SOE (Special Operations Executive)
█ CARYN E. NEUMANN
A World War II-era British secret service division, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed on July 19, 1940, to coordinate subversion and sabotage in enemy-occupied countries. SOE agents distributed propaganda, blew up bridges, directed air strikes, destroyed factories, and taught resistance tactics. Most of SOE's success came in France, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy, although it also conducted major operations in Albania, Abyssinia, Belgium, Burma, China, Denmark, Hungary, Malaya, Norway, Poland, Romania, Siam (present-day Thailand), Turkey, and the Dutch East Indies. SOE disbanded on January 15, 1946, with many of its agents moving to MI6.
With the fall of France in 1940, SOE received authorization to begin operations to divert German, Italian, and Japanese attention away from the main fighting fronts towards the rear areas. The division, with headquarters scattered throughout London, developed three branches: SO1 for propaganda, SO2 for active operations, and SO3 for planning. Resistance movements had already formed in occupied countries, and it fell to SOE to finance, supply, and direct these operations. It did not operate effectively in the main enemy homelands of Germany and Japan because the locals were too unfriendly and the police too strong.
In order to achieve its goals, SOE relied upon 470 agents, 117 of whom died in action. The agents generally parachuted behind the lines to teach unarmed combat, bomb building, and espionage strategies to resistance fighters, but a number were pulled from the criminal ranks to supply expertly forged documents. SOE's greatest success may have been the 1942 bombing of a Norwegian plant that supplied heavy water (deuterium oxide) to Germany for use in developing an atomic bomb. Another notable achievement came when SOE agents guided a Royal Air Force attack on Gestapo headquarters in Denmark that permitted one prisoner escaping from the rubble to pick up a file of the names of Danish collaborators to be used as evidence at treason trials after the war. SOE so succeeded in harassing the Axis powers that they pulled troops from the front lines and sent them to guard railways, storage depots, and factories, while the British in contrast simply relied upon old men to protect these facilities.
An accurate measure of SOE's impact is difficult. The requirements of clandestine work meant that SOE agents rarely left written records, and those few official papers that do exist have been classified secret by the British government. The little that is known about the division marks it as a success.
█ FURTHER READING:
Foot, M.R.D. SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive 1940–46. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984.