Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Hard Hat Riot: The Birth of 'Trumpism'?

American Carnage

On 8 May 1970 200 construction workers in New York City went on the rampage. They attacked students and anti-war protesters whilst the police looked on and did nothing. A little over two weeks later union leaders from the construction industry met President Nixon, gifting him a hard hat and promising him the support that would see him re-elected to office in 1972.

The 'Hard Hat Riot' is now largely forgotten, but it's hard not to see the parallels with today. A reactionary white working class had come onto the streets to violently oppose an unpatriotic 'liberal elite', and to lend their support to a corrupt, and soon to be impeached, right wing president.

So what was it all about?

Fire and Fury

On 30 April 1970 President Nixon had sent the South Vietnamese Army, backed by US air power, over the Vietnamese border into Cambodia.

The Vietnam War was already unpopular, and had already split America, but this escalation in the fighting galvanised the anti-war movement and sparked a new wave of protests. Amongst the campuses where activists mobilised was Kent State University in Ohio.

But Kent State wasn't Berkeley. It was a quiet sort of place and protests here had been peaceful affairs. However after rioting in downtown Kent following a demostration further protests were banned. The National Guard was called in, and 1000 soldiers put the university under military occupation. On 4 May students, joined by anti-war protesters from elsewhere, defied the ban. When the National Guard failed to get them to disperse, 28 guardsmen opened fire, killing four, leaving another paralysed for life, and wounding eight others.

John Filo's photograph of Mary Vecchio's scream, as she knelt next to the body of Jeffrey Miller, became the defining image of the day, and one of the most iconic of the entire era.

Very Fine People On Both Sides

The massacre shocked the nation, but perhaps not in the way you'd expect. True, the USA's only ever nation-wide student strike took place immediately afterwards, with four million students boycotting lessons. However a Gallup Poll revealed that only 11% of respondents blamed the National Guard for the deaths, and 58% blamed the students.

A huge anti-war rally was planned in New York for 9 May, and in the morning on the day before the about a thousand protesters gathered outside the stock exchange on Wall Street to mourn the dead students, and demand an end to the war.

Just before midday a couple of hundred construction workers carrying American flags turned up to heckle, soon joined by others. Many had armed themselves, and they soon broke through the half hearted police line and attacked the protesters. With the police doing nothing it was, rather bizarrely, stock exchange workers from Wall Street that tried to protect the students.

Susan Harman, then 29, tried save a student being attacked by three men, one armed with a pair of iron clippers, beating up one student. "Don't", she said. "Let go of my jacket, bitch" was the reply, followed by “If you want to be treated like an equal, we’ll treat you like one" and the three men beat her to the ground.

Soon the peaceful demo was scattered and the students were pursued down Wall Street by the hard hats. Anyone who looked like a hippy was attacked.

The mob then descended on City Hall, where the flag was flying at half mast in response to the
massacre. Construction workers broke in and raised it at its full height.

They spent the rest of the day causing mayhem in the local area. Trinity Church, which had become a makeshift field hospital, was attacked and a Red Cross flag torn down, possibly because someone thought it looked communist. Windows where smashed at Pace University. The final casualty toll was 70 injured, most of whom required hospital treatment.

The story was that working class patriots, outraged by the desecration of the flag and the lack of loyalty from middle class students, had decided to take matters into their own hands. The 'silent majority' had spoken out. Republican politicians, who had spent most of the last decade condemning student activism of any kind, spoke out to congratulate the hard hats.Vice-President Spiro Agnew sent a message to union leader Peter Brennan congratulating him on "the impressive display in patriotism–and a spirit of pride in country that seems to have become unfashionable in recent years."

Alternative Facts

But what was the truth?

Well, for a start the protest was certainly not spontaneous. The hard hats weren't AWOL from work for a start. They were encouraged to leave their sites by their shop stewards, and promised they would still be paid. Some were reportedly offered a bonus. One witness inside Wall Street claimed to have seen two men in suits organising the attacks.

However the workers don't appear to have needed asking twice, and enthusiastically got stuck into bashing the hippies. But did that mean the working class supported the war?

