The Special Operations Executive (SOE) officially came into being this week in the war, 22 July 1940. Its purpose: to harass the enemy from behind the lines.
Churchill supported ‘butcher and bolt’ raids and was an advocate of elitist special forces such as the Commandos, the Special Air Service (SAS), and the SOE—which he famously ordered to ‘set Europe ablaze.’
Lessons learned during the Irish war of independence were put to use. The SOE was modelled, to a degree, on the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The SOE’s nickname—The Baker Street Irregulars—came from the fictional street urchins who worked for Sherlock Holmes, and the fact that both Holmes and the SOE were based in Baker Street.
The special weapons workshop run by ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies seems fun and far fetched, but is based on fact. Such a weapons lab existed and supplied the SOE with a host of outlandish gadgets, like the teargas pen.
About one quarter of SOE operatives were women, many of whom were captured, tortured, and killed. They include some well known names: Princess Noor Inayat Khan, Virginia Hall (an American), Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom.
The latter suffered torture at the hands of the Gestapo and went on to survive Ravensbrueck concentration camp. Odette is shown here in happier postwar times, with her George Cross. (She was the only woman to receive the GC whilst alive. The other GCs were awarded posthumously).
Marcus Binney has written a fine book on the women of the SOE: The Women Who Lived For Danger—The Women Agents of the SOE in the Second World War (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002).