The Special Operations Executive (SOE)
from 1940 to 1946

The SOE Missions: Places outside of France

I. Trouble at home: fighting with RAF Bomber Command and the SIS

Before any SOE missions to Europe could be accomplished, the situation over aircraft use needed to be settled.  Constant battles with Bomber Command and the SIS were troublesome for the SOE.  Throughout almost all of 1941, the SOE posted no accomplishments--mainly because they could not easily send agents into France and the rest of Europe.  The year of 1942 seemed to go the same way.  The SOE was looking for accomplishments of any variety to show they were making positive steps forward.  

II. The Maid Honor "Burglary":  Kidnapping two German ships

Maid honor crew

The crew of the Maid Honor

The first success actually did take place in 1941--August 1941--over a year after the creation of the SOE.  The achievement was made by the crew of the Maid Honor ship and the SOE rejoiced at the news.  The Maid Honor was a sailboat of all things and the deed performed by the crew was more stunning than meaningful, but it was the sort of thing the SOE adminstration was looking to accomplish.  The boa originally intended to search for German u-boats or submarines.  It found none.  What it did find was a couple of Axis shipping boats, including the Likomba and the Duchessa d'Aosta, near an island off the western coast of Africa.  The goal of the Maid Honor then became to capture the Axis boats.  It turned out to be a kidnapping or buglary job.  With some effort, the British crew made off with both boats much to the surprise of the German commanders who were onshore at the time of the kidnapping.  They could only stand and watch as their boats were dragged away.  The SOE had a victory to celebrate.

One of the stolen ships: the Dushessa d'Aosta

III. Stopping German Supplies:  The Viaduct at the Gorgopotamos River

The Balkans offered a different type of challenge.  The British wanted to stop the Germans from getting supplies to Rommel in North Africa.  To do this, they had to stop the railway route going through the Balkans which delivered up to 48 trains a day of supplies to the Port of Athens.  This meant that the British were going to need to blow up a railway bridge.  The SOE sent an agent by the name of 'Monty' Woodhouse to blow up the viaduct at the Gorgopotamos River.  

monty woodhouse

Monty Woodhouse

Woodhouse found the going tough.  The mission was originally expected to take three weeks.  It took much longer.  
Woodhouse recruited some men to go with him.  That made a group of opposing forces upset.  The British really didn't care who was really in power as long as British interests, in this case a blown up bridge, were maintained, but both sides of the local forces wanted to claim some part of the victory over the Germans.  So Woodhouse had to orchestrate an alliance between two of the warring factions in the Balkans.   Woodhouse had to barter and deal with native peoples.  He had to protect his store of plastic explosives.  He even tells of a story where a couple of kids try to eat part of his plastic explosives.  Apparently, the kids thought it was food.   Finally, the combined group blew up the viaduct.  The explosion stopped the flow of Balkan goods following into Germany.

Gorgopotamos river viaduct

Damage on the Gorgopotamos Viaduct

However, there was a downside to this triumph.  As a result of the damage, the Germans stopped at a nearby town and killed hundreds of innocent people in retaliation.  The incident would be well remembered during the next few years.  After blowing up the Gorgopotamos viaduct, Woodhouse stayed in the Balkans and found other missions to complete there.

IV. Destroying the Norsk Hydro Plant in southern Norway.

Aerial view of Norsk Hydro plant in southern Norway

The SOE had another success at the Norsk Hydro plant in Norway.  This operation proved critical.  Germany was producing "heavy water" at the plant in Norway.  British leaders realized this could only mean one thing.  Germany was working on an atomic bomb.  The problem was turned over to the SOE for sabotage.  The SOE sent a team to damage the plant, but due to winter conditions, the plane crashed.  There were survivors, but the Germans quickly arrested the survivors and executed them later that night.  So the SOE tried a second time, this time with a group of six Norwegians.  The tight-knit team worked perfectly.  The team made the strike and got away before the Germans even realized the plant had been damaged.  The Germans were able to repair the damage, but the sabotage caused a six week delay in their production.  That was long enough to plan an American long range bomber attack.  The Americans attack bombed the plant into disrepair for the rest of the war.

V. Englandspiel:  German penetration of SOE in Holland

Just when things seemed to be going fairly good, along comes a major problem and messes up the situation.  The Englandspiel, or the English game, operation nearly shut down the SOE.  For some time, the SOE had been dropping agents and supplies into Holland.  On March 6, 1942, the Germans penetrated the Dutch network by capturing Herbert Lauwers.  The Germans, sensing they could use this newfound information to their advantage, ordered Lauwers to report to England as if nothing happened.  Lauwers did as the Germans demanded; he transmitted a normal message with one caveat.  He left out his secret security check.  This was standard procedure.  Lauwers knew the London receivers would realize that he had been captured if they received a message without his security code.  Needless to say, someone in London messed up in a big way.  The SOE in London assumed everything was fine in Holland, and that the agent had simply forgot to add his security code.  To compound matters, the mistake was repeated again and again.  It was a mistake that cost the lives of 53 British agents and countless supplies for the secret army in Holland.  England did not become aware of the situation until late 1943, and at that time, the decision was made to stop supplying ALL agents in Europe until an assessment could be made to figure out the extent of the damage.  SOE authorities quickly realized the problem was pretty much isolated in Holland, but major damage was done to the Dutch network and to the creditability of the SOE.  Over the winter of 1943-1944, the SOE fought a new battle for its own life.  The SIS and other British intelligence agencies played their usual role of trying to kill off the SOE.  Churchill himself had to come the rescue of the SOE.  The organization survived only with a major reservations and possibility because D-Day was quickly approaching.  

VI.  Who to support in the Balkans?  Mihailovich or Tito?
Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks
(in the center with glasses and cane, standing sideways)
Postwar Communist Dictator of Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia posed a difficult decision for the British SOE.  There were two different rebel factions fighting against each other and Germany for control of their country.  The British naturally wanted to support Draza Mihailovich.  Mihailovich was against communism and Hitler, but it did not seem like he wanted to do anything which might cause trouble.  Tito was a strong communist, and he wanted to fight against the Germans.  He was ready to do damage.  Fearful that support of Tito might cause problems at home, the SOE did not want to rush into any support of his regime.   This touchy situation illustrates the problem the SOE started to encounter as D-Day approached.  The SOE began to be concerned with the nature of post-war Europe and what type of governments would take the place of the Nazis in each of the occupied territories.  Eventually, the British decided to support Tito despite the internal problems caused by that support. 

VII.  Overall success

Depending on how one chooses to view these stories, one might say the SOE was beginning to establish itself or they may say that it just goes to show how worthless the organization truly happened to be.  Certainly, there were some success stories, but the number of success stories was no where near what Churchill and the rest of the British government wanted.  Clearly, there were some huge failures, but that may be expected from a new organization just learning how to do its work.  Perhaps the original SOE planners were too ambitious with their plans.  The original idea of developing massive secret armies which would take up arms against the Germans and fight did not materialize.  Instead, small pockets of resistance forces concentrated on destroying specific targets of strategic importance.  So historians must look back on the SOE during this time period and conclude that the SOE was partially successful.

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