Well, some clearly did, but polls throughout the period consistently show support for the US intervention was highest amongst the top wage earners, the parents of the protesting students, and lowest amongst those who actually went to fight and die in Vietnam, the working class, including the white working class.

The anti-war movement was certainly started by middle class students, but by 1970 it was far broader than that. Students for a Democratic Society, the group behind the big rallies in Berkeley and elsewhere, had fallen apart in 1969. The face of protest in the seventies was as likely to be a veteran from the Bronx throwing his medals away as a hippy from Haight-Ashbury making the peace sign. 

Make America Great Again

But the Vietnam War was not the only drama in sixties America. Alongside ran the story of Civil
Rights movement.

The construction industry, heavily unionised and with relatively good pay and conditions, had traditionally been a whites-only job. However, in the 1960s this had changed. The parity index is a way of expressing the number of workers from a minority in a particular field with 100% meaning that the proportion was exactly the same as the general population. After a decade of affirmative action programs the parity index for construction work in New York in 1970 was 95%, meaning a very high level of integration.

However this had not gone down well with the unions. In March 1970 a proposal was put forward by Peter Brennan, President of the Construction Trades Council, that a separate apprenticeship centre be created for black workers, with the catch that neither Trade Union membership, nor a job, was on offer at the end of it. As a result of such intransigence, ten years after the Hard Hat Riot the parity index in the New York construction industry had fallen to 72%.

It is impossible to know how much, either consciously or unconsciously, race contributed to the events of 4 May 1970. But it looks likely that the riot was as much about defending white privilege at home as US imperialism abroad.

Violence On Many Sides

The events at City Hall were overshadowed the very next day by the arrival of 100,000 anti-war protesters. The events of Kent State shootings, plus the military failure of Nixon's invasion, had changed the nations view of the war, and for the first time more people opposed it than supported it. Three years later US troops would return home.

Before that happened Richard Nixon would be returned to the White House by a landslide. Nixon never had majority working class support. No modern Republican ever has, but with Republican voters remaining loyal even as crisis and scandal started to envelop him, even a small loss of traditional Democrat voters gave him the victory.

In the aftermath of the Hard Hat Riot, construction union leaders went to the White House and were warmly received. Peter Brennan became Nixon's Labor Secretary.

Fake News

The narrative of the Hard Hat Riot, of a white working class willing to fight for their country, and a
smug middle class who weren't, has certainly stuck. Just think of how Vietnam is portrayed in popular culture: Rambo is working class, 'Hawkeye' Pierce (literally in Korea, but metaphorically in Vietnam) is middle class.

But in real life it was the Donald Trumps of the world who supported Vietnam, whilst dodging the draft themselves on spurious grounds, and the likes of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July) who opposed it. The student protesters, like the hard hatted rioters, were remarkable in that they acted out of character.

In the end though normal services were resumed. Brennan had to leave government after Watergate. He returned to his roll with the union, but the next Republican elected to President was not as kind to him as Nixon. Reagan's war on organised labour saw 100,000 non-unionised contractors enter the construction market.

America First

It's never worth wasting too much time going in debating the ideology of fascism. At its core fascism is just about defending privilege, but what makes a fascist different to a mere authoritarian is the use of violence.

Despite the many similarities, one thing that distinguishes Trump, and Nixon, from Hitler is they did not have an army of street thugs at their disposal.

However the Hard Hat Riot showed that such a force was there if Nixon had wanted to use it. Events in Charlottesberg show that Trump has such an army too. His refusal to condemn the murder of Heather Hayer shows he does not necesarily rule this out. If so, let's be quite clear what this would be: American fascism born, not on the 4th of July, but on 8th May 1970.

Construction Workers U.S.A. by Herbert A. Applebaum
The Seventies Unplugged by Gerrad DeGroot 

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Saturday, 30 December 2017

My Review of the Year 2017


The year began with a visit to Jodrell Bank, on the clearest of winter days. The children got to some science-y stuff, and I got to see the spot where the Fourth Doctor regenerated into the Fifth.

