The Special Operations Executive (SOE) came into being in the shadow of the British defeat and subsequent evacuation at Dunkirk. At a time when there was no way in which an immediate cross-Channel counter-attack by traditional military forces could take place, its inauguration can be seen as one of a series of responses aimed at retaining at least some semblance of aggression against the German enemy.
Although Churchill had given his approval to the operations and aims of the SOE with the oft-quoted phrase 'set Europe ablaze',<1> this was not to be an accomplishment of SOE. Rather than setting Europe ablaze, SOE were to keep the embers smouldering until a time when they could be fanned into life for the benefit of the Allied armies, whilst in effect stockpiling fuel for the coming conflagration in the form of well equipped 'secret armies' and sympathetic populations. This they did by 'instigating subversion, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare against the Axis in cooperation with the resistance forces of occupied Europe'<2> and, where those forces did not yet exist, aiding their emergence.
These of course were the stated aims of the SOE. There were other, unstated, aims, most importantly perhaps that of survival within a wartime British establishment filled with opponents. Neither the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), from whose Section D SOE can be said to have sprung, nor the Foreign Office, could see any necessity for a body of this nature. The SIS was concerned that its intelligence gathering operations would suffer from SOE's existence, despite the fact that 'the Chiefs of Staff considered that the intelligence needs of SIS should have overall priority over SOE operations'.<3> The Foreign Office, on the other hand, believed that SOE's focus on short term military action would be at the cost of the FO's long term diplomatic intentions. The fact that not even high ranking SOE officers had seen the charter which laid down their objectives<4> meant that it was difficult for SOE officers themselves to identify specific aims,<5> and even less likely that either the SIS or the FO would be able to comprehend the nature of SOE's activities.
Hugh Dalton, the first head of SOE, divided the organisation into three separate entities; SO(1) was charged with the responsibility of undertaking a propaganda war against the Axis; SO (2) was to coordinate 'sabotage and subversion … to organize resistance and to cause discomfort distress and despair of the enemy on the largest possible scale';<6> SO(3) was to be a planning body. Regardless of their differing approaches, however, these entities had the same overall aims.
The achievements of propaganda, and hence of SO(1), are very difficult to effectively measure but Balfour argues that, whilst 'British propaganda to Germany … failed, … [propaganda elsewhere] kept the spirit of resistance alive in Europe'<7> - the efforts of SO(1) must have had some bearing on this success. The fact that SOE's military actions, whether successful or not, had a secondary propaganda value makes assessment even more difficult.
The achievements of SO(2), on the other hand, are somewhat easier to quantify, if not to assess. They may be considered in three different ways; major sabotage operations; minor sabotage operations and preparation for the return of the Allies to mainland Europe.
Of the many countries in which SOE was involved, probably its most successful major operations took place in Norway and Greece, although these two countries had little else in common. Both countries were mountainous but, because of weather limitations, there was no possibility that large groups of resistance fighters could survive in the mountains of Norway - unlike Greece. Norway's northerly latitudes also meant that air supply was ruled out for the summer months so that Norway was serviced by a regular seagoing shuttle service from the North of Great Britain. Greece, on the other hand, was serviced irregularly by parachute drop and small boat landings.
Perhaps the most important difference between the two fields of operation, however, was that, although Norway had two resistance movements, they both supported the government in exile and were, generally, in concert with Allied war aims and post-war intentions<8> - although the Norwegian government in exile was suspicious of SOE's propaganda efforts.<9> Greece, conversely, suffered from conflict between a variety of resistance movements on the left and centre of politics, not all of which supported the government in exile or Allied postwar aims. SOE was limited to some extent in Greece for, whilst they felt that it was their role to build up resistance without regard to the political stance of the groups involved, Churchill and the British government were opposed to ELAS<10> - the communist resistance group. SOE's actions in supporting this group caused friction between SOE and the Greek government in exile<11> and also between SOE and the Foreign Office, who felt that the SOE 'was practically building up an opposition to the [Greek] King and his Government'.<12>
Despite early doubts about the possibilities of forming a viable resistance movement in Norway,<13> and the early opposition of the Norwegian government in exile to 'activities which would extend the war into Norwegian territories'<14> SOE eventually had several successes. These include the intelligence which eventually led to the sinking of the Bismarck,<15> sabotage at various important military-industrial sites<16> and the setting up of the 'Shetland bus service' which provided a regular transport route to and from Norway for the whole of the war.<17> Norway was also, arguably, the site of SOE's major military success during the war involving the denial of heavy water supplies to the German atomic research efforts. This was achieved - after two ground operations and a bombing attack had had only limited success - by sinking the vessel carrying the equipment to Germany in a Norwegian fjord, beyond hope of salvage. Since the intention to move the equipment was as a direct response of the SOE attacks at an earlier stage, the complete operation can be seen to have been a result of SOE's offensive.
