SOE: The Scientific Secrets: The Scientific Secrets

SOE: The Scientific Secrets: The Scientific Secrets

by Fredric Boyce

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The history of Special Operations Executive (SOE) seems to spring a never-ending run of surprises, and here are some more. This book explores the mysterious world of the tools SOE used for their missions of subversion and sabotage. An often grim reality is confronted that is more akin with the world of James Bond and Q's workshop than previously believed. Written by two scientists, one of whom served in the SOE and one who was tasked with clearing up after it was disbanded; their insider knowledge presents a clear account of the way in which SOE's inventors worked. From high explosive technology to chemical and biological devices; from the techniques of air supply to incendiarism; from camouflage to underwater warfare; and from radio communications to weaponry. SOE: The Scientific Secrets is a revelation about the tools that allowed the murky world of spying and spies to operate during wartime.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752475806
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 11/08/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 665,881
File size: 800 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Soe The Scientific Secrets

By Fredric Boyce, Douglas Everett

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Fredric Boyce
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7580-6



On the night of 14 May 1941, a 29-year-old German spy by the name of Karel Richard Richter descended by parachute into a field near London Colney in Hertfordshire. After burying his parachute and other incriminating items, including by mistake his emergency rations, he went into hiding. If he had set off up the Great North Road and managed to avoid detection he would have reached, after a few miles on the left, the entrance to a fine estate. A notice on the gate revealed that this was War Office property and that entry was forbidden without written permission. An armed guard in a discreetly placed hut kept watch on the gates. The drive beyond the gates wound up through a plantation of mature trees – Cypress, Redwood and Wellingtonia – interspersed with banks of rhododendrons in full bloom. Through the trees he might have caught sight, silhouetted against the sky, of a red-brick Victorian mansion at the top of the rise. There was little to suggest that this was a specially protected property. There were no high fences topped with barbed wire and no guard dogs. Had he hidden in the undergrowth and waited until morning he would have observed the arrival of a few dozen girls – typists or secretaries perhaps – and the departure of a car carrying three or four men, some in uniform, some in civilian clothes. During the day a little traffic would enter or leave and in the evening the girls went and those who had spent the day away elsewhere would return. To the casual observer, even a German spy, there was little to arouse curiosity. Many companies, some of them with Government contracts, had been evacuated from London to avoid the bombing, but maintained daily contacts with their headquarters. Unfortunately for him, Richter, who had spent three days without food or drink, was quickly arrested and convicted as an enemy spy. Prisoner 13961's short stay in the UK ended in a struggle on the gallows in Wandsworth Prison at 9 a.m. on 10 December.

The mansion he would have stumbled upon was The Frythe at Welwyn in Hertfordshire, known then by its cover name as part of the Inter-Services Research Bureau (ISRB). These initials concealed its true identity. It was in fact one of the highly secret establishments set up early in the Second World War by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to carry out sabotage and subversion against the enemy in occupied Europe using unconventional and often ungentlemanly means. SOE's very existence was a closely guarded secret – denied even by the Government in the Commons. To those working at The Frythe it was simply ISRB Station IX and to many of them the initials SOE meant nothing. Nor would many have known that it had other cover names (of non-existent departments!) such as MO1(SP) in the War Office, NID(Q) at the Admiralty and AI10 at the Air Ministry. Those members of its staff who in the course of their work were required to visit other military establishments were issued with passes identifying them as from MO1(SP). Sentries and security officers rarely recognised these initials but were usually satisfied when told they stood for Military Operations 1 (Special Planning). It was not until some time after the war that the very existence of SOE was allowed to be mentioned in public.

Station IX was the main centre for the Research, Development and Supplies Directorate of SOE and, as will be described later, played a pivotal role in the evolution of new and improved weaponry, equipment and techniques for use by its agents in occupied Europe and worldwide. Over the years glimpses of this work and some of the products which evolved have been given, often incidentally, in accounts of the history of SOE and the exploits of its agents published since the war. However, the authors of many of these books were constrained by security considerations. Those who were not personally involved have had to rely on the limited amount of information available to them at the Public Record Office (PRO), and on the discreet recollections of those who were. The belated release by the PRO of most of the surviving SOE files, supplemented by personal recollections of those who are now free to speak, has made available in the public domain new evidence to fill some of the gaps. Exhibits relating to its work are displayed in a number of museums including the Imperial War Museum in London, the Airborne Forces Museum at Aldershot, the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford Camp and in a small local museum at Arisaig in Western Scotland. But the full stories behind the invention and development of its weapons have until recently remained buried in the archives. A major problem facing historians attempting to compile a definitive account of the organisation arises from the fact that in the rapid and piecemeal development of SOE there was no Central Registry for its documents and no rational filing system. The departmental papers are scattered, incomplete and often confusing. Towards the end of hostilities a Central Registry was set up but only a quarter of the work of reclassifying the papers into a common system had been completed when the organisation was eventually disbanded in 1946. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the records of SOE have been lost, partly by deliberate destruction at the end of the war, some in a serious fire at the Baker Street headquarters, and many by weeding over half a century. One estimate is that over 80 per cent of the archives had been lost and the remainder were classified.

