London, England July 22, 1940

On this date in 1940 the British government created the Special Opera­tions Exec­u­tive (SOE) organi­za­tion. For security pur­poses the SOE’s “cloak and dagger” operations was con­cealed behind the name “Inter-Service Research Bureau.” (At the time the SOE was variously refer­red to as “the Baker Street Irregu­lars,” “Chur­chill’s Secret Army,” or the “Minis­try of Ungentle­manly War­fare.”) The SOE was inspired by British Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill’s fas­ci­na­tion with covert intel­li­gence gathering and guer­rilla war­fare (going as far back as his 1895 stint as a war cor­res­pon­dent during the Cuban up­rising), and it was modeled on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the troubles in Ireland (1916–1921).

Perhaps more than any other political leader of his age, Chur­chill shrewdly valued good intel­li­gence and its wise appli­ca­tion to affect the out­come of any struggle; e.g., the use of Ultra (German Enigma decrypts) during the North African cam­paign and more famously during the Battle of the Atlantic. Hence Chur­chill’s dual charge to SOE opera­tives: con­duct espio­nage, sabo­tage, and recon­nais­sance in enemy-occupied (or some­times neu­tral) Europe, and aid local resis­tance move­ments against their Axis occu­piers. (Volun­teers who were engaged in small- to bat­talion-size guer­rilla opera­tions behind enemy lines were employed in the Special Ser­vice Bri­gade [later British Com­mandos], which was formed a month earlier, in June 1940. The com­mandos ini­tially drew recruits from British Army regiments and were led by British Army officers.)

Some 13,000 people from all walks of life, among them 3,200 women, found ser­vice in SOE’s research, propa­gan­da, com­mando, and (mostly) clan­des­tine opera­tions, supporting or supplying roughly one million opera­tives world­wide. Opera­tion Anthro­poid was one of the more high-profile opera­tions carried out by SOE opera­tives—the gre­nade attack on Acting Reich Pro­tector Rein­hard Hey­drich in Prague, Czecho­slo­vakia, on May 27, 1942, that mortally wounded him. Hey­drich’s death on June 4, 1942, from car­diac arrest stem­ming from blood poi­soning led to a wave of repri­sals, including the arrest of 13,000 people, the killing of 5,000 civil­ians, and the destruction of several Czech villages by German troops.

In 1943, anticipating the Allied invasion of Western Europe (Opera­tion Over­lord), the SOE and its Ameri­can counter­part, the Office of Stra­tegic Ser­vices (OSS), formed an insti­tu­tional and opera­tional alli­ance. U.S. and British agents and their armed col­leagues in the French under­ground moved from clan­des­tine to overt acts of resis­tance in defi­ance of crimi­nal repri­sals German soldiers occa­sion­ally inflicted on civil­ian popu­la­tions; e.g., at Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane in Central France on June 9–10, 1944, by men of the 2nd SS Panzer Divi­sion “Das Reich.” Resis­tance took many forms, among them sabo­taging rail and road net­works, classi­fi­cation/mar­shalling yards, loco­motives, bridges, tunnels, and equip­ment depots through­out France to hinder the Wehr­macht’s ability to deploy, rein­force, and resupply their beach­head defenders, and repel Allied forces from their Normandy lodgement.

The SOE was dissolved officially in mid-January 1945. Some person­nel returned to civil­ian occu­pa­tions or regular ser­vice in the armed forces, but 280 of them found employ­ment in Britain’s MI6’s Special Opera­tions Branch. The OSS suffered a simi­lar though earlier fate in October 1945, and many agents simply shifted their allegiance to the new U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Women of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE)

SOE agent Virginia Hall, 1906–1982SOE agent Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, 1914–1944SOE agent Nancy Wake, 1912–2011

Left: Virginia Hall (1906–1982) joined the war against Nazi Germany before her country did. She settled in Paris in 1939 after resigning her job with the U.S. con­sular ser­vice. When war broke out, Hall drove ambu­lances for the French army, leaving for London after France’s capit­u­la­tion. There she met Vera Atkins of the SOE’s F (France) Sec­tion (see below), who sent her to Vichy France in August 1941. Between working for the SOE and later Amer­ica’s Office of Stra­tegic Ser­vices (OSS) Hall organ­ized French Resis­tance net­works, helped train three bat­talions of Resis­tance fighters, organ­ized sabo­tage opera­tions and guer­rilla attacks by French parti­sans, and passed intel­li­gence infor­ma­tion on German troop move­ments to the Allies until France’s liber­a­tion in 1944. Hall’s under­cover oper­a­tives approached 1,500 men and women. (Hall’s acti­vities, like those of other women, vio­lated the Geneva Con­ven­tion, which forbade females taking on com­batant duties.) Hall was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and received the U.S. Distin­guished Service Cross, the only civil­ian woman so honored in World War II. Sonia Purnell recounts Hall’s exploits in occupied France in the New York Times Times 2019 bestseller, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.

