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

Col Buckmaster

Col. Buckmaster

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 in France

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 Circuits

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.

Gilbert Norman
Francois Suttill
Jack Agazarian

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

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.

White Rabbit

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.

Y. Baseden

Yvonne Baseden

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.

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