The situation has, however, changed dramatically in the last few years as most of the surviving SOE files have been opened to the public and now provide material for a more extensive study of its activities. It is interesting that some of the files which were said to have been lost have come to light. A number of important books have now collected together information hitherto unavailable. They include The Secret History of SOE by William Mackenzie (2000), written between 1945 and 1947 but not allowed to be published for a further 55 years; the Secret Agent's Handbook of Special Devices (2000); and even more recently SOE Syllabus (2001). But none of these provides an account of the research and development of SOE weaponry and equipment, nor of the distinguished band of scientists and engineers who were recruited to solve the wide range of problems arising from this new form of warfare.

In the following chapters an attempt is made to present as full a picture as possible, based largely on the available documentation together with personal recollections of a few of those who were involved. Sadly, many of those who could have answered some of the outstanding questions have taken their secrets to the grave: Time continues to reap its harvest month by month.

A large number of abbreviations and symbols were used throughout the conflict. An explanation of them is given in Appendix C.


What was the Special Operations Executive?

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in mid-July 1940 at the height of the crisis following Dunkirk and the fall of France. It brought together three existing secret organisations: Section D of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) otherwise known as MI6; the Military Intelligence Research unit (MI(R)) of the War Office formerly known as General Staff (Research) or GS(R); and Electra House, attached to the Foreign Office and mainly concerned with propaganda.

As early as March 1939 the existence of three organisations tackling much the same work was seen as an anomaly. Certain duplication of effort was taking place between MI(R) and D Section, something the country could ill afford. It wasted valuable time and there was a tendency for production aspects of the work to take precedence over vital research. The first paper to address this problem was prepared in June 1939. Over the next few months there followed various initiatives attempting to solve the problem of co-ordination.

Reorganisation was discussed in a complex series of meetings held in June and July 1940 involving, in various combinations, the CIGS, Lord Gort; the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax; the Chief of GS(R), Col Holland; Mr Hugh Dalton; Mr Clement Attlee; and representatives of SIS. They dealt among other things with the sensitive problem of the military or civilian control of a merged organisation. The solution was to some extent a compromise between political interests, but the details of the discussions, said to have been acrimonious, leading to agreement cannot, according to W. Mackenzie in his Secret History of SOE, be traced from the papers available. The final document proposing the setting up of an organisation to be called the Special Operations Executive under the Chairmanship of Dalton was signed on 19 July by Neville Chamberlain (then Lord President of the Council following his resignation as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940). Churchill had already, on 16 July, offered the Headship of SOE to Hugh Dalton, the 53-year-old Minister of Economic Warfare (MEW), with the now much-publicised exhortation to 'set Europe ablaze'. Ironically, it was on this very day that Hitler signed his Führer Directive No. 16 for the planning of Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain. The SOE Charter was finally approved by the War Cabinet on 22 July. In retrospect it seems somewhat anomalous that it was placed, not under any of the parent ministries, but under the Ministry of Economic Warfare. The reasons were a consequence of the complex political negotiations which preceded its formation. Each of the constituent organisations had been set up independently before the war in 1938 with objectives which were loosely defined and overlapping. The new organisation was given a more specific task of promoting sabotage and subversion through its own covert agents and with supplying arms, equipment and agents to resistance movements throughout occupied Europe and beyond. When they were amalgamated to form SOE they each brought with them a good deal of historical baggage which, throughout the war, coloured relations between SOE and its parents. These political problems, though they were of major importance in the general progress of SOE, did not have any significant influence on its scientific and technical work.

