Title:                      Resistance

Author:                 M. R. D. Foot

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

LCCN:    76049521

D802.E9 F66 1977


Date Updated:  September 22, 2015

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

Foot aimed to analyze the whole field of wartime resistance to the Nazis, to explain what resistance could or could not do, and to assess whether the aims of resistance were achieved. Finally, he hoped to show where more research was needed. This book is less detailed and more superficial than his SOE in France[2], for which he had at his disposal original sources, albeit far from complete. Such is the penalty of trying to cover too much ground. Foot does not include German evaluations of European resistance when he comes to weighing its effect. On the other hand, because of his assiduous reading of the literature of SOE’s history, he includes important facts, incidents, and anecdotes. A very useful bibliography can be found in the footnotes, particularly on SOE. Foot makes some telling points on resistance; one is that there was a moral imperative to resistance that justified it and made it inevitable-a point missed by some postwar critics of its costs and effectiveness. Errors are not major, but for the U.S. reader, there is an overreliance on R. Harris Smith’s OSS[3] as the authoritative history of that subject. For an analysis of resistance expressing doubts of its contribution versus costs, see Macksey’s The Partisans of Europe in the Second World War.[4]

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

In the author’s own words, this book attempts “to analyse the whole field of wartime resistance to the Nazis in Europe; to explain what kinds of things resisters could and could not do….” To compress this broad subject into one volume means that it must be treated with some degree of superficiality and absence of detail. And therein lies the book’s merit; for it serves as a primer or introduction to the subject of resistance in World War II Europe, including the roles of SOE and OSS. The first hundred and fifty pages are especially recommended.

As a sidelight, Roy Berkeley comments[6] on the St. Ermin’s Hotel on Caxton Street in London. This hotel saw considerable intelligence action during WWII. You might wish to stop for tea or coffee in the attractive foyer of St Ermin’s Hotel. The lounge is bright and cheerful today. But early in WWII, Malcolm Muggeridge (a new recruit to MI6) found it “dim and quiet, suggestive of conferences to promote world governments, family planning or the practice of eurhythmics”. How much does this description owe to the legendary Muggeridge waspishness, I wonder, and how much to the blackout?

With 54 Broadway nearby, MI6 often interviewed potential recruits here over lunch or dinner. Philby was interviewed twice at St Ermin’s. But MI6 used more than the restaurant—by 1939, the fifth and sixth floors were solidly MI6. The lifts showed stops at four floors only. New recruits like Noel Coward were astonished to be escorted to the secret MI6 outpost above.

Nor were outsiders encouraged to disembark at the fourth floor; SOE’s Operations Section (the old Section D, now called S02) had moved here to what M. R. D. Foot describes as “three gloomy rooms”. During its tenure at St Ermin’s, S02 planned such operations as the destruction of Romania’s oil fields, the removal of Amsterdam’s industrial diamonds, the evacuation of Belgium’s gold and the rescue of Madame de Gaulle—some of which happened and some of which didn’t. S02 stored explosives here. Did colleagues on the upper floors know they were literally sitting on a keg?

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[7]

Walk through Melcombe Place to Dorset Square, first site of Lord’s cricket ground (established in 1787 by Thomas Lord). Walk the length of the square. Ahead is

Site 60: 1 Dorset Square. On 19 July, 1940, the day Hitler announced England’s impending collapse, Churchill created the Special Operations Executive “to co-ordinate all action by way of subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas.” Before year’s end, SOE had formed its F Section (see Site 72 Orchard Court, Portman Square). But the French were not wholly grateful. All the governments-in-exile were wary of the British; General de Gaulle, head of the Free French in London, was especially so. He was enraged at F Section’s early recruitment of French citizens (whom he considered his property); when France was liberated he gave SOE agents 48 hours to leave his country.

Early on, however, SOE recognized de Gaulle’s strength in France and formed another French section to work with his military intelligence in London (see Site 73 10 Duke Street). The new section was called RF, “a name that echoed, by a delicate compliment, that République Française which de Gaulle felt he personified,” writes M. R. D. Foot[8]. The agents of RF were mostly French, as the agents of F were not, and. French was spoken exclusively in RF until English-speaking officers produced such abominations (un vrai fil vivant for a “real live wire”) that the rule was mercifully allowed to lapse.

SOE’s ubiquitous Bickham Sweet-Escott served here briefly in 1943 as head of RF Section. In his Baker Street Irregular[9] he describes the place: downstairs, an operations room; on the top floor, a flat where staff checked the “authentic Gallic appearance of those about to cross the Channel”; elsewhere, the various training, dispatching and intelligence units. RF’s tenancy here succeeded the directorate of the Bertram Mills circus, and Sweet-Escott mentions a large room on the piano nobile where Mills himself had worked: “innumerable dirty rhomboids on the wall showed where had hung the signed photographs of the lion tamers, the jugglers and the men on the flying trapeze.” Critics of RF Section enjoyed thinking of RF’s officers sitting where the managers of clowns had recently sat, but nobody ridiculed the dangers of RF’s work—far greater than putting one’s head into the mouth of a docile lion or setting forth on a safety-netted high wire.

