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 same hotel.

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

  arisaig school

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 to instill.  

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 "specialization" schools

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.

M
any 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.

Click here 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.

V. Finishing Schools: Beaulieu

beaulieu

Beaulieu "Finishing" School

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.  

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 coworkers.




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