The search for life elsewhere in the universe was something that I would come back to later in the year, but mostly in 2017 I was trying to trying to preserve life on earth.

Family and work kept getting in the way, so I ended up binge-protesting when I got the chance. For example, on 20th January I manage to attend three protests in one day.

It had all started kicking off up in Lancashire, as Cuadrilla planned to be the first company to commercially frack in the UK. They started to constructing their site on Preston New Road, just outside Blackpool, and a daily protest started straight away. Initially, at least, it was fairly lightly policed. There was even an agreement that the protestors could stand for exactly twenty minutes in front of each convoy before it drove in. Save to say that didn't last long, but it was still all very civilised when I paid my first visit.

A bit nearer home, A E Yates of Bolton, who were the main contractors for Cuadrilla, were the scene of another protest. I dropped in on my way back from Preston New Road to lend a bit of moral support.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Trump had been elected. This was bad news for everyone, and there were protests around the world, including in Manchester where a thousand or so people decided to turn out on a cold January evening. I turned up too, for the third protest of the day. A personal record.

However fracking isn't the only, or even the most serious, threat to the climate. January ended with my bi-annual trip to see the students of the Manchester Metropolitan Sustainable Aviation course. Yes, that really is what it is called. Sustainable aviation, like miliary intelligence and Microsoft Works is, of course, an oxymoron, and I told the students that. As usual, they were attentive, bright and informed, but after I showed them the 'graph of doom', and they discussed what to do about it, which was tinkering with holding patterns and straightening trans-Atlantic routes.

Alas that is how most business people think about climate change. There is a vast chasm between problem and solution.


It was back to PNR again this month, as Cuadrilla's fracking site is now known. It was now business-as-usual with lock-ons and lorry surfing.

There's not a lot to do at a fracking site when a bunch of crusties have handcuffed themselves together across the gates, so I didn't do a lot.

Back in Manchester, Earth First! had their Winter Moot at Bridge 5 Mill, so I ambled along on the wettest day of the year to hang out with the anarchists. Apart from the usual debates about theory and practise, it was a chance to meet international Earth First!ers from the USA and Germany, which is always great. I learnt that's possible to sail to America on the ship that brings the EF! journals over, and that the campaign in the Hambach Forest is about as full-on as it gets.

I wanted to go there.


Instead I found myself hanging around car dealers in Greater Manchester.

March had brought better weather, and also a new Greenpeace campaign, banning diesel cars. With that in mind we went round adding health warnings so that these toxic monsters were at least correctly advertised.

I must admit, when when told last year that the objective was the banning of diesel cars as a prelude to ending the age of the internal combustion engine, I thought it was a little optimistic. However over the year it became an issue you couldn't get away from. Stickering car dealers was only the first phase, but it was so much fun we did it twice.


April started with the Manchester Save the Greenbelt rally. A busy international Greenpeace campaigning schedule usually meant we couldn't do much about local problems like this, so it was good to be able to lend a hand and give our long-suffering banner another airing.

The better weather also meant the Porter boys were off camping. We went to mystical Savernake Forest, home to some of the oldest and most interesting trees in England. The trees were still bare, but that made the forest by starlight a magical place, with the barking deer sounded like a troop of demented werewolves. However my boys preferred it when we spent the evening in the pubs of Marlborough, which are pretty good too.

In April Manchester Greenpeace started a collaboration with the ethical tech company Thoughtworks. We were invited to their office, up in the gods at City Tower, and they put on beer and pizza for us. We showed the film Disruption, made before the 2014 climate rallies. Afterwards I say a few words about what happened since, which is Paris and Trump basically. The first promises great things, but probably won't deliver. The second promises terrible things and probably will. It was a mixture of Greenpeace people and computer people, and we had a good discussion afterwards. At least these people got the scale of the problem.

I wanted to attend the Manchester March for Science, and both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were ready to help them out. Unfortunately the organisers decided we weren't welcome as they wanted a 'non-political' rally, so both groups did other things, and I went to see Robot Wars at Event City, which was science of a sort.