Implementation of the Charter took a little time. Control of Section D and Electra House passed from the Foreign Office to MEW on 16 August, while the formal dissolution of MI(R) followed in October. Meanwhile SOE's London Headquarters was moved in October 1940 to 64 Baker Street, where it adopted its public cover name of the Inter-Services Research Bureau. It was quite separate from MEW in Berkeley Square. Dalton remained as head until in 1942 he was replaced by Lord Selborne, also aged 53. To appreciate the development of the scientific and technical aspects of SOE's work it is important to set the scene by outlining the history of those components which came together to form SOE. Electra House, which was set up in 1938 by Lord Hankey and headed by Sir Campbell Stuart, was mainly concerned with propaganda and had little impact on the research and development work of SOE. Attention is, therefore, here restricted to Section D (MI6) and GS(R) (later known as MI(R)). The formal relationship between them is difficult to disentangle, but some of their technical work certainly overlapped.


In April 1938 the then head of the SIS, Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, arranged for the secondment of Maj Lawrence Grand, RE, from the War Office to SIS to carry out a study and to report on the possibilities of creating a British organisation for covert offensive action. Germany and Italy had already conducted such operations in countries which they later overran, and the possible existence of a Fifth Column in Britain was not entirely ruled out.Grand had no experience of secret service work but he had ideas and enthusiasm and a persona which earned the admiration of all who worked with him. His personal energy was much needed for time was not on his side – by now, Austria had been occupied by Germany. Grand was promoted to Colonel, given the symbol D and set up the Devices Section of MI6, to be called Section D and with the cover name of Statistical Research Department of the War Office. Section D's terms of reference were:

a) To study how sabotage might be carried out
b) to produce special sabotage ammunition
c) to make experiments on carrying out sabotage
d) to train saboteurs
e) to study methods of countering sabotage.

The use of aggressive action was precluded as long as peace held.

At first the Section consisted of only two officers. Among those recruited by Grand in December 1938 was Cdr A.G. Langley RN who set in motion and pursued energetically work on the research and development of ideas and stores needed to meet the above objectives. In particular, his small group was concerned with the design of time fuses and switches of various types and of explosives and incendiary devices. Section D was originally based at SIS's head office at 54 Broadway but soon expanded to the adjacent Caxton House. In the early months of 1939, as the threat of war grew ever closer, Horace Emery of SIS arranged for the manufacture of the first batch of Time Pencil fuses to Langley's design. Articles made in Germany and Italy which might be suitable for concealing or camouflaging weapons were collected and contacts established with organisations which could be of use in war, such as various Service Departments, the Research Department at Woolwich Arsenal, the British Scientific Instrument Research Association, the Royal Society, Imperial Chemical Industries, Shell Oil Company, the Railway Executive, etc. On the outbreak of war, most of Section D's staff moved with the Government Code and Cipher School (GCCS), the forerunner of GCHQ, to Bletchley Park (Station 'X') although some went to The Frythe.

By the middle of 1939 a small magazine for explosives and incendiaries had been built at Bletchley and work had started on full scale experiments with weapons. This was not universally popular as it was judged that it was incompatible to have explosives and decoding work on the same site. Furthermore, GCCS's work was expanding rapidly and Section D was forced to find accommodation for Langley's work elsewhere. In November 1939 it was moved to Aston House at Stevenage in Hertfordshire which was given the title Signals Development Branch Depot No. 4, War Office. In 1941 it became War Department Experimental Station 6 (ES6 WD), recognising its parent MI6. On the formation of SOE it became known also as Station XII. Langley took with him a small group of about seven officers, two laboratory technicians, five other ranks (O/Rs) and secretarial staff. Among those who moved to Aston House were Dr Drane (in command); Capt L.J.C. Wood (later Colonel and in command of the Station); Capt C.R. Bailey; Mr Colin Meek, a Scientific Civil Servant and explosives expert on secondment from Woolwich Arsenal and another un-named, possibly Douglas Barnsley; and, on a part-time basis, Mr Eric Norman. The laboratory assistants were Mr G. Doe and Mr B.S.M. Stalton. Dr F.A. Freeth was also concerned with this group.

Also recruited by Grand was a group of distinguished amateur sailors from the Royal Cruising Club including Frank Carr, the Assistant Librarian of the House of Lords, Roger Pinckney, the architect of Melbourne Cathedral and Augustine Courtauld, Arctic explorer. They had all been recruited to familiarise themselves with parts of the continental coastline which could be of strategic importance in wartime. Attached to this group was Gerry Holdsworth who was later to set up the Helford Base in Cornwall. Meanwhile, Section D had established agents and offices in Sweden, Norway, Holland, Spain, and France. However, within a few months of the outbreak of war it had lost contact with nearly all of its overseas agents, and it was soon apparent that most had been arrested by the Germans. Its work was, inevitably for such a novel enterprise, largely a process of trial and error which was overtaken by the progress of the war before significant results could be obtained. As a result, after the fall of France neither Section D nor any other Allied covert organisation had any agents on the Western European mainland, although a number remained in the Balkans and the Middle East.


