The Special Operations Executive (SOE)
from 1940 to 1946
The SOE Missions: Sections F, RF, and DF (France)
I. Colonel Buckmaster and the conflicts with helping the French
Colonel Maurice Buckmaster became head of the F Section
of the SOE. In some ways, this was the secret section of the SOE. It
was secret because the British did not want General de Gaulle to know about
the section. Gen. de Gaulle wanted to lead France after the war, but
there was still a question of his leadership during the war. The British
were not completely supportive of Gen. de Gaulle's efforts. In other
words, the British wanted to wait until the end of the war before supporting
one French government over another. F Section, headed by Col. Buckmaster,
was the SOE section which did not necessarily support Gen. de Gaulle. The
RF Section was the SOE section where Gen. de Gaulle was supported. Eventually,
the secret of F Section leaked out to Gen. de Gaulle. He was extremely
unhappy with the situation and distrusted the British from that point forward.
The British used both sections to varying degrees of success during
the war. To understand how successful each section was in France, one
needs to know about the circuits used there. Both F and RF Sections
of the SOE used circuits within France.
II. Example Structure of a SOE Circuit
The typical SOE circuit in France
featured a backbone structure of three people. The first of the three
people was the circuit leader. He would organize everything and recruit
new members. He was basically in charge of everything done by the group.
The second of the three people includes the wireless radio operator.
Without the radio, all contact with London would be cut off. Wireless
operators not only needed to know how to work the wireless set, but they
also needed to know Morse Code and how to encode and decode messages. The
third person was the courier or messanger. This person would travel
from group to group or circuit to circuit within the country gathering information
about the enemy. The circuits would grow. Additional agents were
added as needed. Some circuits had more than one radio operator or
more than one courier. Native French recruits also did some of the
work. Some circuits ceased to exist after all of the SOE agents in
the circuit were captured by the Germans.
The British started developing circuits in France almost immediately after
the war began. One of the first jobs of the earliest agents was to
create a new circuit. These early agents had other duties as well.
III. The earliest French agents
The earliest agents in France were given
what intially seems to be a simple task, they were to determine whether or
not there were resistance movements in France which needed and deserved British
support, yet the first agents had to complete that task with practically
no help or support, especially from London.
Pierre de Vomecourt
Pierre de Vomecourt was a perfectly good example. He was the first
circuit leader to be parachuted into France. He was dropped into the
country blind, meaning that no one was waiting for him and ready to help
him when he arrived. He had to begin probing and asking people about
the resistance movement. His questions could be life-threatening--especially
if he asked the wrong person. Most of these early agents eventually
were caught by the Germans. One author states that only 30 of the original
100 agents assigned to France lived to see the end of the war. With
a casuality rate of 70%, these early SOE agents in France suffered more losses
than victories. In the end, Pierre de Vomecourt was caught and arrested,
but only after he had reported back to London that yes, indeed, there were
people wanting to form pockets of resistance in France. His success
of sending the message to London, despite his arrest and capture, helped
pave the way for later attempts. Those later attempts would eventually
help win the war.
IV. F Section Mission Examples: The Carte and Prosper
The Carte circuit was started by
Andre Girard, nicknamed Carte, in 1942. Actually, Girard acted as the
liasion between a secret army in France and the British government. The
private army was said to be 300,000 members strong. The only job SOE
needed to do was arm and support this army of rebels. This was exactly
what Churchill and his British advisors wanted to use as the invasion force
for Europe--a secret army made up of people living in the occupied territories.
But the number of available British aircraft in 1942 was limited, and
SOE could not get the needed supplies to the rebel army. Eventually,
a list of over two hundred of the most important members of this secret army
was discovered by the Germans, and the circuit, such as it was, disappeared
quickly after that as a result of German ruthlessness.
The Prosper circuit was started by Francois
Suttill, nicknamed Prosper. His assistant was J. F. Amps. They
quickly set up a circuit based in Paris hoping to rebuild something of the
Carte circuit. A month after their arrival, a wireless radio operator
named Gilbert Norman joined the group. Expansion occurred rapidly and
a second wireless operator, Jack Agazarian, was added a short time later.
