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World War Two: The Heroes of S.O.E

Updated on February 2, 2014

The S.O.E were the courageous men and women of Britain's Special Operations Executive and they were responsible for some of the most remarkable and heroic feats against the Axis powers across the world during World War Two.

Hydrogen plant at Rjukan in Telemark, Southern Norway
Hydrogen plant at Rjukan in Telemark, Southern Norway

Their biggest success

27th February 1943

Deep in the forests of Nazi occupied Norway, 8 men move covertly through the trees engaged in a secret mission to strike a damaging blow to the Nazi war effort. The tide of the war is beginning to turn against the Axis powers as one of it's armies surrender against the Soviets at Stalingrad.

The small team of men are heading for their target, a secret plant where "Heavy Water", the vital ingredient in the production of an atomic bomb, is in full development.

Once they had managed to evade the surprisingly small amount of German guards patrolling the factory, the men entered the complex and headed for the area where the Heavy Water was being produced.

Once inside they began to lay explosive charges and amazingly manage to escape from the factory unseen, but only after they had the affront to leave behind a British "Tommy" gun as a calling card.

With this successful mission, the Nazis' ability to produce an atomic bomb had been severely disrupted. The 8 man team who carried out the operation had been Norwegian agents of the British Special Operations Executive or S.O.E.

Their successful operation turned out to be S.O.E's most notable achievement of the second world war. The organisation deployed it's agents all over the world wherever German,Italian or Japanese forces were in occupation and their main task was to support local resistance forces in an attempt to hamper as much as they could, the Axis war effort.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Forming the S.O.E

Almost the whole of continental Europe, apart from the Balkans in the south-east were under the occupation of the Axis powers by the end of June 1940. Britain and her overseas empire now stood alone, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill was always adamant and ready to fight back, even when faced with the immediate threat of invasion.

He therfore formed a British commando unit designed to raid the coastlines of occupied Europe. He also believed that encouraging widespread revolt in the occupied countries would play a vital role in the defat of the Nazis.

An organisation it was felt, would need to be set up in order to instigate and coordinate this. S.O.E was susequently formed from the War Office and the Military Department for Clandestine Warfare in July 1940.

Churchill promptly ordered the organisation to "Set Europe Ablaze", but this direction was not popular with the continent's exiled former leaders, who wanted complete peace and quiet in the areas that their own agents were at work.

S.O.E was set up at an anonymous buliding in London's Baker Street and it found it's first battle was to survive the beaurocratic in-fighting in Whitehall. It was predominantly organised into operation and support departments, the former controlled individual agents through country or region desks and the latter provided the necessary weapons and equipment.

The support department even devloped it's own catalogue comprising not only of weapons and explosives, but also exploding cigareetes and briefcases and even exploding rats.

It was also responsible for forging all the necessary passes, identity cards and ration documents that were vital to survive in occupied Europe.

Initially S.O.E agents were given clothes that had been acquired from refugees that had entered Britain. After a while however, the support department came up with it's own camouflage department which specialised in producing clothing to continental patterns where every minute detail, right down to the style of stitching had to be correct, so as not to give away the real origin of an agent.

The training

The most important requirement for any S.O.E operative of course was the need to be fluent in the language of the country where they were to work and also to have a good knowledge of it's customs, history and it's peoples' habits.

The selction procedure for S.O.E however, was surprisingly informal each recruit was interviewed with a failr relaxed examination into their lives and past employment, life skills etc, but the recruiters were also trying to identify a certain kind of courage and an ability to blend into foreign surroundings without any backup.

After selection the new recruits to S.O.E were trained at a number of secret rural locations, usually requisitioned country houses. They would their be put through rigorous fitness courses and trained in unarmed combat.

They had to master a variety of weapons and explosives handling, then they were given new identities and breifed on Axis security measures and taught how to survive in hostile environments before being sent into the field.

S.O.E agents were also trained to parachute in to Nazi occupied regions or they would be flown in to secret airstrips by Special Duty squadrons of the R.A.F. Once they had landed, the S.O.E agent's job was to establish and coordinate resistance networks who would be involved in industrial sabotage, railway and telephone communication disruption and also guerrilla warfare.

