An examination of the SOE, its accomplishments, and the Canadian connection to the organization.
During the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to conduct acts of sabotage and subversion, and raise secret armies of partisans in German-occupied Europe. With the directive to “set Europe ablaze,” the SOE undertook a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Nazi Gestapo. An agent’s failure could result in indescribable torture, dispatch to a concentration camp, and, often, a death sentence.
While the SOE’s contribution to the Allied war effort is still debated, and many of its files remain classified, it was a unique wartime creation that reflected innovation, adventure, and a fanatical devotion on the part of its personnel to the Allied cause.
The SOE has an important Canadian connection: Canadians were among its operatives and agents behind enemy lines. Camp X, in Whitby, Ontario, was a special training school that trained agents for overseas duty, and an infamous Canadian codenamed “Intrepid” ran SOE operations in the Americas.
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About the Author
Colonel Bernd Horn is a retired Canadian Regular Force infantry officer and military educator. Dr. Horn has authored, co-authored, or edited more than forty books, including No Easy Task: Fighting in Afghanistan and No Lack of Courage: Operation Medusa, Afghanistan. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.
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Excerpt from Chapter 1
With Backs to the Wall: Taking Back the Initiative
The high-pitched wail of the JU 87 Stuka dive-bombers as they streaked toward the ground to deliver their lethal payload filled the air and instilled near panic in the French defenders guarding the Meuse River defensive line. No sooner had the sound of the aircraft stopped than the roar of German artillery began. The sound of explosions throwing earth and human debris into the air reached a crescendo just as the lead elements of the German assault formations advanced. Soon the throaty roar of powerful twelve-cylinder Maybach engines reverberated through the Ardennes forests as the clanking and creaking of the Mark IV tanks thread their way forward through what most had discounted as a probable approach for an armoured thrust.
The Allies were in disarray. Arguably, they had been for a long time. By 1939, despite Hitler's provocative moves (the rearmament of Germany, the annexation of Austria, the occupation of the Sudetenland, and annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia), the Allies were hesitant, if not reluctant, to go to war. However, Germany's invasion of Poland forced the issue, largely due to alliance guarantees. Nonetheless, it appeared that there was little Britain and France could do. On September 1, 1939, the German Army, consisting of 1,250,000 men in 60 divisions, 9 of which were armoured, cut a swath of destruction through Poland. The country fell in less than a month. The use of the aptly titled Blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactic, which combined tanks, armoured vehicles, and close support aircraft, created an impressive offensive capability empowered by surprise, speed, mobility, and destructive power. It appeared to be the perfect marriage of fire and movement.
In the aftermath of the victory over Poland, Hitler halted his war machine. Hitler had gambled that the Allies would not act. As such, he left his western frontier practically undefended, utilizing second-rate frontier troops to guard the border. He allocated his best forces for the attack on Poland. Once his new prize was secured, Hitler halted further offensive action, which led to a stalemate on the western front as Germany faced down Britain and France along the French border. Belgium and Holland maintained strict neutrality in the naive hope that they would be spared the impending showdown. Through the lens of history, it appears as though the Allies gave up a golden opportunity to strike at and perhaps defeat Germany early on.
The "Phoney War" dragged on through the winter months. Then, in April of 1940, German forces seized Norway and Denmark. Few doubted that France and the Low Countries would be next.
The Allies had apparently learned nothing in the period after the First World War, or from the German invasion of Poland and the Scandinavian countries. They still clung to their First World War experience and doctrine as they prepared for a replay of the Great War. The majority of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), approximately four hundred thousand strong, along with their French allies, stuck to the "Dyle Plan" and waited for what seemed the inevitable German sweep through Northern Belgium and Holland. Their plan was to counterattack the enemy and halt them as they had done in the First World War.
The Germans, however, had not spent the two decades since the end of the First World War idly. They evolved their tactics. They focused on speed, mobility, and combat power at the main point of effort, or schwerpunkt, of their attack.
