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PostSubject: SOE AN AMATUER OUTFIT?   Sat 22 Aug 2015, 10:57

Dennis Martin

It has become accepted by many that Britain’s wartime sabotage and subversion service, the Special Operations Executive,[SOE] was a rather amateur organization. Their principle Whitehall adversary the Secret Intelligence Service [SIS] certainly dismissed them as a bunch of amateurs. Even their friends, with typical English regard for the gifted amateur who muddles through, labelled them as such, and one former member’s memoirs were entitled Amateur Agent.
Was this fair? I think not, and in this short essay I hope to demonstrate that, far from being a ramshackle outfit, the SOE were, in the current terminology, “fit for purpose”

The SOE Council, and other top posts were largely filled with men recruited from top law firms, merchant banks and large financial institutions, leavened by a portion of senior officers from the armed forces.
It may seem strange at first that so many lawyers, bankers and executives were brought in, but remember that at the time the City was the financial heart of the biggest empire in history, and the qualities needed to succeed in such an environment were highly relevant to running a fledgling secretive agency. These men were steeped in client privacy and commercial confidentiality. They were fully paid up members of the “old boy network” with school, regiment and club links which opened many useful doors for SOE.
The first “CD”[Chief of SOE], Sir Frank Nelson had served in the Z-organization, arguably the most efficient and professional section of SIS.
Recruited to head the operations and training section of SOE was General Colin Gubbins, the leading expert on partisan warfare in the country.

[General Colin Gubbins]

So, the top echelon of SOE seemed highly suited to the task of recruiting, staffing, training and supplying a secret organization.
As an aside, we may consider the recruitment of Fairbairn and Sykes to the training cadre of SOE. They were, without doubt, the best men in the World for that job. We can assume that, at least some, of the other instructors were similarly qualified

Assuming SOE hadn’t been set up, then which existing organization, the real professionals, could have done the job?
The obvious candidates are the SIS and the War Office. In fact both of these did indeed set up dedicated sections for this very task.
In March 1938 the SIS tasked Lawrence Grand to set up Section D, known officially as The Sabotage Service.

[Section D used offices here]

Similarly, in early 1939. Colonel Joe Holland was given a small “research” section within Military Intelligence called MI[R], with a mandate to develop irregular warfare methods.
However, both of these “professional” organizations were absorbed by SOE when it was formed in 1940. Thus, the “amateur” SOE was given the full benefits of a couple of years of operational existence by these dedicated sections.
Among the benefits gained by SOE were two highly efficient training establishments, at Aston House and Brickendonbury Hall, which Section D has created for the development, production and training of sabotage devices, plus, from MI[R], the former MI Wing at Arisaig and} plus the staff who had been running the Lochailort STC.

[Arisaig House]

As mentioned above, they also gained General Gubbins, who had been a prime mover in MI[R]. Gubbins later became CD, and his leadership and expertise was a major factor in the success of SOE.

The primary job of SOE was to foment insurrection in the occupied countries, mainly by inserting trained agents to instruct, lead and equip local resistance groups. Opposing them was the most professional security apparatus in the World, the Nazi SD, Gestapo, Abwehr and police agencies, aided and abetted by local collaborating militias. In addition, informers and traitors were everywhere….. the post-war myth that all Frenchmen were in the Resistance, for example, is far from the truth.
To prepare the agents to operate against such an experienced, ruthless and efficient security apparatus, the SOE sought to inculcate a specific mindset. Throughout the lengthy training process individual and syndicate tasks were set, requiring the trainees to plan the penetration of a target. Among the staff SOE had former instructors from the Field Security Police, who were expert in the protection of such strategic keypoints as docks, power-stations, railway yards etc. They would critique the classroom exercises, then run field exercises with actual targets. The trainees were encouraged to use what we now call “lateral thinking” or to “think out of the box”. In this they were aided by their training in Silent Killing from Fairbairn and Sykes, who emphasised the use of artifice, guile, foul methods.
The result of this process was to equip the agent to defeat the Nazi security state by appearing to be the plodding grey man, or the flirtatious girl, while covertly assessing a target installation

The SOE experienced failures, many failures during operations in Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Asia and the Far East. The question is, would another organization have done better?
The main source of failure came from compromise of communications. The signal and coding system was, initially supplied by the SIS, and problems arose right from the start. It was years before agent codes were both secure and field efficient.
A real problem came from heads of the country sections refusing to believe that an agent, or, circuit, was compromised, despite strong signal security evidence. This is, in fact, an institutional malaise affecting many such organizations. For example the German Abwehr lost every single agent it sent into Great Britain. Most were played back in a “funkspiel” [radio game] just as the Abwehr had done to the SOE in Holland and France.
After the war the SIS mounted SOE-type operations in the Baltic States and Albania. Virtually all agents were captured, by the SIS continued as if the networks were intact, and fed more and more agents into Communist Secret Police clutches.

After the war there was a proposal to continue having SOE operate, as the American OSS intended, as a peacetime precaution. In the event, the Foreign Office gained control, and made SOE a wing of SIS. In effect, it was consumed without trace, with no role for Gubbins.
As Professor MRD Foot notes: “In the early stages, this distrust was made much worse by personal clashes. Menzies, for example, could not stand Gubbins or Jebb, any more than Gubbins or Jebb could stand him, and many members of SOE would agree with Trevor-Roper that Menzies's deputy Dansey - who was also SIS's liaison officer with SOE, and kept an office in SOE's headquarters in Baker Street - was a tremendous shit. In an official history I could not print what Richard Aldrich, a coming name in the world of intelligence studies, has put into a recent book, though wartime service opinion sided with him: Menzies was a dud. Gubbins was not a dud.”

Check Six,
Dennis Martin
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