The circuit, as this cell was known, was supported by a radio operator and a courier, often women would be chosen as couriers as they were considered less likely to attract suspicion.

One key part of S.O.E operations was the use of the BBC's (British Broadcasting Corporation) overseas radio service. This broadcasted to every country that was under the occupation of the Axis powers and this enabled coded messages to be sent to the resistance groups.

The S.O.E was at it's most active across Europe where it accomplished many successes, but it also experienced a number of tragic failures. Eastern Europe was particularly difficult to support, because of it's distance from Britain.

Reinhardt Heydrich
Reinhardt Heydrich

"Setting Europe Ablaze"

The Free Polish government was eager to do whatever it could to support resistance against the Nazis and S.O.E trained agents were inserted to assist the Polish Home Army, as it was called, and a number of weapons were dropped in to help them.

However, when the Polish Home Army instigated an uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw in August 1944, it was eventually crushed after a bitter six week long battle. S.O.E's Polish section managed to organise some supply drops, but was largely frustrated by Moscow's unwillingness to mount these from Soviet territory.

In Czechoslovakia, S.O.E managed to accomplish one significant success when in September 1941 the ruthless Reinhardt Heydrich became the Governor of Bohemia, which the Germans referred to the country as.

His cruelty convinced the exiled Czech government that he must be assassinated at all costs. The following spring of 1942 saw two S.O.E agents dropped into the country and on the morning of the 27th May 1942, they ambushed Heydrich as he was being driven to work.

After their sub-machine guns jammed, they managed to wound him with a grenade. The two men were finally trapped inside a church and shot themselves aftera fierce gun battle, rather than allow themselves to be captured and tortured for information.

Meanwhile Heidrich died of his injuries and the Nazis' retribution was horrific. They killed more than 5,000 people including the total inhabitants of two Czech villages that were then raised to the ground.

The mass slaughter of these innocent civilians in revenge for Heydrich's death and other resistance activity was common amongst German occupied countries. It was the terrible price often paid if S.O.E were to "Set Europe Ablaze".

The Norsk Hydro plant
The Norsk Hydro plant

The Heroes of Telemark

In the parts of Europe that were closer to Britain, S.O.E were able to be more active, Denmark was small, relatively crowded and harder to infiltrate, but in 1943 onwards, resistance became more increasingly effective there.

S.O.E organised widespread industrial strikes and sabotage, forcing the Germans to leave 5 army divisions in the country just to maintain order. These divisions could well have been put to greater use elsewhere.

S.O.E intelligence also enabled RAF Mosquito bombers to carry out raids with pinpoint accuracy with the assistance of the Danish resistance. One of these notable successes was the attack on the Gestapo headquarters in the centre of the capital Copenhagen.

Not only was the headquarters' records destroyed, but several Danish resistance fighters were also able to escape during the attack.

The most decisive blow dealt by the S.O.E in Norway was also carried out from the air. The Norse Hydro plant in Telemark produced the Heavy Water which was vital in the development of the Nazis atomic bomb programme.

After an initial attempt to sabotage the plant had failed, S.O.E agents were parachuted into Norway and on the night of the 27th February 1943, they got into the plant unobserved by the German guards.

They made their way to the condenser room and set about laying their explosive charges. They lit the fuses and successfully completed their escape. Heavy Water production was halted for two months and the S.O.E raiders withdrew into the forests of Norway.

Although they were pursued by German ski troops they got away, leaving two agents behind in Norway to monitor the Germans' activity. That November, after a U.S. air attack on the factory, the Germans decided to cease Heavy Water production and move the remaining stocks to Germany.

The first stage in the process of transporting the Heavy Water was by rail to a nearby lake where rail wagons were then loaded onto a ferry to cross the lake. However, during the previous night, one of the two remaining S.O.E agents managed to place explosive charges aboard the ferry.

Even though the likelyhood of civilian casualties was inevitable, the exiled Norwegian government agreed that the sabotage must go ahead. Once the ferry reached the middle of the lake, the charges were detonated.