Also in April Manchester elected its first mayor. It was never in doubt that this would be ex-Labour Health Minister Andy Burnham, but what was heartening was that all four main candidates were against fracking, including the Tory. Despite this unanimity the environmental hustings was very interesting, as Burnham reiterated his opposition to fracking, and pledged a Green Summit in 2018.

I ended the month by camping in the woods under Kinder Downforce for Beltane with some of the Greenpeace team. One keen person decided to jog there over Kinder Scout from Glossop, and was guided down from the plateau to the campsite by torchlight. My camping gear consisted of a tent, a sleeping bag and a litre of Jack Daniels, which certainly made the night go with a swing. The weather was kind and a good time was had by all.


In May I mainly did nostalgia.

For the May Day Bank Holiday I had decided to organise a walk to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, which my grandfather went on. We'd planned it as a social for our Greenpeace group, but soon dozens, and eventually hundreds, of people said they were interested.

In the end just short of a hundred people turned up, and I led the walk despite a fairly major Jack Daniels related hangover. I was able, with a little help, to climb onto Benny Rothman's rock to address the crowd. It was an attempt to win back the memory of the trespass for the radical end of the protest movement, so we did a bit of Greenpeace campaigning on the side.

And radical protesting we carried on doing. Some of our supporters were unable to make the walk, as they were training for Greenpeace's contribution to the PNR lock-ons. I wasn't part of the team, but decided to turn up anyway. The practise paid off, and they deployed their yellow boxes across the entrance to the site in less than 90 seconds, right under the noses of the police put there to prevent lock-ons.

By the time I get arrive there is a row of familiar faces, all in their red hats, waiting in the sun for the Lancashire plod Protester Removal Team. They duly arrived, and described themselves as "very impressed" by the lock-ons. Eventually the first pair were cut free, and the others unlocked after that. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, even the police, who told as that usually they have "Aldi protesters" but today they had "Marks and Spencers".

The only downside of the day was that there had not been time for the team to deploy the really big banner they'd brought with them. As it really needed to be shown off a group of us went back the next week to give it a proper airing.

There was more nostalgia in May as well, as it was twenty years since my days as a tunneller trying to stop Runway 2 of Manchester Airport. I decided to organise a little reunion of old eco-warriors, and managed to persuade the BBC to turn up. In the end the weather was as wet as it had been in 1997, but a dozen or so middle aged radicals turned up. I managed to find an old tape player so we could listen to the album we recorded under the flightpath.

The BBC seemed reasonably pleased with the result, and gave us a prime slot on the local news.


In June we had a General Election. Initially my reaction was similar to Brenda from Bristol's, but once it got going the campaign was actually a lot of fun. In the High Peak we had a Progressive Alliance between the Green Party and Labour. This took a bit of arranging. but it meant I was out campaigning for Labour for the first time since 1997.

The whole mood of the country appeared to be changing. London-based pundits laughed at the Yougov poll that showed young people intended to vote heavily for Corbyn, and instead predicted 'strong and stable' May would walk it. However that was not our experience out an about.

Knocking on doors, many older voters, even ones who claimed to be lifelong Labour supporters, recycled the Daily Mail line that Corbyn was a commie and a terrorist, but in the pubs and clubs we were meeting young people who got their information from other sources. Never before have I been mobbed by teenagers on Glossop High Street just because I was carrying a Labour Party bag.

The result was a 14% swing to Labour and the election of Ruth George as the new MP for the area. Suddenly the future changed.


In July Manchester got itself a statue of Engels whilst Manchester Greenpeace got Spongebobs Squarepants. He was part of our campaign to stop oil drilling off the newly discovered reef at the mouth of the River Amazon. We took him out and about in a number of places, including to Manchester Pride.

If people don't destroy it this reef, at least, has a chance of surviving climate change, it was an important campaign to win. As the year ends we still can't be sure we've done that, but the signs look hopeful.

Also in July we had our second film showing with Thoughtworks. We watched Black Ice, the film about the Arctic 30. Phil-of-the-Arctic comes along, with the rest of the Greenpeace climb team in tow, to tell us about his experience, or at least about the less grim bits.