For RF’s task involved nothing less than (in Foot’s words) “to stimulate, guide, and service the creation of a unified resistance movement and a secret army inside France.” F Section had more limited objectives, mostly involving demolition and industrial sabotage. But the demarcation was not so sharp: “inevitably, some of F’s best men ranged far outside a narrow saboteur’s brief,” Foot writes, and some of RF’s agents performed “highly distinguished” acts of sabotage.

RF’s orders were prepared jointly by SOE and by de Gaulle’s Bureau Central de Renseignemenis et d’Action. SOE had veto power (rarely used) and controlled the flow of information. SOE kept the French in the dark about D-Day plans, for instance. When BCRA planners came up with the same date and many of the same beaches, Baker Street initially (and wrongly) suspected a leak from RF Section—then had to hope that the Germans weren’t as accurate in their assessment of tides and terrain.

F and RF were only two of the six sections of SOE involved in France. These two were the largest, though, supplying more than 400 agents each. AMF Section, which began after the North African landings in 1942, sent in another 400; the Jedburgh teams, which began as support for the Normandy invasion, almost 300. (DF Section sent in few agents but built excellent escape lines, and EU/P dealt solely with the large number of Polish refugees in northern France.) And these six sections were only some of the Allied secret organizations working in France. “Gaul was certainly divided into many more than three parts,” observes Sweet-Escott, citing the activity of the Czechs, Poles, Belgians, Dutch, British, and of course the French. With each group somewhat isolated from the others, he writes, “the scope for muddle was immense.”

The potential for rivalry was also great. “Inter-section jealousies within SOE were endemic; between F and RF sections they raged with virulence,” Foot writes, although in his view this jealousy was mostly “froth” and basically “unimportant.” Every historian mentions the conflicts between F and RF. I gladly give Foot the last word: “These jealousies were gradually resolved, as each came to accept the accomplished fact of the other’s existence; in any case, they were always far worse in London than ‘in the field.’”

In the end France belonged to de Gaulle (as he had known all along). He had feared the British, expecting them to impose a puppet government on France after the war, but the British involvement through SOE was essentially military, not political. He had also feared the French communists, and his basic distrust of the British was fueled by the knowledge that SOE didn’t believe in excluding anybody, of any political persuasion, from the war against Hitler. Nor was de Gaulle alone in his concern about the communists; many feared, with some justification, that the communists wouldn’t stop fighting after the Germans were defeated but would use the postwar chaos to overthrow any democratic government. The communists, however, were no match for the Gaullists. Foot, again: “The latter had bothered to read Trotsky, whom they rightly regarded as the leading expert on how to seize power in an industrial society; the communists, brought up to abhor Trotsky, had not.” (The failure to study Trotsky also contributed, I think, to the failure of the 1991 coup against Gorbachev.)

In the end, too, while France received a great deal of attention from SOE, Foot is not simply being gallant in saying that “the French saved themselves; the British and, later, the Americans gave them the means to do so, but could not give them the will.” The (literally and figuratively) towering figure of Charles de Gaulle gave them a focus for their will. He was surely a difficult man; but for many of the defeated French and certainly for the agents of SOE’s RF Section, he was France.

Some more comments by Roy Berkeley:[10]

From Park Road, walk south into Baker Street. In 1930, when the two parts of Baker Street were united and the street was renumbered, a real 221 B Baker Street came into existence for the fictional Sherlock Holmes. On your right, just above Melcombe Street, is 221 Baker Street. In addition to “country” sections, SOE had a number of “technical” sections—“dealing with security, clothing, forgery, cipher, armament, air liaison, and so on,” as M. R. D. Foot rather casually enumerates them. The clothing section, located here, sought to provide agents with as convincing a civilian disguise as possible. Agents might be betrayed in many ways but mustn’t be betrayed by what they wore, or what they carried in what they wore; before leaving England they would scrupulously empty their pockets of every tattered bus ticket, every flake of tobacco.

Two refugee tailors made clothes that were designed and detailed, to the last stitch and buttonhole, as if fabricated on the Continent. Agents also went into occupied Europe in clothing brought out by refugees. Mistakes happened, though. Two SOE agents were horrified to realize that they had dropped in identical clothes; their matching shirts, ties, raincoats, socks, shoes, and briefcases gave them the look of mismatched twins as they began their hazardous mission.

And sometimes the disguise was amusingly thin. Foot tells of two bolts of pyjama cloth brought to England by one of the refugee tailors; every male agent of SOE soon had pyjamas of this material. One agent, on his first night in occupied territory, was staying briefly with a colleague who looked in to make sure the newcomer was comfortable “and said with a rueful smile, ‘Ah, pyjamas maison, I’d get some others if I were you. Good-night’.”

Another story, .perhaps apocryphal, concerns some two-way radios that were fabricated to resemble luggage. These “suitcases” were identical—same colours, same stripes—and were instantly recognizable by any Gestapo man who had seen more than two. Baker Street realized the gaffe and diversified. Using a wireless in Nazi-occupied territory was dangerous enough without courting disaster simply by carrying one.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 189

[2] 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

[3] Smith, R. Harris (2005). OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press

[4] Macksey, Kenneth John (1975). The Partisans of Europe in The Second World War. New York: Stein and Day

[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] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 10-11

[7] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, p.

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

[9] Sweet-Escott, Bickham (1965). Baker Street Irregular. London: Methuen

[10] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 156-158


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