The railway wagons containing the Heavy Water sank to the bottom of the lake and therefore put an immediate end to Hitler's plans to devlope an atomic bomb. The attack at Telemark was arguably S.O.E's most important and successful mission of the second world war, but in contrast, it's activities in Holland led to it's greatest disaster.

Nazi occupied Holland in WW2
Nazi occupied Holland in WW2

A Deadly Error

In the late summer of 1941, one of S.O.E's agents was captured and a large number of S.O.E's cypher messages was seized by the Germans. The Nazis were then able to begin breaking the organisation's codes. Then a double agent helped the Germans penetrate the network in The Hague.

In March 1942, the captured S.O.E radio operator was forced into making false transmissions to S.O.E London. Even though the operator deliberately left out his security code to show that he had been captured (which was noted in London) the S.O.E's Dutch section inexplicably decided that this must have simply be an oversight.

They decided to continue sending out their agents and announcing where they would be landing. The Gestapo were waiting for them and over the course of 20 months, 61 agents were caught as a result...and most of these were subsequently shot as spies.

It wasn't until the November of 1943 that London finally realised what was happening to it's agents, although it was only because two captured agents managed to escape the Gestapo and reach Switzerland.

Once there they went straight to the British Embassy and revealed the disastrous story in full. Although S.O.E continued to send further agents to Holland, it's relations with the Dutch resistance had been severely effected and no convincing explanation for this inexcusable lapse in security has ever been forthcoming, even today.

Phillipe Petain
Phillipe Petain
The Maquis
The Maquis
The raid on Amiens prison in February 1944
The raid on Amiens prison in February 1944

S.O.E's strength in France

Of all the occupied countries of continental Europe, France was the most important for it was from there that the Allies planned to begin the liberation of Europe. This would prove to be an incredibly hazardous task due to ever stronger German defences in the country. But it could be one in which the French resistance could play an essential role.

After it's defeat in 1940, France had been split in two, the north and west occupied by the germans and the south and east by the Vichy regime of Marshall Phillipe Petain and it was a degree easier for S.O.E to operate there.

However, double agents and the hated Vichy police force were a constant threat and the latter had no qualms or remorse about arresting their fellow countrymen who were suspected of involvement in resistance activity.

All over France, industry was devoted to the Nazi war effort and this gave S.O.E one of it's greatest opportunities. Attacks by RAF bombers on industrial targets were proving largely inaccurate and were causing widespread civilian casualties.

S.O.E suggested a coordinated campaign of sabotage against specific targets and one particular target was identified at a weapons factory in eastern France near the Swiss border. In the summer of 1943, two S.O.E agents were parachuted in to the area. S.O.E had identified the main electrical lines and transformers powering the factory and pinpointed these as the targets.

3rd August 1943

In the dead of night the two agents moved into action, the transformers, many of which were in rural locations, were unguarded and magnet bombs with timed fuses were put in position. In total 10 transformers were wrecked and the weapons factory was put out of action for weeks.

Similair action was taken to disrupt the transport system, but it didn't always involve explosions. The growing number of S.O.E networks all over France provided vital intelligence about the position of German troops and kept watch on the building of German coastal defences, Hitler's "Atlantic Wall".

Ultimately all resistance activity was geared towards the eventual liberation of France and Europe as a whole. During the second half of 1943 with preparations for the Allied invasion of Normandy underway, S.O.E support for the French resistance became even more vital.

Networks and plans were prepared so that once invasion came German road and rail communications in and out of Normandy from the rest of France would be severely interrupted. The Maquis, a secret army of Frenchmen, many of whom had taken to the hills of rural France to avoid being sent to work in Germany, was being armed and trained to fight in the German rear and pin down any reinforcements.

The number of S.O.E flights to deliver weapons and supplies to the networks increased steadily. As more and more people became involved in gathering and hiding the supplies, so the opportunities for the Germans to penetrate the networks grew.

In early June 1944, many of the key resistance figures were in jail at Amiens and unless they could escape the resistance in the region would be fatally crippled. S.O.E passed the details of the wing in which the prisoners were housed to the RAF and on the morning of the 18th February 1944, Mosquito aircraft made a daring low-level attack on the prison. It's walls were breached and this enabled 250 prisoners to escape and the resistance networks were fully functional again by D-Day.

