The Special Operations Executive (SOE)
from 1940 to 1946

The Transportation of SOE agents into and out of Europe

Once the SOE agents finished their training, they were placed on a holding status until transportation to Europe could be arranged.  Agents traveled to Europe in mainly one of two possible ways.  Some agents traveled by boat or submarine.  Other agents traveled by aeroplane.

 I. By Boat across the English Channel

SOE use of aircraft in the early part of the war was nearly impossible due to a variety of reasons.  For example, RAF Bomber Command was given top priority for the use of most available aircraft.  Very few planes were available for SOE use.  What few planes were available needed to be shared with the SIS.  Remember the SOE and the SIS were constantly battling each other over resources throughout the war.

Without the use of aircraft to place agents in Europe, the SOE had to turn to other methods.  The most feasible method was by boat.  While the first SOE agents worked their way through the new SOE training schools, the SOE administration worked hard trying to arrange boat transportation for these first agents.  Once the first agents were ready, some early attempts were made to cross the channel by boat.  Most of these early attempts were made with failure.  For example, on one early cross channel crossing, the transport boat ran into several German patrol boats and had to turn around before dropping off its agents in France.  Other attempts made with similar fates.  Frank Nelson, the head of the SOE, sought for a better way.

Eventually, the SOE used boats to successfully drop off and pick up agents in Spain.  The SOE also began to use British submarines as transport vehicles for some of the SOE agents, but the submarines always involved an increased element of danger and better ways were continually being sought.  As the war progressed, and the Americans entered the conflict, more and more aircraft became available to the SOE and SIS.  One of the types of aircraft used most by the SOE was the Lysander.

II. By Aeroplane: The Lysander

The Lysander was just an average plane, even by the standards of early World War II.  The plane was not especially fast nor could it be armed with lots of weapons.  As one can see from the pictures shown below, the Lysander airplane resembles a modern-day Cessena aircraft used by a large number of civilian pilots.  The slow features of the plane meant that the plane did not need lots of runway space to land and takeoff.  It could land on a small runway and takeoff again without many problems.  The plane could slip into and out of Europe quickly and fairly quietly.  It was an ideal plane for the SOE and SIS to use when placing and returning agents in Europe.  The lack of firepower and carrying capability made the plane unsuitable for bombing work.  Therefore Bomber Command was more willing to release the Lysanders for use by the SOE and SIS.  The SOE took advantage of this fact and used the planes whenever possible.

The Lysander Aircraft

Lysander in flight

The Lysander in flight
Lysander in color

A close up view of the Lysander in color

As World War II progressed, SOE and SIS were given use of a wider range of aircraft including some Lockheed Hudsons and American Douglas Dakota airplanes.  These other aircraft offered superior flying advantages over the Lysander, such as a better platform for parachute jumping, but it was the Lysander which most SOE agents would still remember after the war.

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