Middle: Daughter of an American mother and an Indian Sufi mystic who wrote children’s stories, the Russia-born Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan (1914–1944) and her family relo­cated to England before the family moved to France in 1921. Fleeing the invading Germans on one of the last boats leaving for England, Noor signed up with the British Women’s Auxil­lary Air Force in 1941 and trained as a radio oper­ator. Fluent in English and French, Noor, or Nora as she was now known, was the first female under­cover radio oper­ator the SOE sent to occu­pied France, this in mid-June 1943. Her career was cut short by a French double agent, who betrayed her and her net­work. Evading capture she was betrayed again and caught, along with her radio, code­book, and a record of all her past mes­sages, by the Germans in mid-October 1943. Refusing to provide any infor­ma­tion about her work or other SOE agents, she was merci­lessly tortured and exe­cuted in her cell in Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp on Septem­ber 13, 1944. She was post­hu­mously awarded both the French Croix de Guerre in recog­ni­tion of her con­tri­bu­tion to the liber­a­tion of France and the British George Cross, the highest civilian award for bravery in Britain.

Right: New Zealand-born SOE agent Nancy Grace Augusta Wake (1912–2011) became a pro­mi­nent leader of one of the Maquis bands (rural guer­rilla bands) of French Resis­tance fighters. Nick­named “the White Mouse” because of her ability to elude capture, Wake was No. 1 on the Gestapo’s most-wanted-per­sons list, with a five-million-franc price on her head. Between the build­up to D-Day and the lib­er­ation of France in August 1944, Wake’s 7,000‑plus maquisards fought 22,000 German SS soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while taking only 100 themselves.

SOE agent Vera Atkins, 1908–2000SOE agent Violette Szabo, 1921–1945SOE agent Christine Granville, 1908–1952

Left: Born Vera Maria Rosenberg in Bucharest, Romania, and educated at the Paris Sorbonne, Vera Atkins (1908–2000) was the highest-ranking female offi­cial in the French sec­tion (F Section) of the SOE, recruiting and inserting hun­dreds of agents, including 39 female agents, into France. (F Section believed that women blended in better than men in war­time France, espe­cially in Paris where young men were an increasing rarity.) After the war she served as a mem­ber of the British War Crimes Com­mis­sion, gathering evi­dence for the pro­se­cu­tion of war cri­mi­nals while also tracing the fate of 118 of her agents who never returned. The French govern­ment appointed Atkins Com­mandeur of the Légion d’Honneur in 1987. Reading an account of Atkin’s search to learn the fate of her missing female agents moved the his­tor­i­cal fiction writer Pam Jenoff to write The Lost Girls of Paris, a 2019 New York Times bestseller. William Stevenson wrote Atkin’s biography, Spymistress.

Middle: A widow after her husband, a cap­tain in the French Foreign Legion, died at El Ala­mein, Violette Szabo (1921–1945) was recruited into the SOE. Para­chuted deep into France on June 7, 1944, her second trip there (her first had been to Cher­bourg in April 1944), she was tasked with coor­di­nating the work of the local Maquis in the Limoges area in the first days after D‑Day. She was cap­tured by the German SS, handed over to the Gestapo in Paris where she was inter­ro­gated and tor­tured, and then sent to Ravens­brueck, the noto­rious women’s con­cen­tra­tion camp in North­ern Germany, where she was exe­cuted in January 1945. She was only 23. For her cour­age she was post­humously awarded the George Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

Right: Polish-born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek (1908–1952), who began using the nom de guerre Christine Granville in 1941, was said to have been Chur­chill’s “favorite spy.” She became a British agent months before the SOE was founded in July 1940 and was one of the longest-serving of all of Britain’s war­time women agents. Para­chuted into South­eastern France a month after D‑Day, Gran­ville worked to link Italian parti­sans and the French Maquis for joint opera­tions against the Germans in the Alps and induce non-Germans, especially con­scripted Poles, in the German occupa­tion forces to defect to the Allies. Her exploits were recog­nized with the George Medal, the Croix de Guerre, and the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Gladiators of World War II: Britain’s Special Operations Executive (May want to skip first 45 seconds.)

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