D-Day: Day of Days by Dave Harris
D-Day: Day of Days by Dave Harris
The French Resistance at work.
The French Resistance at work.

Assisting D-Day

During the evening on the 5th June 1944 as the Allied invasion force set out for the Normandy coast, the resistance networks established by S.O.E. were called to action. Long-awaited messages were heard on the BBC and the various groups readied themselves for the invasion.

Carefully planned sabotage on the routes leading in to Normandy from the south began, one example of a resistance operation to slow down German reinforcements was against the Waffen SS divisions. The resistance would track down the wagons upon which the divisions' tanks were transported from southern France, and sabotage them, forcing the tanks to set off for Normandy by road.

Other units of the resistance now went into action and delayed the tanks for a total of 16 days when the journey should only have taken 4 days. S.O.E. also coordinated similair operations to coincide with the successful Allied landings in the south of France in August 1944.

During the rapid advance north of American and French forces, the resistance acted as guides and provided information as to the locations of German troop movements.

The Abyssinians led by their Emperor Haile Selassie prepare to face the Italian Army
The Abyssinians led by their Emperor Haile Selassie prepare to face the Italian Army

The Middle East & The Balkans

S.O.E. was also heavily involved elsewhere, especially in the Mediterranean. In 1941 it had set up a separate HQ in Cairo to cover the Middle East and the Balkans. This took over some of the Special Forces tasks of Headquarters Middle East. The main project was to help with the liberation of Italian held Abyssinia.

A force of Abyssinians and Sudanese executed a highly successful thrust into Abyssinia from the Sudan. The crowning moment of which came in May 1941 when the force escorted the exiled Emperor into his capital Addis Abbaba.

S.O.E could take some credit for this success, but it's reputation in Cairo didn't benefit. From the outset it's headquarters was notoriously inefficient and lacked security to the point that every Egyptian cab driver appeared to know exactly where it was located.

S.O.E's main problem was that it lacked good intelligence, largely because the British Secret Intelligence Service was unwilling to pass on any quality information. What intelligence S.O.E did gain was not trusted by London, nowhere was this more apparent than in the Balkans.

Following the German occupation of Yugoslavia, two resistance groups formed and S.O.E were to favour the group led by communist Josep Tito and his partisans, because as Winston Churchill stated "They seem to be killing more Germans".

In Greece, resustance was also fractured and the S.O.E. in Cairo had little knowledge of this, as became clear during the mounting of one of it's most successful opeartions in Greece.

El Alamein: Rats Aginst The Fox by Dave Harris
El Alamein: Rats Aginst The Fox by Dave Harris
Colonel Napoleon Zervas
Colonel Napoleon Zervas
The destroyed Gorgopotamos Bridge
The destroyed Gorgopotamos Bridge

Blowing the bridges

In September 1942, S.O.E. were asked to sabotage the railway line that ran from Yugoslavia, down through Greece to the port of Piraeus where the British 8th Army's planned offensive to El Alamein was to begin.

This had been identified as one of the most important supply routes for Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and an S.O.E. team were parachuted into Greece in the early hours of the 1st October.

Their target was one of the three railway bridges; Papadia, Asopos and Gorogopotamos, but they knew little about the area or the terrain. The team were beset with problems from the beginning. Firstly they were supposed to meet a resistance leader called Napoleon Zervas, but he was not their to meet them as they had been dropped in the wrong place. Then another of the four man teams could not locate the drop zone and had to be returned to Egypt.

A man was sent to locate Zervas, but this meant pasing through territory controlled by other resistance groups and given the nature of the mountainous terrain, the task seemed almost impossible.

The complex tribal rivalries of the different resistance forces wasn't even known to S.O.E, but Zervas was eventually found and the agent not only brought him back to the S.O.E. camp, but also the rival guerrilla group as well.

The missing S.O.E. team was successfully dropped three days later and after a reconnaisance mission it was decided tthat they would attack the Gorgopotamos Bridge. The S.O.E. team and it's Greek guerrilla supporters moved into position at the bridge on the evening of the 25th November 1942.

