SOE Recollections

Title:                      SOE Recollections

Author:                J. G. Beevor

Beevor, J. G. (1981). SOE: Recollections and Reflections, 1940-1945. London: Bodley Head

LCCN:    82101694

D810.S8 B44 1981


Date Posted:      September 29, 2015

SOE, the Special Operations Executive, was a secret British organization created in July 1940 immediately after much of Western Europe had been overrun by the Nazis. The task of SOE was, in Winston Churchill’s words, to set Europe ablaze, or, in official phraseology, to co-ordinate sabotage and subversion against the enemy. During the course of the Second World War resistance movements grew up in some thirteen enemy-occupied countries of Europe and southeast Asia, contributing in varying degrees to the success of Allied operations. Through SOE Britain participated in and supported all of these underground organizations. At the end of the war SOE was disbanded, and many of its archives destroyed, while access to those that remain is not yet available to historians. Through his own personal involvement in SOE as a senior staff officer during its whole existence, J. G. Beevor is qualified to write this overall outline of resistance movements and special operations between 1940 and 1945 and to assess, with the aid of contemporary reports of military commanders, the value of each to the Allied cause. Drawing on his own personal recollections and those of his colleagues, as well as the available published material, he presents an assessment of Britain’s part in these activities, as well as a summary of how SOE functioned in relation to the Allied theatre commanders, to the special operations activities of Allied countries, notably the United States, and to government and service departments.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

From Crawford Street turn left and then right at Baker Street. On the west side of the street is Norgeby House, 83 Baker Street. This was one of the buildings that took up the overspill from. SOE’s headquarters. Passers-by noted only a small plaque for the “Inter-Services Research Bureau”. Conflicting sources locate the plaque also at two other buildings (see Site 70 Michael House, 82 Baker Street; and Site 71 64 Baker Street). The story I especially like about the plaque—wherever it was—concerns Maurice Buckmaster’s dog. As head of SOE’s F Section, Buckmaster divided his time between Orchard Court (see Site 72 Orchard Court, Portman Square) and Baker Street, telling not even his wife where he worked. His dog was often with him. Once when his wife was walking the dog, it took a familiar turn toward a Baker Street building. Mrs. Buckmaster saw the nondescript plaque and immediately knew one of her husband’s secrets. The Germans, lacking this kind of assistance, thought all of F Section was run from the flat in Orchard Court. According to Foot, F Section took up considerable space in Norgeby House.

SOE didn’t have German agents to contend with in the immediate area, but had plenty of other enemies, some within the organization itself. “Pitched paper battles” attended SOE’s first year, writes one observer, until the propaganda component of SOE became the independent Political Warfare Executive, and another component (involved in “planning spelt with a very big P ,” reports Sweet-Escott) “duly planned itself out of existence”.

SIS was a foe of SOE’s from the outset. Section D had been virtually “snatched away” from SIS (Anthony Cave Brown’s description) to create the new organization, and by 1941, SIS and SOE were engaged in “full-scale and dangerous brawls the like of which Whitehall bureaucracy had rarely, if ever, seen before”. In 1944 the head of SIS threatened to resign when SOE was given priority in certain operational matters even though SOE’s networks in several countries were almost certainly compromised. As late as 1944 SOE was still fighting efforts to merge it into SIS. Is there a case for separate organizations for secret intelligence and special operations? J. G. Beevor comments in his book SOE: Recollections and Reflections, 1940-1945[2]: “If SOE had been a mere branch of SIS, its chances of growth in the conditions of 1940-5 would have been poor.” But Beevor also acknowledges the case for unified direction; long after the war, the head of SOE himself wrote in favour of one executive head as the only way to “enforce collaboration and co-ordination”.

Nor was SIS the only foe of SOE’s. The war leadership considered SOE “a wayward child alternatively to be neglected and then chastised for going its own way,” writes one historian. Junior diplomats regarded SOE “with disdain, as an ungentlemanly body it was better to keep clear of,” writes another. And no less than the Chief of the Air Staff, on being asked for the first time to put SOE personnel into Europe, replied that “the dropping of men dressed in civilian clothes for the purpose of attempting to kill members of the opposing forces is not an operation with which the Royal Air Force should be associated”. He was outraged by these “assassins”—as much for their subterfuge, I’ve always thought, .as for their mission. Soon, of course, the RAF worked closely with SOE.

