Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Special Operations Executive (SOE)

British intelligence agency specializing in overseas sabotage and secret operations. British officials established the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940, impelled by a much-exaggerated belief that fifth-column activities in western Europe had contributed greatly to the successful German conquest of those countries. Intended in British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill's words to "set Europe ablaze" by promoting resistance activities in occupied countries, the organization initially combined sabotage, research, and propaganda functions. In August 1941, propaganda operations were transferred to the Political Warfare Executive, a separate agency under the Foreign Office; SOE remained under the Ministry of Economic Warfare, which was headed by Hugh Dalton.

SOE operations focused primarily on delivering agents to European countries to work with—and, where appropriate, inspire—indigenous resistance movements. Because these activities frequently attracted unwelcome attention from the German Gestapo and local police, they aroused the enmity of the British intelligence agencies, especially MI6, which focused primarily on gathering information and which preferred obscurity to ensure the safety of its operations.

At its height, SOE employed 10,000 men and 3,000 women, many recruited through the British "old-boy" network. At least half of the men and some women spent periods as agents in hostile or neutral countries. SOE was normally organized in country sections, although in France it had six sections each of which worked with a different faction of the French Resistance. Activities of the SOE sections eventually provided arms for half a million French opponents of Germany and so facilitated the success of the June 1944 Allied landings.

Although its earlier efforts in Italy had proved fruitless, in 1943 SOE took part in the unconditional-surrender negotiations between General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Marshal Patrice Badoglio; thereafter it assisted Italian partisans who fought the remaining German occupation forces. SOE's Scandinavian efforts were also largely successful, assisting Danish and Norwegian anti-German Resistance efforts, foiling German plans to use Norwegian heavy water to develop atomic weapons, gathering military intelligence in Denmark, and securing valuable seaborne supplies of special steels and ball bearings from Sweden. In Poland, SOE operatives assisted in extensive sabotage efforts by severely damaging 6,000 locomotives, which disrupted German railroad traffic to the Eastern Front. SOE agents in Czechoslovakia helped in the May 1942 assassination of German Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, a propaganda coup that nonetheless provoked savage reprisals against Czech Jews and the town of Lidice. SOE efforts in the Netherlands, by contrast, proved disastrous; in 1942 and 1943, German intelligence secretly penetrated SOE communications networks, capturing—and in many cases executing—more than 50 SOE agents.

SOE sent a mission to the Soviet Union, where officials welcomed it politely and pointedly excluded it from any operational role. Until late 1941, the British agent Kim Philby, later revealed to be a Soviet spy, served as a rather effective SOE trainer.

Communist operatives penetrated the large SOE mission in Cairo, which supervised Balkan missions and helped to steer SOE assistance toward Communist resistance factions. In Greece, the SOE armed several thousand agents, but it found that Communist partisans often used this weaponry to eliminate rival Greek forces rather than the Germans. In Yugoslavia, the SOE initially supported General Draza Mihajlovics Cetnik resistance fighters, but it later switched it support to Josip Broz's (Tito's) Communist forces, a decision that aided the latter appreciably in winning control of Yugoslavia. In Albania, SOE operatives likewise tended to favor Communist over right-wing guerrilla groups.

SOE operations extended far beyond Europe. In 1940 and 1941, SOE agents escorted Emperor Haile Selassie back to Ethiopia. With quiet acquiescence from the United States, in Latin America the SOE secretly established sleeper groups that were ready to take action should pro-Nazi forces seem likely to become predominant.

The most significant non-European SOE operations were in Asia. Australian-based SOE agents of Force 136 clashed, sometimes bitterly, with their counterparts from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (with whom, by contrast, they cooperated well in Europe). In Burma, SOE contravened its own charter by undertaking intelligence-collecting work. It also helped to organize highly effective bodies of Karen guerrillas, who killed more than 17,000 Japanese troops in the war's final months. In April 1945, the SOE persuaded the Japanese-sponsored Burmese National Army to switch its loyalties to the Allies. SOE operations in Thailand and French Indochina were limited and somewhat ineffective.

Although it was forbidden to operate in China, the SOE secretly sent two missions there. One undertook highly profitable foreign exchange and smuggling ventures that left SOE finances with a surplus when the agency disbanded in January 1946. The other instructed the Chinese Communists of the Eighth Route Army of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) in SOE sabotage methods.

Although its personnel were relatively few and its resistance and guerrilla efforts in occupied countries could only supplement, not substitute for, full-scale military invasions of those territories, SOE operations proved valuable in boosting Allied morale and dislocating Axis control of subjugated areas.

Priscilla Roberts


Further Reading
Cruickshank, C. F. SOE in the Far East. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.; Dear, Ian. Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War. London: Cassell, 1999.; Foot, Michael R. D. SOE in France: An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive in France, 1940–44. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984.; Foot, Michael R. D. SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive, 1940–46. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1994.; Fuller, Jean Overton. The German Penetration of SOE: France, 1941–44. London: Kimber, 1975.; Mackenzie, W. J. M. The Secret History of SOE: Special Operations Executive, 1940–1945. London: St. Ermins's Press, 2000.; Stafford, David. Britain and European Resistance 1940–1945: A Survey of the Special Operations Executive, with Documents. Toronto, Canada: Toronto University Press, 1980.
 

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