On May 10, 1940, Germany struck. In total, 2.5 million German soldiers, divided in 104 infantry divisions, 9 motorized divisions and 10 armoured divisions, supported by 3,500 combat aircraft, smashed into France and the Low Countries.2
German Major-General F.W. Von Mellenthin later revealed:
In November 1939, the German plan of attack in the West was very similar to the famous Schlieffen Plan of World War I, i.e. the schwerpunkt was to be the right wing, but swinging a little wider than in 1914 and including Holland…. All ten of Germany's panzer divisions, grouped under Army Group B, were assigned to this mission. Meanwhile, Army Group A was responsible for penetrating the Ardennes and advancing up the line of the Meuse River with infantry, while Army Group C fought a defensive battle facing the Allied Maginot line.
Nonetheless, an unfortunate blunder by a German courier changed the fate of the Allies. A Luftwaffe officer, who, contrary to standing orders, flew at night with important papers containing references to the planned invasion, inadvertently crossed the Belgian frontier and was compelled to make a forced landing on Belgian soil. As Hitler and the German high command were unsure whether the plan was compromised or not, an alternate scheme was required. The Manstein Plan now captured Hitler's imagination, even though the majority of the old German high command insisted it was too risky, if not reckless.
The Manstein Plan, devised by Major-General Erich von Manstein, and favoured by most of the new breed of German generals who believed in the power of mobility and speed, still centred on the concept of three Army groups sweeping through the Low Countries and France. The difference, however, lay in the emphasis of the main point of effort. The Manstein Plan put the focus on Army Group A. In a risky gambit, Manstein proposed that the bulk of the panzer forces be sent through the confining Ardennes forests in a bold thrust that would hopefully catch the Allies by surprise and cut off their forces in the North, in Belgium and Holland. Army Group B would swing through Belgium and Holland (much like the Schlieffen Plan of the First World War) and draw the Allied forces away from the main blow in the Ardennes. The Allied forces rushing to block what they believed to be the German main effort in the North would then be cut off once Army Group A sliced through the Ardennes and reached the coast. Army Group C would continue to fight a defensive holding action facing the vaunted, impregnable Maginot line. Major-General (later Field Marshal) Manstein was convinced that the real chance lay with Army Group A, and consisted in launching a surprise attack through the Ardennes where the enemy would certainly not be expecting any armor because of the terrain. He realized this was the only way "of destroying the enemy's entire northern wing in Belgium preparatory to winning a final victory in France."
Manstein’s belief in mobility and armoured force proved to be right. "The whole campaign," Major-General von Mellenthin concluded, "hinged on the employment of armor, and was essentially a clash of principles between two rival schools." He insisted, "The Battle of France was won by the German Wehrmacht because it reintroduced in warfare the decisive factor of mobility. It achieved mobility by the combination of firepower, concentration, and surprise, together with expert handling of the latest modern arms Luftwaffe, parachutists and armor."
General, the Viscount Gort, the BEF commander-in-chief, agreed. He observed, "So ended a campaign of 22 days which has proved that the offensive has once more gained ascendency in modern war when undertaken with an army equipped with greatly superior material power in the shape of air forces and armoured fighting vehicles." He added:
The speed with which the enemy exploited his penetration of the French front, his willingness to accept risks to further his aim, and his exploitation of every success to the uttermost limits emphasized, even more fully than in the campaigns of the past, the advantage which accrues to the commander who knows how best to use time to make time his servant and not his master.
Again, the pace of operations has been so accelerated by the partnership between offensive aircraft and modern mechanised forces that the reserves available for the defence are of little use unless they are fully mobile or already in occupation of some reserve position.
In the end, the speed and multi-dimensional battlefield simply paralyzed the Allied forces deployed to defeat the enemy offensive. The German success, as already noted, was due to mobility, which was achieved by a combination of concentration, firepower, surprise, and combined-arms co-operation. The destruction of the West took forty-six days, but it was decided in only ten. As such, on the night of June 2, 1940, the last of the British and French soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The desperate withdrawal resulted in the loss of virtually all their heavy equipment, weapons, and vehicles. Moreover, Britain now braced for what seemed to be the inevitable conclusion to the German master plan the invasion of England.