The goal of this group was to develop a resistance force in the heart
of Paris. Over the course of time, the circuit grew large, yet the
leaders were careless. German penetration led to the capture and execution
of almost all of the Prosper agents.
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan
One Prosper agent avoided arrest at the time most Prosper agents were captured.
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, codenamed Madeline, survived a couple more
months after the Prosper circuit was arrested. She was brave but also
careless. She left her codebook out in the open once for others to
see. Eventually she was also captured and taken to Dachau where she
was executed in July 1944.
The SOE poured lots of time, energy, and expense into the SOE circuits in
France with little return on their investment. True, some sabotage
was completed. Some railroads were blown up. Some intelligence
about occupied France and other countries was gathered, but the main goal
of the program was to create the foundations of secret armies which could
rise up and attack Hitler. Those secret armies failed to materialize
in the large numbers needed to accomplish the original goal.
V. RF Section Mission Example: Jean Moulin
Jean Moulin was a French patriot even before World
War II. At the time of German occupation of France, he was taken prisoner
and threatened to kill himself. He somehow escaped and made it to British
lines. His strong anti-German attitude and pro-Free French de Gaullist
beliefs made him a perfect agent for Section RF. Moulin went back to
France in January 1942 to organize resistance groups supporting Gen. de Gaulle.
His orders were simply to create small groups, or cells, which would
be independent of each other. The whole operation would be controlled
in London. For 14 months the system worked fairly well. Moulin
was able to move back and forth between France and England a couple times
during this period. Then Jean Moulin was captured by the Germans and
tortured to death.
VI. German Penetration of the French SOE networks
It becomes obvious then that not all went as planned in France. The
casualty rate was high among French agents and careless security, especially
with the Carte and Prosper circuits, had disastrous effects. The Germans
seemingly penetrated some of the French circuits with ease. Some writers,
such as Jean Overton Fuller, believe it was too easy. She blames the
British government for the loss of these agents.
VII. Success: Henri Diacono, The White Rabbit,
and Yvonne Baseden
Of course not all circuits met with
failure and not all agents were captured and killed. Henri Diacono
worked as a wireless operator for the Spiritualist circuit. At the
time he went to France, three out of four wireless operators were captured
and killed by the Germans. He put his new training to use which led
to his working for quite some time in France. He went on quite a few
missions including an attack on a prison and the rescue of a French scientist.
He experienced a couple close calls, but nothing major. After
the war, he reckoned that three out of four wireless operators trained at
the same time he was trained survived the war. Quite a marked improvement
with the success rate of wireless operators during the war.
F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas
The White Rabbit, otherwise known as F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, had a long colorful
career with the SOE in France and Germany. He was captured and then
escaped, recaptured and then he escaped again. He reminds one of a
rabbit hopping here and there. In the end, he lived. His daring
story can be found in the book The White Rabbit by Bruce Marshall.
Yvonne Baseden was a wireless operator for the Scholar circuit. She
made a timing mistake which almost cost her life. The timing mistake
was leaving and then returning to a meeting spot, but the Germans raided
the meeting place just minutes after she arrived. Had she not returned
to the meeting place, she would not have been captured. Once captured
she did not confess to being a British agent, so the Germans, thinking she
was just another French person helping out the British, she was only imprisoned,
not executed. She was one of the few survivors
VII. Overall Success
When the war was over, and everything
was examined, historians put the French SOE sections into perspective. This
was a new organization, finding its own way under difficult at best circumstances.
Certainly, there were major failures. Many people lost their
lives. Many of those deaths occurred needlessly. Problems did
occur at times, but overall the organization helped the allies win the war.
It is easy to look back and say this organization should have done
this, but given the times, World War II, and the extraordinary actions that
needed to be taken, the SOE did an acceptable job.
Having said all that, it is true that the SOE circuits did not achieve the
original goal of developing secret armies for the overthrow of Hitler. They
helped the D-Day invasion. They noticably shortened the war, but they
did not meet the original goal. Therefore, the SOE once again earns
a partially successful rating.