SOE The Special Operations Executive 1940- 1946
reads just as well now as it did when it was first published by the BBC in 1984 to coincide with a television series--not least because its author, M.R.D Foot, was appointed the official historian to the SOE just after World War Two and has had access to its entire archive. The SOE was hastily cobbled together in 1940 to wage subversive campaigns behind enemy lines, and by and large it made up the rules as it went along. It recruited where and when it could. As might be expected, the senior ranks generally came from the echelons of the public schools, the City, the business world and the armed services; but its agents were a bizarre mix of eccentrics and mavericks from all over the world--including North American newspaper editors, South American businessmen, Spanish smugglers, Abyssinian tribesmen, Norwegian mountaineers, schoolchildren, Dutch printers, Greek outlaws, Slovene peasants, Malayan rubber workers, Siamese noblemen, Naga hillmen, Polish and Czech railway guards and Chinese tycoons. All in all, however, SOE's total strength never totalled more than 10,000 men and 3,200 women. Often the training was crude and the operations were ill-thought out and as a result many failed. But that only serves to make those that succeeded against such long odds all the more impressive. Occasionally, such as its attack on the Norsk Hydro plant at Rjukan, SOE's operations were critical to the outcome of the war, but for the most part its successes owed more to the longevity of attrition rather than any immediate outcome.
The SOE spent much time engaged in diversionary activity. It was said that each day Hitler spent at least half an hour considering Abwehr reports on SOE activities and that he was never entirely sure of their place in the overall framework of Allied plans. But perhaps the greatest success of the SOE was the way it managed to foster a mentality of resistance in all areas of Nazi occupation. Populations that might otherwise have settled for an easy life were galvanised into a permanent state of mini-rebellion, thereby ensuring that the occupying forces could never relax for a moment. Foot is the ideal guide to walk you through this outfit of which much has been spoken but little is known, sorting out the fact from the fiction but he still finding ample room for storytelling. Your perspective on World War Two will never be quite the same again after reading this. -- John Crace
'A fit testament to the bravery, selflessness and sacrifice of a magnificent group of people.' Sunday Telegraph