Devoid of any major equipment or weapons and encumbered by a doctrine and war-making methodology that was now clearly defunct, England was on the precipice of disaster. Simultaneously, it had to re-equip, rebuild, and retrain its armed forces, and also prepare the island for defence. It seemed that Britain had no other choice but to surrender the initiative and dig in and wait for the inescapable onslaught.
This logic represented the thinking of most of the British military high command. Overwhelmed by the task ahead of them, they saw only a defensive battle at least in the short term. The only two forms of offensive action they considered were the traditional economic blockade, utilizing the superiority of the Royal Navy on the high seas, and strategic bombing.
One lesson taken from the First World War was the importance of long-range bombers. The lingering psychological effect of the 1917 Zeppelin bombing raids on London had struck home, and Britain invested heavily in strategic bombers during the interwar years. As such, after the debacle in France, the bombing fleet was one of the only offensive tools capable of physically striking back at Nazi Germany.
Not all the top decision makers in Britain were satisfied with a defensive strategy. Even though British equipment was still smoldering on the beaches of Dunkirk, the combative new prime minister, Winston Churchill, declared in the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, that “we shall not be content with a defensive war.” He was well aware that to win a war meant, ultimately, offensive action. Moreover, only through offensive action could an army provide the needed confidence and battle experience to its soldiers and leaders. Furthermore, he strongly believed that only offensive action could sustain public and military morale offensive action represented a shift in initiative. By striking at the enemy, an opponent is forced to take defensive measures that represent a diversion of scarce resources. The more an antagonist is required to allocate forces and energy on defending his territory, the weaker becomes his ability to launch expeditionary initiatives.
For that reason, Churchill directed General Hastings Ismay, his principal military adviser, to liaise with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee to develop a more offensive approach. Churchill railed, “We are greatly concerned ... with the dangers of the German landing in England.... Why should it be thought impossible for us to do anything of the same kind to them? We should immediately set to work to organize self-contained, thoroughly-equipped raiding units.”
For Churchill, it was about the initiative. He insisted that the Germans should not be left to focus their attention on concentrating their forces for the attack. He also wanted them to suffer the insecurity of postulating where the next attack would occur. Specifically, the prime minister was adamant that the Germans would not force the British “to wall in the island and roof it over!”
Churchill’s close ally, Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, agreed. “We cannot win this war,” Mountbatten proclaimed, “by bombing and blockade alone.” Churchill was relentless. Two days later he sent yet another missive to Ismay. “Enterprises must be prepared,” he directed, “with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts, first of all on the butcher and bolt policy; but later on, or perhaps as soon as we are organized, we should surprise Calais or Boulogne, kill and capture the Hun garrison and hold the place until all the preparations to reduce it by siege or heavy storm have been made, and then away.” However, his direction to Ismay was not enough. Churchill next targeted the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee: “Propose [to] me measures for a vigorous, enterprising, and ceaseless offensive against the whole German-occupied coastline,” he ordered. Churchill also demanded plans for deep inland raids that left “a trail of German corpses behind.”
Table of Contents
1 With Backs to the Wall: Taking Back the Initiative
2 "Setting Europe Ablaze": The Creation of the SOE
3 A Man Called Intrepid: The Beginning of the Canadian Connection
4 Out of Europe: BSC and SOE Operations in the Americas
5 Killing Two Birds with One Stone: The Creation of Camp X
6 Shrouded in Secrecy: Training and the Introduction of Hydra at Camp X
7 Down to Business: Operations in Europe
8 “The Simplest Things in War ...": Clausewitzian Frictions
9 Turning Theory to Reality: Canadians on SOE Operations
10 Reckoning: The Value of the SOE in the Second World War
11 Settling Accounts: The SOE at War’s End
List of Abbreviations
About the Author