to replace the insecure poem codes. Eventually, SOE settled on single use ciphers, printed on silk. Unlike paper, which would be given away by rustling, silk would not be detected by a casual search if it was concealed in the lining of clothing.

SOE’s first radios were large, clumsy and required large amounts of power. They designed and manufactured their own, such as the Paraset, under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel F. W. Nicholls R. Sigs who had served with Gubbins between the wars. The A Mk III, with its batteries and accessories, weighed only 9 pounds (4.1 kg), and could fit into a small briefcase, although the B Mk II, otherwise known as the B2, which weighed 32 pounds (15 kg), was required to work over ranges greater than about 500 miles (800 km).

In the field, agents could sometimes make use of the postal services, though these were slow, not always reliable and letters were almost certain to be opened and read by the Axis security services. In training, agents were taught to use a variety of easily available substances to make invisible ink, though most of these could be detected by a cursory examination, or to hide coded messages in apparently innocent letters. The telephone services were even more certain to be intercepted and listened to by the enemy and could be used only with great care.

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The most secure method of communication in the field was by courier. In the earlier part of the war, most women sent as agents in the field were employed as couriers, on the assumption that they would be less likely to be suspected of illicit activities

As WWII ended Anthony Eden had the vision for a need for a peacetime spy network deep undercover in numerous countries. Their early focus was Scandinavia, Italy, and Austria. Although the main allied effort during WWII and those of the SOE were successfully in eliminating horrible dictators in Germany and Italy, ultimately most of Europe remained under totalitarian control for the next forty five years following WWII. This situation was ripe for the further development and growth of the British and American intelligence services.

About the author. Nigel West The author also wrote “A Matter of Trust MI5: 1945-72”, “Molehunt”, “Game of Intelligence” and “The Friends: Britain’s Post-War Secret Intelligence Operations”.

This book is available on (US),  Amazon UK and at Pen and Sword Publishing.

Book review by Christopher (Moon) Mullins




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