Secret War

Title:                  Secret War

Author:                 Nigel West

Nigel West (1992). Secret War: The Story of SOE, Britain’s Wartime Sabotage Organisation. London : Hodder & Stoughton

OCLC:    24753890

D810 S7 W472 1992


Date Updated:  September 28, 2015

In my view, Nigel West was honing his writing and even more his research skills when he published before 1996. This being an early book, it is not nearly as strong as his later works.

This book is an analysis of SOE’s structure and performance using previously unpublished archival material. Among the items of historical interest is SOE’s original founding charter, widely believed to have been lost, but recently recovered from M16’s files. It offered new evidence of the setbacks that jeopardized D-Day and gives an unprecedented account of the paramilitary units that dropped behind the lines immediately after the invasion, and saved SOE’s reputation.

SOE was, in my view, incredibly run – almost idiotically. Agent after agent was lost, virtually no radio operator survived capture, and of those captured and turned, their security alerts were ignored.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

From Bickenhall Street and turn left into Gloucester Place. Turn left again at York Street and immediately right into Montagu Mansions. By the winter of 1943-4, writes Foot, “most of the western side of Baker Street, through to Gloucester Place, had been requisitioned by SOE under one or another of its cover names.” The various mansion blocks into which SOE expanded included this one.

Most SOE agents had been ordinary civilians before signing up for sabotage and subversion work. They were hardly “ordinary”, to be sure; they had unusual ability at mountain climbing or other outdoor pursuits, or special experience with the languages and cultures of the occupied countries. But SOE was at pains to inculcate quickly in them the reasoned paranoia needed by an agent operating in hostile territory.

Disregard for the basic rules of security could easily bring disaster. One agent who had lived in Paris before the war promptly looked up all her old friends; for this indiscretion she was caught by the Germans, tortured and executed. At the other end of the spectrum is the SOE officer who kept his address in enemy territory a secret even from Baker Street—an extreme application of the-principles laid down in his training but possibly the reason he lived to tell about it.

Security was important—but not all-important. Foot[2] writes: “Those who bothered incessantly about security survived, but few of them had much beyond survival to their credit. To strike and then to survive was the real test.” Foot knew what he was talking about. He served with Britain’s famed Special Air Service during the years when SAS provided military personnel to stiffen resistance groups much as SOE’s Jedburgh teams did. When the Germans captured Foot, Hitler’s policy was the summary execution of all such personnel whether they served in uniform or not. But one. of Foot’s captors had taken his SAS patch for a souvenir and the enemy never connected him with that feared and admired unit. SAS operated in considerable numbers behind enemy lines after D-Day (and “to great effect,” reports Nigel West in Secret War: The Story of SOE). Indeed, argues West, “harrying the enemy before he had even reached the field of battle” was not so much SOE’s doing as it was “predominantly the work of irregular formations composed of SAS troops.”

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 166-167

[2] Foot, M. R. D. (1977). Resistance : European Resistance to Nazism, 1940-1945. New York: McGraw-Hill


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4 Responses to Secret War

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