Negative views of SOE have outlived SOE. In The Times Literary Supplement in the mid-1960s, a reviewer charged that many of SOE’s higher executives “displayed an enthusiasm quite unrestrained by experience; some had political backgrounds which deserved a rather closer scrutiny than they ever got, and a few could only charitably be described as nutcases”. Undoubtedly some truth adheres to that allegation and to other critiques, but I disagree with Richard Deacon’s assessment of SOE as “one of the most appalling espionage services ever launched”. I think he errs in more than one respect: SOE was not strictly an “espionage” agency at all.

To be sure, SOE saw its share of espionage, but was on the receiving end in two cases we know about. In one, Captain Ormond Uren, who worked in this building, gave secrets of SOE policy in Eastern Europe (and a floor plan of Norgeby House) to the national organizer of the CPGB (see Site 101 11 King Street). Each was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned.

In the other, and far more serious, case of espionage within SOE—worth telling in some detail—the 15 million people of Yugoslavia paid a terrible price and the chief culprit paid no price at all, not even discovery and opprobrium during his lifetime. For years I have wondered why a card-carrying anti-communist like Churchill would withdraw support from the pro-Western resistance of General Mihailović in 1943 and provide vastly enhanced support to the communist guerrillas under Tito; this action ensured a postwar communist Yugoslavia. Until recently, Churchill’s decision has been explained by the claim that since Tito was an effective and committed enemy of the Germans, while Mihailović was collaborating with the Germans (and interested only in defeating Tito), then Tito’s Partisans were more deserving of support. A very respectable pair of recent books has now demolished that claim.

Each book—The Rape of Serbia: The British Role in Tito’s Grab for Power 1943-1944[3], by Michael Lees, and The Web of Disinformation: Churchill’s Yugoslav Blunder[4], by David Martin—makes use of SOE documents inexplicably released in the mid-1970s to the Public Record Office at Kew. Most important of these documents is the daily Operational Log from SOE Cairo, which. contains excerpts from the reports sent to Cairo by British Liaison Officers serving with Mihailović and Tito. Martin’s book shows that the reports sent on to London were “outrageously and systematically falsified and even suppressed” by SOE’s Yugoslav Section in Cairo” (later in Bari, Italy). “It can also be established,” Martin continues, “that relations between Mihailović and the British government were sabotaged in many ways by SOE Cairo.” Primarily responsible in this matter was James Klugmann, whom Martin calls “by farthe most brilliant of the Communist group at Cambridge”. Klugmann was an open sycophant of Stalin’s, yet became deputy director of SOE’s Yugoslav Section (working out of Cairo and Bari); his MI5 file, which should have prevented his getting such power, had been destroyed in England by a Luftwaffe bomb. No less compelling is the documentation by Michael Lees on Tito’s extensive collaboration with Hitler and Tito’s false image as a patriot. (Tito cannot even be credited with driving the Germans back. The Red Army did the job while Tito was slaughtering thousands of his own countrymen with British weapons.) The betrayal of Mihailović is a sorry chapter in SOE’s record.

It is sobering to consider SOE’s lack of concern for the postwar power balance in the countries it was helping to liberate. Nigel West’s assertion in Secret War, that SOE “actively assisted despotic tyrannies to seize power in so much of Eastern Europe”, is lamentably quite accurate. The desperate military situation of the British is often cited to justify Churchill’s short-sightedness. But Stalin’s military situation was even more desperate and Stalin never supported non-communists. (Think of the fate of the Polish nationalists.)

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 167-171

[2] Beevor, J. G. (1981). SOE: Recollections and Reflections, 1940-1945. London: Bodley Head

[3] Lees, Michael (1990). The Rape of Serbia: The British Role in Tito’s Grab For Power, 1943-1944. San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [LCCN: 89029495]

[4] Martin, David (1990). The Web of Disinformation : Churchill’s Yugoslav Blunder. San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [LCCN: 90030029]


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