What if you have to survive undercover in a hostile land?
A single slip can lead to arrest, torture, execution. Who can be trusted? Discover what kept Churchill’s secret saboteurs alive in occupied France, Holland or Thailand – or didn’t!
‘A fascinating and important study of a long-hidden corner of SOE history.’ Dr Roderick Bailey, Pembroke College, Oxford, Advisor to BBC TV series ‘Secret Agent Selection: WW2’.
The men and women who served as agents of the World War 2 Special Operations Executive were courageous. But courage was not enough. They also needed to learn the caution and suspicion that might just keep them alive, deep undercover in enemy territory.
Guardians of Churchill’s Secret Army tells the stories of the extraordinary men who taught them those skills and thought processes. They helped trainee agents learn how to seem innocuous while preparing resistance, subversion and sabotage. Each spoke several languages. Many became agents themselves and faced danger with great bravery; that’s part of their story too. All played a crucial role in the global effort to undermine the enemy.
We find them not only in the Baker Street Headquarters of SOE, but also in night parachute drops, in paramilitary training in the remotest depths of Scotland and in undercover agent training in isolated English country houses. We follow them to occupied France, to Malaya and Thailand under threat of Japanese invasion, to Italy and Germany as they play their part in the collapse of the Axis regimes. Their stories are inspiring.
If you like discovering the true stories that underpin the history of the Second World War, then you’ll want to read this authentic book. Author of Setting the Med Ablaze, Dr Peter Dixon has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and four decades of military and peacebuilding experience. In the tradition of Antony Beevor and Ben Macintyre, he shines a spotlight on a crucial area of the Special Operations Executive.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Many books have been written about the men and women of the Special Operations Executive, but the story of these men was a little-known aspect of World War 2 history.
In April 1943, Agent Stockbroker of the Special Operations Executive parachuted into a moonlit field in German-occupied France. Despite several close shaves, he succeeded in his clandestine mission, remained free and survived the war. Two months later, Agent Valentin too descended by night under a silk canopy, to a different part of France. Just days later, he was captured and eventually executed. In the following year, a month after D-Day, Agent Adjacent dropped with six comrades into the hilly Haute Vienne region of southwest France to support French Resistance fighters in their attempt to hinder German reinforcements.
These three brave men – and many more like them – risked their lives to fulfil Winston Churchill‘s 1940 order to ‘Set Europe Ablaze’. Some of these agents survived. Many did not. But it was not just a matter of luck. As important were the suspicion and caution with which they approached undercover life and the tricks they had learned to keep themselves secure.
This book tells the mostly unknown human stories of the small group of men – yes, they were all men – who were brought into SOE, straight from Intelligence Corps training, to keep the organisation secure. They were junior in rank, but far from ordinary people. They were Australian, Anglo-French, Canadian, Scandinavian, East European and British. They had been schoolteachers, journalists, artists, ship brokers, racehorse trainers and international businessmen. Each spoke several languages. Their contribution has not yet been fully recognised.
Their initial role was ‘Field Security’ and started out as ensuring the security of agents about to be deployed on hazardous missions. Trained in counter-intelligence and skilled in a range of foreign languages, they could get alongside men and women who were preparing to risk their lives in France, Norway, Belgium and further afield. Many – like the three I have mentioned above – developed a much more active role themselves, in SOE operations worldwide.
The subjects of this book were almost exclusively men. Although many women served in support of the Intelligence Corps – many in the Auxiliary Territorial Service – its personnel were all male. Thus women, who were such an important part of SOE, regrettably do not get much of a look-in here. This may be thought imbalanced, but books and even films about SOE heroines abound. Carve Her Name with Pride, the story of Violette Szabo, is one.
This is by no means the first book about the Special Operations Executive, the organisation tasked by Winston Churchill in 1940 to take the fight to the enemy, when desperately weakened Britain had few options. Without trying hard, I found 290 such books in English. Exciting narratives have revealed the heroic operations of the men and women parachuted into Nazi-occupied territory: wreaking havoc and encouraging, supporting and coordinating the efforts of those brave enough to resist harsh and brutal regimes. Academic historians have pored over sparse documentation to work out how great a role the SOE – and the Resistance movements with which it worked – played in the Allied war effort. The disputes, too, have been documented: between SOE and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS); between SOE and the more conventional military commanders and political leaders in London; between rival political factions – in France, in Belgium, in Greece – over money and weapons; and between Allies.
By describing the activities and the global reach of the Intelligence Corp’s Field Security men in SOE, I aim to fill a substantial gap in the history of the Second World War for the non-specialist reader, between histories of the two organisations. The Intelligence Corps has been less comprehensively documented than SOE, but good histories exist, such as Sharing the Secret by Nicholas Van der Bijl, who devotes a chapter to SOE.
I am not alone in trying to fill this gap in the history; Christopher Murphy’s Security and Special Operations is a fine academic study of SOE’s security, particularly its relations with MI5, between 1939 and 1945. However, my aim is different. I focus on the personal fates of the thirty-eight men who, with their Field Security Officers, were members of the first three Field Security Sections (63, 64 and 65 FSS) formed in January and February 1941 to support SOE. Their families contribute to the narrative. So too do some of the more than 100 Field Security men who subsequently joined the organisation, where their stories help to build the overall picture. (The Dramatis Personae at the end of the book is a ‘Who’s Who’ of the main characters.)
Even this cannot possibly be the whole story, though. About 600 Intelligence Corps officers and NCOs, including these Field Security men, served with SOE world-wide. This was about a tenth of the Corps’ wartime strength; they worked as staff officers, country section heads, security staff, planners and instructors. A number of them operated behind enemy lines in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. Much has been written on the more senior of them, rather less on the Field Security personnel, who were often not seen as ‘important’. My focus is on relatively junior individuals, rather than the personal rivalries of politicians or the inevitable disputes between departments. In secret Whitehall, battles raged. Winston Churchill was frequently SOE’s saviour. He was determined that SOE or something like it should exist. For these political aspects of SOE’s history or to trace loose ends, readers can find plenty in the Note on Sources to satisfy their curiosity.
This book, then, is about the relationship between SOE’s secret agents and the men who tried to keep them secure and safe. But many of those guardians became courageous agents themselves. Also, they were secret agents, but not spies. Although they often delivered intelligence to the right quarters, SOE’s role was not meant to be espionage. These brave men and women went undercover in occupied Europe and elsewhere to implement Churchill‘s vision of irregular warfare, something we will discover as the book progresses.
I start us on this journey by looking at a man who deserves more attention than he has had. His wartime career illustrates the spirit of SOE’s people, emphasises how important training was to the organisation and shows that in some cases survival depended very much on luck. His progress encapsulates in microcosm much of what I explore in the rest of the book. His name was Teddy Bisset.
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