Set Europe Ablaze

Title:                      Set Europe Ablaze

Author:                 Edward Spiro

Spiro, Edward(1967). Set Europe Ablaze. New York: Crowell

LCCN:    67012398

D810.S7 S57 1967



  • Also published under pseudonym E. H. Cookridge
  • Inside SOE: The Story of Special Operations in Western Europe 1940-45 by E.H. Cookridge (Barker, 1966). Published the same year as M.R.D. Foot’s official history SOE in France, Inside SOE was a more commercial alternative, surveying SOE operations across all Europe. A shorter American edition, Set Europe Ablaze, was released in 1967 by Thomas Crowell

Date Updated:  February 6, 2017

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[1]

Popular and highly subjective account of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret agency for sabotage and subversion in Nazi-occupied territory. Because of author’s biases and certain inaccuracies, the book has been rejected by most SOE and Resistance participants.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[2]

An unofficial but extensive history of the SOE by a prolific writer on intelligence activities and a former intelligence officer. Although denied access to official SOE records, the author spent six years in research for this history and found that most relevant files on SOE were available for his inspection in the archives of other nations. The author cites these primary sources in his extensive bibliography. Especially valuable when used with Foot[3]. The author was critical of some of the decisions taken in SOE and as a result met resistance in obtaining clearance from British security authorities for publication of the book.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[4]

Below Dorset Street, on the east side of Baker Street, is 64 Baker Street. When the new SOE almost immediately outgrew its Caxton Street offices (see Site 5 2 Caxton Street; and Site 6 Artillery Mansions, Victoria Street), this building in October, 1940, became SOE’s “main headquarters”. The Ministry of Works had been reluctant to give the new outfit so much space, but SOE filled it within a month.

Among military historians, it is a commonplace that every military establishment starts a new war by fighting the last one over again: Hitler and Churchill, however, were so traumatized by the grinding attrition of trench warfare in WWI that they approached WWII looking desperately for more mobile, more decisive, tactics. Hitler developed the Blitzkrieg, launching it in Poland, refining it in France, and applying it successfully in Russia until the failing German supply system allowed Russia to counter-attack. Churchill was especially eager to avoid a long war of fixed positions; on top of everything else, the high casualties would be politically ruinous. His desire to pursue almost any alternative to the horrors of WWI was behind the creation of SOE.

The “godfathers” of SOE, as Foot calls them, were the Conservative Neville Chamberlain and the Labourite Hugh Dalton. Chamberlain provided the organizational details and the name. Dalton became the enthusiastic first chairman of this new body that would do its “unavowable” work separate from any existing service. But Churchill supplied the concept—“an army of the shadows” throughout enemy-occupied Europe, to “set Europe ablaze”.

“To think up schemes of piratical daring in a war that opened with ceremonial dress and sword drill; to wage in the early forties a kind of warfare that did not become common till the late fifties; such feats argue some imaginative capacity,” writes Foot in SOE in France[5]. And indeed, the imaginative leaders of SOE throughout the war advanced the tactics only barely glimpsed in the Boer War, in the Near East in WWI, in the civil wars in Russia and Spain, in the Chinese struggle against the Japanese, and in the Irish actions against the British. This was “unconventional” and “irregular” warfare—new to Britain in an official sense, but not alien to some of Britain’s military and intelligence men and eagerly grasped by those SOE leaders who came from civilian life.

Major-General Colin Gubbins was perhaps the most impressive of the men who led SOE. (He was decorated after the war by all the Allies except the USSR.) Starting as director of operations and training for SOE, Gubbins was executive director from September, 1943, to the war’s end. Without him, writes E. H. Cookridge in Inside SOE, the new organization would not have survived. Gubbins had already done some surviving of his own. He had built and led .the first “Striking Companies” (later to become the Commandos) and was active in their effort to delay the German advance in Norway. Immediately after his return from Norway, he” organized Britain’s own resistance forces, the secret “Auxiliary Units” that soon stretched clockwise along the coast from north-west Scotland to central Wales (see Site 102 7 Whitehall Place).

We shall never know how well the Auxiliary Units might have done in Britain against a Nazi occupation. We do know the record of SOE. Surely, as Marcel Ruby states in F Section, SOE[6], “the resistance would still have existed even if SOE had not”. But SOE’s contribution to the war effort cannot be discounted – or negated by its great blunders and heavy losses. I particularly like Foot’s comment: “An effort that German as well as allied generals believe shortened the European war by about six months cannot have been quite devoid of strategic value.” (He then delineates the strategic value of SOE after the Allied invasion of Normandy: because of the secret forces that SOE had raised and armed throughout France, the enemy could no longer control its rear areas or its communication lines.) But everywhere that SOE operated, the exploits of its agents lifted the spirits of the people and sapped the spirits of the enemy. Such things are immeasurable. And for its size, SOE’s impact was considerable. At-its peak, with approximately 10,000 men and 3,200 women, it was “about equal to that of a weak division” says Foot (5,000 of the total, mostly men, were agents). But “no single division in any army exercised a tenth of SOE’s influence on the course of the war.” Whatever was achieved by SOE, I believe the effort alone had significance. For Britain’s own morale and the morale of the occupied countries, such things were important.

One of SOE’s sharpest critics, the respected military historian John Keegan, believes that the psychological impact of the resistance in western Europe was virtually its only achievement. I think he overstates when he says that the programme of subversion, sabotage and resistance supported by Churchill and the governments-in-exile “must be adjudged a costly and misguided failure”, its major uprisings a disaster and its lesser activities “irrelevant and pointless acts of bravado”. Really effective guerrilla activity, writes Keegan, could be sustained in only two areas, Yugoslavia and the Pripet Marshes of the Eastern Front; the popular notion that western Europe was “ablaze” must be “recognized as a romantic, if understandable, myth”. (According to Keegan, cryptanalysis was far more valuable to the war effort and far less costly—and the war could have• been won without either.)

SOE ended abruptly in January, 1946, (although its Far Eastern operations continued until the end of June). Foot tells the story briefly. Clement Attlee was shown that SOE had, in Foot’s words, “a world-wide communications network, staffed by brave men and women dedicated to friendship with Great Britain: the makings of a priceless intelligence tool”. But the new Prime Minister was unimpressed. “Attlee brusquely replied that he had no wish to preside over a British Comintern, and that the network was to end immediately. It was closed down at forty-eight hours “notice.”

[1] 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. 18

[2] 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. 198

[3] 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

[4] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 173-176

[5] 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

[6] Ruby, Marcel (1988). F Section, SOE: The Buckmaster Networks. London: Cooper



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2 Responses to Set Europe Ablaze

  1. Pingback: Baker Street Irregular | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: SOE—The British Special Operations Executive, Chapter 17 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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