Local villagers assisted the men in transporting the necessary explosives to the target and supply trains moved across the bridge as these were put in position. The Greek resistance fighters engaged the Italian soldiers defending the bridge, then came the signal that the bridge was about to be blown.

The destruction of the Gogopotamos Bridge was an S.O.E. triumph, not only in succesfully destroying the target, but also in managing to get the two Greek rival guerrilla factions to cooperate with each other. Unfortunately by then Rommel had already been driven back from El Alamein.

Another blow was that the submarine that was supposed to take the S.O.E. teams back to Egypt didn't turn up and so they were ordered to remain in Greece to provide training for the two rival guerrilla factions.

Meanwhile, Axis reprisals against the local population deterred the guerillas from further actions against the Germans and Italians. Despite this however, in june 1943 the S.O.E. did attack another of the railway bridges. The Asopos Bridge positioned on the side of a steep gorge made it a much more difficult target than the Gorgopotamos Bridge.

Fortunately scaffolding had been erected for maintenance work to be carried out on the bridge and this enabled the saboteurs to place their explosive charges. Once again the S.O.E's target was destroyed, but after this the guerrilla units of the Greek resistance became increasingly involved in fighting amongst themselves and this degenerated into civil war at the end of 1944 after Greece had been liberated.

The MV Krait, used to infiltrate Singapore.
The MV Krait, used to infiltrate Singapore.

Hitting the Japanese

S.O.E. was also active in the Far East from their base in Australia, after Japanese forces overrun British, Dutch and American positions in the area. The problems it faced there were very different from those in Europe.

The often inaccessable jungle which covered so much of the region, made it difficult to maintain agents, while in the towns and cities, a western agent stood out like a sore thumb.

One successful operation against Singapore harbour was carried out by a group of agents who had set out from Australia in a captured Japanese fishing boat in August 1943.

After an epic voyage of over 2,000 miles lasting 3 weeks across Japanese controlled seas, they were able to reach an island off Singapore undetected. There they set up camp and unloaded the kayaks they had brought with them. On the 26th September 1943 after nightfall, the teams in 3 kayaks set out across the channel to the port of Singapore.

Once at the target they attached limpet mines to the hulls of a number of merchant vessels and got away undetected. They had succesfully sunk 50,000 tonnes of enemy shipping, but a second attempt a year later was a disaster as every member of the S.O.E. team were either killed or captured and later executed.

Odette Sansom
Odette Sansom

For the greater good

During World War Two, S.O.E. had operated all around the world, it's efforts combined with the assistance of various resistance groups played a vital role in bringing about the ultimate victory over the Axis powers and many of the S.O.E. agents lost their lives for the "Greater Good"

Of the 400 that were sent to France alone, a quarter did not return and others suffered terrible torture.

Their contribution has been recognised with numerous awards for bravery, among which was a George Cross, Britain's highest civilian decoration for gallantry and awarded to female agent Odette Sansom for her exemplary conduct in captivity under extreme duress.

The life of the S.O.E. agent was a lonely one, lived amid constant danger, and requiring a different bravery than that of the soldier on the battlefield, nonetheless they were true heroes.


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    • profile image

      Bernard O'Connor 

      5 years ago

      Great site Dave. Well done. Here's some questions for you. Who was in charge of SOE's Greek Section? Where were its offices?

      Where might I look for details of SOE's base in Egypt? Was there an agents' training school there? Where? Was sabotage training done there before agents were flown to Greece? Where were they flown from?

      Why? Having done sabotage in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France, I'm turning my attention on Greece.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I ended up here after doing a search of which country was most involved in the SOE other than the UK and i had a slight feeling that it might be Norway and it looks like i am right

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      7 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thankyou conrad!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      your biography is really good

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      7 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thankyou ruffridyer, I do try and cram as much info in as possible, same with my artwork.

    • profile image


      7 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      You obviously put alot of work into your hubs. Very well researched.

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      8 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Hi scarytaff, glad you liked it, thanks for your comments and voting me up, greatly appreciated.

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 

      8 years ago from South Wales

      Tremendous hub, Dave. Voted up.

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      8 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thankyou William, much appreciated.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Great history, Dave Harris. Well done.


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