Excerpted from Soe The Scientific Secrets by Fredric Boyce, Douglas Everett. Copyright © 2011 Fredric Boyce. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by M.R.D. Foot,
1 Introduction,
2 What was the Special Operations Executive?,
3 SOE Research and Development Establishments,
4 Organisation of Research and Development,
5 Physico-Chemical Section – Sabotage Devices and Materials,
6 Physico-Chemical and Physiological Sections,
7 Camouflage Section,
8 Engineering Section – Weapons,
9 Engineering Section – Seaborne Craft,
10 Operational Research and Trials,
11 Operational Research – The Air Supply Research Section,
12 The Wireless Section,
13 Organisation of Supply and Production,
14 Supply, Finance and Manpower Problems,
15 Special Operations involving R&D Section,
16 Technical Liaison,
17 Overall Assessment,
18 Epilogue,
Appendix A Research and Development Establishments,
Appendix B Inventors of Devices produced by SOE Research Section,
Appendix C Abbreviations,
Appendix D Summary of the Work of the Engineering Section,
Appendix E Examples of Camouflaged Devices,
Appendix F Optimisation of Equipment,

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SOE: The Scientific Secrets 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couple of grammar errors. But good story, bro.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great job!! Youre an amazing writer. :D
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Public Enemy Number 1. By: &#167&#1108&#1026<p> Racing down the hill in his pitch black Lamborgini, smashing into stop signs, spinning off the road. The car speeding so far over the limit that it looks like a smear of dark black paint on a black canvas. That is if you could see it with only the sliver of moonlight breaking through the clouds. The squealing of the breaks, breaks the eerie silence that shrounds Makakilo hill at midnight. His mouth hung open for a scream never to be heard. The Lamborgini flys over the curb and lands on the wrong side of the road. The car smashes into the side of the bridge over the highway at the end of the hill, ending the mans life. Had somebody been there they would have heard the loud crack of a shotgun that started it all, and had someone been there they would have noticed a strange man dressed in black get into his car and drive off. The death of Kenneth Van Tassel was no accident.<p> "Hmm, thats interesting," said thirty eight year old Ben Bones. Ben is a part of a top secret government intellegence aggency called TNS (The No Shows). With his close cropped black hair, his arms muscular and hard as boulders ,and his big meaty but delicate hands, he was perfect for the job. Ben AKA Agent Boulder, investigates the death of 42 year old billionare Kenneth Van Tassel.<br> "This is HQ to agent Boulder, do you copy?" He heard in his ear piece.<br> "Yes sir i do copy." Ben replied.<br> "Did you find anything important about Kenneth's death? Like maybe dr<_>ugs or al<_>chohol? Or perhaps a mu<_>rder?" The voice from the earpiece said, "Or was it sh<_>itty driving?"<br> "Nothing deciding his death. All im getting are, no dr<_>ugs, no al<_>chohol so im assuming its mu<_>rder or bad driving." Brom said.<br> "Okay keep searching, HQ out," the voice in the earpiece informed.<br> Brom took a deep breath smelling the bitter smell of blood and gasoline as he crouched down to examine the cu<_>rdled blood on kenneths face. He had been investigating Kenneths death for well over an hour under the blazing hot Hawaiian sun, on the island of Oahu. Ben was located at the bottom of Makakilo hill where you get Ho<_>bos begging for money and old people lifting du<_>mbells as they stroll down the hill.<br> "Whats this?" Ben said as he placed his hand on the back side right wheel well. "Multiple holes from a gun. Too big to be machine guns, too many to be a pistol. Its probably a shotgun blast." Agent Boulder muttered under his breath as he rubed the wheel well which was so badly dented it looked like someone took tin foil and crumbled it into a ball then undid it.<br> He jumped at a voice behind him. "Ive got the street ca<_>meras vi<_>deo up the whole hill," bens partner Alex Springer said as he handed Ben the la<_>ptop with the vi<_>deos.<br> Ben watched the video with Kenneths Lamborgini strolling down the hill perfectly fine and then... static. "What the..." ben muttered.<br> "What happened?" Alex asked him. "Did someone ha<_>ck the ca<_>mera?" But ben wasnt listening. He was lost in thought. Whoever did this took pains to cover up what happened.<p> More will be at the next result either tomorrow or the next day. Thanks! ~&#167&#1108&#1026
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Naked and is wraped in chains
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am i acciddntally put silwrclaws name in instead of wolfclaws
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pads from his den.