Whether this resulted directly or indirectly in the failure of the Germans to develop an atomic bomb, as has been suggested<18> is less certain. At the time of the attack British Intelligence was of the opinion that the Germans had, in effect, taken their research along the lines of atomic power rather than atomic weaponry,<19> having abandoned work on an atomic bomb 'as early as June 1942'<20> - a belief that was supported by discoveries of the ALSOS mission at the end of the war.<21> Nevertheless, stopping the development of German atomic power was a worthwhile aim in itself.
Less questionable in its success was the SOE and combined Greek andartes attack on the Gorgopotamos railway bridge which 'marked the first major achievement of the resistance'<22> in Greece and which cut the flow of military material into Greece by 40 per cent and reduced electricity available in Athens by cutting fuel supplies.<23> It was, however, most remarkable for the fact that, in order to achieve this success, for the first time - and the last - ELAS and EDES worked in concert.
A similar operation - operation 'Animals' - in which a series of successful coordinated attacks on rail and road communications by the andartes led the German occupiers into believing that the Balkans were the target of a forthcoming Allied invasion. Subsequent German troop reinforcements thinned their ranks elsewhere and this 'contributed to the speedy Allied victory in Sicily'.<24> Cruickshank<25> argues that operations of this nature, because of their deceptive intent, may be considered as a form of propaganda, if so then operation 'Animals' was certainly a propaganda coup as well as a coup de main. There was a similar result from a comparable operation in Norway in which 'an orgy of railway attacks'<26> in March 1945 delayed the German movement of fresh troops from Norway to the main battlefronts in Western Europe.
Apart from these major military successes SOE was also involved from the earliest days in a large number of what might be considered as 'pinprick' attacks on Axis troops and lines of communication.<27> These attacks are less easy to assess on an individual basis but the constant attacks in Greece and Norway must have had some moral and material effect on the enemy even if they produced no specific tactical results. They also would have had the effect of maintaining a belief amongst the subject populace that the war was still being fought outside of their homeland and consequently maintaining morale and preparing them mentally, at least, for the necessary inevitable Allied return mainland Europe.
This is not to say that SOE did not have its failures for it certainly did, although in neither Greece nor Norway was there a failure as remarkable as the 'ultimate SOE catastrophe';<28> the infiltration of the Abwehr into SOE's Dutch operations with the outcome that SOE in Holland was being run by the Germans rather than by the Allies. Failures, nevertheless, did exist. In Greece, SOE was either unable, or unwilling, to see that the political differences between ELAS and EDES were likely to lead to civil strife after liberation and that by training ELAS and supplying them with weapons they were in fact storing up trouble for any non-communist post-war Greek government - despite warnings from the field that this was the case.<29> This was justified on the grounds that ELAS was the strongest of the various organisations. Anthony Glees posits that this lack of vision might be seen as a result of Russian success in subverting and neutralising SOE to communist advantage.<30> Foot, however, argues that, but for SOE, it was almost inevitable that 'the communist-dominated left-wing resistance would … have imposed its will on the country'<31> - particularly since they were able to arm themselves by disarming Italian troops<32> and so did not necessarily rely on SOE for operational supplies.
Foot further argues that, 'in Norway wartime politics revolved around SOE's efforts'<33> but here the emphasis was different because those communist elements of the resistance which did exist were 'too few and too small'<34> to be a threat to the status quo and so became part of the resistance movement itself.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the SOE was its own survival, withstanding attacks from both within and without. In other fields, however, its achievements are more debatable. Foot - using 'insight, sympathy and common sense'<35> as tools for his judgement - argues that the SOE was successful having had 'great political importance in some but not all of the countries where it tried to operate'<36> - an argument particularly relevant to Greece.
Richard Deacon argues more pragmatically, however, that SOE was a waste of time and money; that training was 'farcical and ludicrously amateurish' and that the officers were 'at best enthusiastic and often blundering amateurs',<37> a situation which Foot blames on the exigencies of war.<38> Indeed, if SOE were amateurish, then this was a widespread symptom of British wartime effort in general. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Although it is necessary to emphasise the distinction between the Resistance and the SOE, there can be little doubt that the Resistance would have been of little military value to the allies without the assistance of SOE in supplying material, direction and communications. The achievements of the resistance are then, to some extent at least, the achievements of SOE. In the political field resistance served to centre national attention on opposing the occupying forces and revived national self-respect and self-confidence - resistance disrupted the smooth governance of an occupied territory, by the enemy.
Militarily, it weakened the will of the occupying forces and kept those forces occupied in areas which might otherwise have been held by only minimal or token force. This kept fighting men away from the battlefronts at times when they were needed there. Given the limitations under which it worked, SOE was marginally successful. It could have done more under better conditions and with more professional staff, but in many ways was lucky that it achieved as much as it did.
