SOE In France

Title:                      SOE In France

Author:                 M. R. D. Foot

Foot, M.R.D. (1966). SOE In France: An Account of The Work of British Special Operations Executive in France 1940-1944. London: H.M. Stationery Off

LCCN:    72175275

D802.F8 F6 1968


Date Updated:  February 3, 2017

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

The genesis of this official history is given in Patrick Howarth’s Undercover.[2] Briefly, it was a decision of the then British prime minister to proceed with such a work as a result of questions raised in Parliament about SOE activities in France. The task was entrusted to Foot, a historian and veteran of Combined Operations and the Special Air Service (SAS). The first version, the 1966 edition, was withdrawn and superseded by a 1968 impression with changes and additions; the 1966 version contained segments that should not have received security declassification. Foot traces the origins of SOE, security, training, and recruiting in the first section; the second concerns various operations of SOE in France, essentially those of the F Section. He makes no claim to be definitive and in fact outlines areas where material was scant, unsatisfactory, or lacking. Specifically, he cites lack of access to all SOE records; poor or incomplete SOE files and records; little access to knowledgeable Germans or to German records; no access to papers on major deception operations; little access to foreign records; no access to MI5, SIS, or escape and evasion records. Because the study was prepared in secrecy, Foot had severely limited access to former staff personnel and agents of SOE. Records of the RF Section of SOE were not available to him, and many files on particular operations and circuits, all training files, some important papers on the early development of SOE, and almost all messages exchanged with the field had disappeared. To these missing records, we must add the absence of any mention of the role of Ultra, which Foot in a later work on resistance[3] said was an indispensable input into any complete history of the war. This is a formidable list of missing sources; yet some commentators still described SOE in France as a definitive study.

Despite Foot’s care to make clear the limits of his research, the book was greeted with some controversy when it appeared. In France there was a feeling that it overstated the degree of British control of French resistance. Others felt that Foot ignored people who played important roles while making heroes of some less deserving. In Britain and European Resistance, David Stafford stated that SOE in France caused so much controversy that it was decided no further volumes should appear. The second edition, according to Foot, was pigeonholed. It would have been wiser, and more productive, to give Foot more time to complete the work and to tap a variety of sources and material. He himself had reservations about whether SOE papers were the best single source on the history of European resistance. As he wrote in 1977 in the foreword to Resistance (see note 3), he learned from this experience in writing an official history “a lot about what to seek.” This is, however, still an indispensable work on the subject. Dulles in the foreword to Great True Spy Stories[4] also touched on the controversy this study caused in Britain.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[5]

This book is a part of the official British History of the Second World War series. The 1968 edition is slightly changed from the original 1966 edition. It contains a short but useful section on the origins and nature of SOE in its work of conducting sabotage and subversive activities against the Axis in World War II. The book deals primarily with the work of the F Section—SOE’s independent French Section—describing recruiting and training, communications, and security, as well as specific intelligence nets and operations. The author had access to the official SOE files in writing, as well as some contact with participants in these activities.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[6]

An astonishing volume of the history of World War II series. This is a definitive work, and the only historical source of its kind in the area of covert and special operations. It begins with the story of the origins of SOE, its recruiting and training procedures, network communications, and field security procedures. Part 2 deals with the various operations of SOE in France. The various appendices list operational networks or “circuits” which when combined with the index are indispensable for identification of personalities involved and their operational code names. A special appendix is devoted to the women who served in SOE. The bibliography is especially useful since entries that are memoirs of SOE agents are rated as to authenticity. The author is an Oxford historian and was an intelligence staff officer during World War II.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[7]

From Baker Street tube station, which in 1863 was part of the world’s first underground railway; the platforms here are restored to their original Victorian appearance. Walk south on Baker Street. Turn into Bickhall Street. On both sides, mid-block, you’ll see Bickenhall Mansions. In 1960, at government request, M. R. D. Foot began to research the history of SOE in France. Several hostile views were already in print; Foot’s book was to be more balanced. His SOE in France is a monumental work, but Foot is more than the official historian of SOE; his vivid prose and intellectual rigour make his writing on this subject (including a later book, SOE) just about the best that anyone has done. He has given us a wealth of data about the organization that came to be known as “Baker Street” (for its heavy concentration of personnel in this area). Bickenhall Mansions, Foot tells us, was one of several Baker Street locations used by SOE.

Just why SOE’s main archive remains closed, as I write, is still a mystery. Former SOE agents can’t even see their own files. A good bit of SOE material has already been lost—destroyed by what Nigel West calls “the mysterious fire” of January, 1946, or weeded out by what Foot calls “inexperienced clerks”. Does the archive still contain important secrets? I had thought that anyone waiting for an answer to this question would be well advised to get comfortable, but with the promise now to open SOE’s files, we may (or may not) get some answers.

Some more comments by Roy Berkeley:[8]

Go south on Edgware Road. This was a Roman road, its straightness and width designed for ranks of marching soldiers. Turn left at George Street. Several blocks E is 19th-century Bryanston Square; towards the rear, on the R, is 18 Bryanston Square. “In spite of the adage that advises against changing donkeys in mid-stream,” writes M. R. D. Foot, “SOE and the Free French adopted a major change-over in the command system on 1 July, 1944. From that date, all but one of SOE’s sections working into France were thrown under a single large and confused staff in Bryanston Square.”

The Forces Francaises de l’Interieur, ordained by de Gaulle in March of 1944, had its staff or Etat-Major here, To command the EMFFI, de Gaulle chose the distinguished French general Joseph-Pierre Koenig. Under Koenig were the heads of SOE’s F Section and of BCRA (see Site 72 Orchard Court, Portman Square; and Site 73 10 Duke Street). Koenig himself operated under Eisenhower’s orders, or, as de Gaulle preferred to say, “served at Eisenhower’s side.”

The EMFFI made sense. Important as were the myriad resistance plans for damaging power stations and communication lines, for tying up rail and road transport, “it was just as important,” de Gaulle would write in his memoirs, “that the local actions of the clandestine groups assume, at the desired moment, the character of a national effort; that they function with enough consistency to become an element of the Allied strategy; that they ultimately lead the army of the shadows to merge with the regular troops into a single French Army.”

The bureaucratic connections, however, were impossible. EMFFI was subordinated both to SHAEF and to Special Forces Headquarters (the new British-French-American unit for SOE and OSS in London). “That it worked at all was a triumph for système D, the capacity for muddling through,” writes Foot, “and it worked exceptionally badly.”

Part of the problem was the large number of new French staff from North Africa, “high in rank and low in knowledge of the secret war,” as Foot describes them. Their constant concern was politics; British senior staff found Bryanston Square “nauseatingly full of intrigue.” About the place altogether, Foot writes, “there hung an inescapable flavour of that motto of amateur theatricals, ‘it’ll be all right on the night’.” And so it was, of course, as Foot explains, with SOE’s secret army managing more than a thousand rail interruptions in theweek after the Normandy invasion, and keeping German troops so busy that eight divisions never reached their designated battlefields.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 190-192

[2] Howarth, Patrick (1980, 2000). Undercover: The Men And Women of Special Operations Executive. London: Phoenix Press

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

[4] Dulles, Allen W., ed. (1968). Great True Spy Stories. New York: Harper & Row

[5] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, D.C. : Defense Intelligence School, p. 25

[6] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p.

[7] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 165-166

[8] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 202-203



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