SPECIAL OPERATIONS EXECUTIVE, 1940-1946
Series 1, Special Operations in Western Europe
Part 1: France: The Jedburgh Teams and Operation Overlord, 1944-1945,
Part 2: France: Political and Planning Files, Circuits and Missions, 1940-1947
Part 3: Germany, 1936-1945
Part 4: Holland, 1940-1949
Part 5: Italy, 1941-1948
Introduction by Professor Jeremy Black, Department of History, University of Exeter
Without doubt this is one of the most fascinating and important collections to appear in microfilm for many years. It is at once an account of dedication and bravery, an approach to the Second World War that emphasises the role of individuals, and a fundamental source for an aspect of the conflict that is too readily underrated in favour of a simple emphasis on the quantity of resources.
The SOE was crucial in challenging German control of occupied Europe, both by encouraging resistance and by more direct activities. Formed in July 1940 in order to encourage resistance and ‘to set Europe ablaze’, the Special Operations Executive was divided into ‘country’ sections and worked with the governments-in-exile in Britain. The political context varied greatly, as did the tasks the SOE had to fulfil. Liaison with partisan groups was part of a major attempt to build up resistance, not least by providing supplies and communication links.
The role of the resistance, of course, is a matter of some controversy. The better-armed Germans were generally able to defeat partisans in open conflict, as when they suppressed the rising on the Vercors plateau in France in June 1944, a matter fully covered in Part 2 of this collection (HS 6/355, 361, 424-5). Furthermore, many areas under partisan control were so because the Germans chose not to deploy troops to occupy them. There was also a potential tension between helping resistance operations and gathering intelligence, and this led to tension between SOE and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).
However, the resistance still achieved much, as a reading of this collection clearly establishes. Most important (as also with the Allied air offensive), was the diversion of large amounts of German resources to dealing with the threat, as well as the need to adopt anti-partisan policies that affected the efficiency of German rule, specifically of their economic and transport activities. The supply of weapons by SOE helped make the resistance more effective. The Allies also benefited from large quantities of crucial intelligence, including on defences, troop movements, bomb damage, and the development of German rocketry. In addition, considerable damage and disruption was inflicted by sabotage and by guerrilla attacks. This was most useful when coordinated with Allied operations, for example the cutting of transport links by which the Germans might move troops, as a preparation for the Normandy landings. This complemented the air offensive. The SOE files are fundamental for attempts to secure coordination and to guide the resistance. They are also the best available source on the resistance itself.
The role of the resistance is a reminder of the mistake of only considering strength in terms of regular forces. The resistance also testifies to the character of total war, and the way in which World War Two affected the people of Europe. Countries that fell rapidly before the German blitzkrieg in 1940 recovered to launch numerous attacks on the Germans and to tie up large numbers of Germans in defensive tasks. Such action was to encourage post-war NATO planners, fearful of Soviet invasion, to develop resistance networks and facilities.
Parts 1 and 2 of this collection are devoted to France, the most important and successful field of SOE operations, not least with large-scale industrial sabotage. Preparations for the Second Front and proximity to Britain ensured that France was at the forefront of SOE activities, and this can be followed in the Files. They also provide important research material on the British perception of relations between French politicians and groups, with De Gaulle, Darlan, Vichy and the Communists all featuring. HS 6/372 covers the Outhall Mission of 1945: Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas’s enquiry and reports on Buchenwald, Fresnes and other concentration camps and on wanted German camp personnel. Other missions covered include Plexus (HS 6/386), a 1944 psychological warfare mission to distribute propaganda to the German army in France. The sense of an intelligence war is conveyed well. There are reports on the arrest of French resistance leaders and on German attempts to turn networks. Wireless communications play a major role in the files. The files include a major run of Circuit and Mission Reports and Interrogations. They are fundamental to work on SOE and the resistance.
Part 3 on Germany includes intelligence reports on concentration and death camps, material on sabotage and black propaganda within Germany, including the plot to kill Hitler, discussion of armistice terms and military surrenders, and planning for post-war Germany. It is interesting to see how early the latter started. The widespread nature of planned sabotage operations is also impressive. They included Operation Vivacious - to sabotage a precision engineering factory in Berlin; Frilford, Colan, Clint, Colburn, Curland, Cregina, each designed to sabotage railway lines; Fleckney - sabotage in the Breslau area; Carstairs - sabotage in Halle; Chalgrove and Cresswell - in Hamburg and Bremen; Fangfoss and Fiddington - in Flensburg and Kiel; Chalfont - sabotage against a new type of U-boat; and Markinch - to make attempts on the lives of U-boat officers in the Kiel area, and to incite sailors and dock-workers to subversive activities.
Part 4 includes the most dismal episode in the SOE’s history, an account of the failure in Holland. In the Englandspiel, the German intelligence services were able to thwart SOE operations by capturing an agent and making him ‘play back’ his radio, leading to the capture of over 60 agents. As a result SOE, SIS and Dutch operations in 1941-1944 were compromised. This is important: failure throws light on the difficulties of the task and on what was achieved by SOE: a victory that helped to win the war.
Part 5 documents activities in Italy in support of Fifth and Eighth Armies. The full story of what SOE achieved in Italy is still waiting to be written. These files offer up many possibilities for new research, from the communist inclinations of patriot resistance groups, relations with the CLNAAI, SOE wireless links, coup de main raiding parties, to a thorough assessment of the role and contribution of subversion and sabotage in the Italian campaign.
This collection should be purchased by all those interested in the war.
Professor Jeremy Black
Department of History,
University of Exeter