Balfour, Michael. Propaganda in War 1939-1945; Organisations,
Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany, Routledge
& Kegan Paul, London, 1979.
Barker, Elisabeth. 'Greece in the Framework of Anglo-Soviet Relations 1941-1947' in Marion Safaris (ed), Greece: From Resistance to Civil War, Spokesman, Nottingham, 1980, 15-31.
Beevor, J. G. SOE; Recollections and Reflections 1940-1945, The Bodley Head, London, 1981.
Compton, Arthur Holly. Atomic Quest; A Personal Narrative, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1956.
Cruickshank, Charles. Deception in World War II, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
Cruickshank, Charles. SOE in Scandinavia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.
Dalton, Hugh. The Fateful Years; Memoirs 1931-1945, Frederick Muller Ltd., London, 1957.
Deacon, Richard. A History of British Secret Service,1969, Pantheon Books, London, 1985.
Farago, Ladislas. War of Wits; Secrets of Espionage and Intelligence, Hutchinson, London, 1956.
Foot, Michael R. D. 'Was the SOE Any Good?', Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1981, 167-181.
Foot, Michael R. D. SOE; An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive 1940-46, British Broadcasting Corporation, London, 1984.
Gerolymatos, Andre. 'The Development of Guerrilla Warfare and British Policy Toward Greece 1943-1944', Journal of the Greek Diaspora, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1991, 97-114.
Glees, Anthony. The Secrets of the Service; British Intelligence and Communist Subversion 1939-51, Jonathan Cape, London, 1987.
Gowing, Margaret. Britain and Atomic Energy 1939-1945, MacMillan and Co., London, 1964.
Hammond, N. 'Memories of a British Officer Serving in the Special Operations Executive in Greece, 1941', Balkan Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1982, 127-155. Haswell, Jock. Spies and Spymasters; A Concise History of Intelligence, Thames & Hudson, London, 1977.
Hondros, John Louis. The German Occupation of Greece, 1941-1944, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1969.
Jones, R. V. Most Secret War, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1978.
Michel, Henri. The Shadow War; Resistance in Europe 1939-1945, Translated by Richard Barry, André Deutsch, London, 1972.
Myers, E. C. W. Greek Entanglement, 1955, Revised Edition, Alan Sutton, London,1985.
Papastratis, Prokopis. 'The British and the Greek Resistance Movements EAM and EDES', in Marion Safaris (Ed.), Greece: From Resistance to Civil War, Spokesman, Nottingham, 1980, 32-42.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988.
Riste, Olav. 'Norway in Exile 1940-45: The Formation of an Alliance Relationship', Scandinavian Journal of History , Vol. 12, 1987, 317-329.
Smith, Bradley F. The Shadow Warriors; OSS and the Origins of the CIA, Andre Deutsch, London, 1983.
Stafford, David. Britain and European Resistance, 1940-1945; A Survey of the Special Operations Executive, with Documents, MacMillan Press, London, 1980.
Sweet-Escott, Bickham. Baker Street Irregular, Methuen & Co., London, 1965.
Wheeler, Mark. 'The SOE Phenomenon', Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 16, No. 3, 1981, 513-519.
1 Dalton, 1957, p 366.
2 Gerolymatos, 1991, p 97.
3 Stafford, 1980, p 127.
4 Ibid, p 2.
5 Sweet-Escott, 1965, p 20.
6 Haswell, 1977, p 149.
7 Balfour, 1979, p 438-9.
8 Michel, 1972, p 301.
9 Cruickshank, 1986, p 208.
10 Smith, 1983, p 240.
11 Barker, 1980, p 18.
12 Papastratis, 1980, p 33.
13 Cruickshank, 1986, p 170-171.
14 Riste, 1987, p 322.
15 Sweet-Escott, 1965, p 112.
16 Beevor, 1981, p165.
17 Cruickshank, 1986, p 91-97.
18 Ibid, p 215.
19 Gowing, 1964, p 367.
20 Compton, 1956, p 223.
21 Rhodes, 1988, p 610.
22 Hondros, 1969, p 172.
23 Ibid, p 172.
24 Gerolymatos, 1991, p 100.
25 Cruickshank, 1979, p 128.
26 Cruickshank, 1986, p 243.
27 Hammond, 1982, p 127-155.
28 Smith, 1983, p 112.
29 Myers, 1985, p 108-109.
30 Glees, 1987, p 66.
31 Foot, 1981, p 177.
32 Sweet-Escott, 1965, p 177-178.
33 Foot, 1984, p 178.
34 Cruickshank, 1986, p 185.
35 Foot, 1981, p 178.
36 Ibid, p 177.
37 Deacon, 1985, p 341-343, passim.
38 Foot, 1984, p 48.