The SOE was the sabotage and resistance organization created in London under the leadership of Sir Frank Nelson in July 1940 to foment armed opposition to the Nazis in occupied territory in response to Winston Churchill’s demand to “set Europe ablaze.” Before it was shut down at the end of June 1945, it had trained 9,000 agents, operated in 19 European countries, and sent missions to China, Malaya, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. SOE was an amalgamation of a covert propaganda unit known as Electra House and the SIS’s sabotage branch, Section D.
SOE was the world’s first large-scale, government-sponsored commitment to paramilitary tactics and unorthodox warfare conducted by irregulars, and it changed the face of combat forever. Whereas others, such as the Boers in the South African War, had pioneered what would now be recognized as guerrilla strategies —mounting hit-and-run raids, ambushing supply routes behind enemy lines, and avoiding pitched battles—SOE had institutionalized the doctrines, established a global network of training facilities known as “Special Training Schools,” developed specially designed weapons and equipment, and liaised closely with local resistance groups to exploit territorial advantage.
During the course of World War II, SOE pulled off several spectacular successes that boosted anti-Axis morale, but probably exercised only a minimal influence over the final Allied military victory.
It mounted imaginative efforts to destroy stocks of heavy water at the Vermork hydroelectric plant in Norway that undermined German atomic research in Operation GUNNERSIDE. The assassination of Reichprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942 (Operation ANTHROPOID), while applauded by many, resulted in appalling retribution taken against the civilian population, including the razing of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, and murder of the village’s entire population.
Inexperience and overenthusiasm contributed to some monumental errors and the widespread enemy penetration of the French and Dutch resistance networks. Some unsuitable personnel were selected for clandestine work in enemy-occupied territory, and there was a continuous, probably inevitable conflict with rival Allied agencies engaged in intelligence collection. Sir Frank Nelson was replaced in May 1942 by banker Sir Charles Hambro, who was succeeded in September 1943 by Maj. Gen. Colin Gubbins. What was left of the organization was absorbed into the Secret Intelligence Service in August 1945, and Gubbins’s post ceased to exist in June 1946.