The Special Operations Executive (SOE)
from 1940 to 1946
The Training of a SOE Agent
I. Becoming a Secret Agent: The initial interviews
Most potential agents were recruited by the SOE because they possessed
some special quality or trait needed by the SOE. For example, they
might have had a French background or could speak French fluently. The
first interview was usually conducted at a hotel in London and consisted of
nothing more than a conversation, in French or whatever desired language,
about general topics and the interviewee's actual background. Nothing
about the SOE or the SOE's work was mentioned in this initial interview.
If the interviewer felt the interview went well, and that the interviewed
person might make a good agent, then a second interview was arranged at the
During this second interview, the potential agent was asked if he or she
would volunteer on go on a mission with only a fifty percent chance of a
safe return. If the interviewed person accepted this high degree of
risk, then the person was frequently asked to attend the first of the SOE's
specialized training schools (STS). If the person accepted this reassignment
to a SOE school, then the individual received an immediate promotion and was
usually sent to the SOE Basic Training school at Arisaig in Scotland.
II. Becoming a Secret Agent (Basic Training): SOE School #26 at
Arisaig Training School, Scotland
The Arisaig complex was located in a remote part
of Scotland on a rugged coastline. The remote location was a perfect
place to train secret agents. Inquisitive locals were told it was a
training center for commandos. Arisaig House was actually a group of
several small cabins and houses where different groups of agents, each group
destined for a different country, were housed together.
For most agents, the physical training at Arisaig was demanding. Not
only were the potential agents trained in a physical way, but they were
also taught basic skills needed as a secret agent. Agents learned
hand to hand combat. They learned how to handle explosives. One story
was told about an agent, Michael Trotobas, who went 'fishing' with plastic
explosives. He placed a detonating device into some plastic explosives
and dropped the "bomb" into a lake. The explosion killed hundreds
of salmon fish. A couple of potential SOE agents had to scramble to
clean up the mess of floating dead fish before the nearby town could find
out about the explosion. Such problems were accepted and even applauded
as the agents had shown initiative and drive--exactly what the SOE was trying
It was at Arisaig where most agents experienced their first 'informal'
testing. In other words, potential agents were allowed, even freely
given, strong drinks. This was in contrast to the other armed services where alcohol during basic training was not allowed.
These drinks were given to the agents to test the agent's level of
commitmentand to find out if the agent could handle the strong liquor. An
agent who could not hold up after drinking some liquor was of no use at
all to the SOE. Those potential problem agents who could be identified
at this early stage could be reassigned fairly quickly to some other agency.
If the agent passed the training courses at Arisaig, then he or she
would move on to one of the advanced specialized SOE schools.
III. Advanced Topics: Several
There were more than sixty of these advanced specialized SOE schools. For
example, the school at Aston House taught agents the skill of silent killing.
This skill was taught by two former Shanghai policemen named Sykes
and Fairburn. Sergeant Harry Court at the Brockhall school taught a
different approach. Court taught his agents to maim the German agents,
not kill them. Court reasoned that an injured soldier was a soldier
who needed care. That care would further deplete German resources.
In other words, an injured German was better than a dead German. Court
taught how to find the most vulnerable parts of the body and how to use leverage
to exploit those vulnerable places. Court also taught how to use ordinary
objects, such as a walking stick or an umbrella, as a weapon. With
this mentality, the agents were never at a loss for a weapon. The SOE
school at Hatfield, Hertfordshire (#17) specialized in industrial sabotage,
and the school near Bedford (#40) was a wireless radio transmitter training
center. Actually, Hatfield also produced wireless radio transmitter
operators, known as "pianists," as well.
Almost all schools focused on gun practice. Potential agents continually
drilled on shooting and how to assemble / disassemble both rifles and revolvers.
The agents became experts at the SOE's preferred gun, the Sten gun,
but they were familiar with all types of guns from the smallest Piat to
the largest bazooka.
Many of these specialized
schools featured specialized "helpers." The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry,
or the FANY, was a group of women, some young, some not so young, dedicated
to helping run the SOE schools. The women would act as hostesses,
guardian angels, friends, and sometimes fellow agents to the potential agents
stationed at the schools. Some of these FANY agents include Violette
Szabo, Noor Iyanat Khan, and Odette Sansom. Occasionally, these women
did other tasks as well. Many FANYs worked as coders and translators.
for a website dedicated to FANY agents.
IV. Parachute Jump Instruction: The
SOE School at Altricham near Manchester
Most agents were deployed in Europe at night by parachuting from an aeroplane.
To successfully do this, SOE agents needed to know how to parachute.
The agents learned how to do this at the SOE training school called
Altricham near Manchester. The actual jumps took place on the grounds
of Tatton Park from aircraft based at Ringway Airport. Agents completed
five training jumps including four daylight jumps and one nighttime jump.
Once they completed the training jumps, agents earned their parachute
certification and could parachute safely to start their official mission.
Finishing Schools: Beaulieu
A final test awaited most agents at
Beaulieu. The agents were exposed to someone like Noreen Riols. Noreen
was a SOE secretary at Beaulieu. She also did special jobs at Beaulieu.
For example, a SOE director would take an agent out to drink. Noreen
would appear, and the director would "sweet talk" her into sitting with
them. Of course, the situation was deliberately set up. After
a few minutes, a phone call would occur which would cause the SOE director
to be "unavoidably detained." Noreen would then flirt with the would
be agent trying to get as much information out of him as possible. Usually
the potential agent would pass the test. Sometimes, however, agents
would fail and tell Noreen their secrets. Of course, these "exposed"
agents could not be sent to Europe because of the obvious risk they posed.
Noreen tells the story of one exposed agent who was so upset that
he called her a bad name upon learning of the treachery. But, as Noreen
said, "if he can't resist talking to a pretty face here, he's not going
to resist when he goes back (to Europe)." Agents had to pass the Noreen
test in order to be sent to Europe.
Beaulieu "Finishing" School
For some questionable agents, there was an even more final "test." She
was called 'Fifi' and according to legend, she would do anything for King
and country. Just like the fictitious James Bond, she would "take
one for the team" and "go all the way" so to speak to find out if the agent
would truly keep his secrets. Perhaps 'Fifi' never existed, and the
stories were simply legend, but the SOE went to extraordinary links to test
their agents to make sure an agent would not endanger himself or his other