It was now time for a holiday, so the family were packed up we all headed north to Northumberland for a week of Roman remains, historic castles and beautiful beaches.

Then it was the Cropredy Festival, and a special 50th anniversary of Fairport Convention one. Pretty much every ex-member who could make it did, and it was a very special occasion. Judy Dyble and Ian Matthews recreating the very early Fairport, including their cover version of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne was a highlight, but there were plenty more.


Having ousted a useless and Tory and replaced him with a Trade Union campaigner, our Red and Green 'progressive alliance' held a meeting at Glossop Labour Club to decide what to do next.

As well as hearing from Ruth George herself, we ran a couple of workshops. The transport one led to some lively debate about the proposed bypass, but my talk on fracking in the energy workshop went down well, as does Matthew Patterson from Manchester University, Jonathan Atkinson from the Carbon Coop and Richard Body who talked about the Torrs Hydro project.

We ended by visiting the camp at George Street Woods, although the rain out paid the the idea for a picnic.


The Tory's were in town again in 2017. I guess they'd been hoping to celebrate their election victory and boast about the Norther Powerhouse, but instead they found themselves besieged in hostile territory arguing about why they 'lost' the election. Inside it was empty seats and recriminations. Outside it was a party.

I was part of the anti-fracking feeder march that joined the main anti-austerity demonstration. This ended in Piccadilly Gardens, after some careful navigation to avoid crashing into the anti-Brexit march going in the other direction. We had the extra-large Greenpeace banner, and we found we'd been placed behind the communists. Extra police had been drafted in, including some from Lancashire, who recognised the PNR lock-on team.

Back in Glossop I had to dust off some brain cells I'd not used for a while to give a talk about space exploration to the Glossop Guild. Apart from forgetting what the atmosphere of Mars was made of, I think I managed all right.

The Greenpeace group managed another trip up to Preston New Road again in October. Cuadrilla's site was more-or-less finished, and they had even managed to sneak a rig in in the middle of the night. However they weren't fracking, and we weren't sure why. The highlight of the day was the redoubtable Anne Power taking a stand and getting in the papers.

Plastic pollution, especially in the oceans, was a major issue that many environment groups started to seriously tackle in 2017, and Greenpeace was one of them. In Manchester we did our bit by fishing several bags worth of crap out of the Bridgewater Canal. A surprisingly large number of people turned out to help, but not too surprisingly we all ended up in the pub afterwards. Not surprisingly many of the plastic bottles had been made by Coca Cola.

The end of the month saw me down in Canonbury Villa for the annual Networker Coordinator's meeting. On the Saturday evening the warehouse was the scene of annual Networker Coordinator's piss up. By staying to the end and helping tidy up I earned myself some free beer, which meant the people I shared a room with had to put up with my snoring. It was the weekend the hour went back, but rather than have an extra hour in bed I spent the time in Tavistock Square trying to sober up enough to take part in the second day. Despite my self-inflicted problems it was an informative and inspiring weekend. The Antarctic is going to big next year.


The Greenpeace PNR lock-on people were in court in November, and so I went up to provide moral support. Their main legal rep. was Mike Schwarz of Bindman's, who helped get me acquitted in 2000. They were in good hands, but we expected a guilty verdict. Almost everyone else who'd locked-on had been convicted, and one judge had even questioned whether impoverished defendants should be allowed legal aid, so we weren't optimistic.

But how wrong we were! Judge Jeff Brailsford decided that what Greenpeace had done had been fully fair and proportionate and let them all off. The party afterwards was quite good fun I believe. I'd not been officially on the action, and just gatecrashed the event, but apparently I appeared on all the police videos. That's not really the way to do these things.

As a Greenpeaker I get to go out and about telling people about Greenpeace. Schools aren't my favourite places to do this, but Altringcham College's Year 10 students were good. Some of the teachers didn't exactly encourage an open debate, but they showed some interest in the story of the Arctic 30. If only Greenpeace was supported by some celebrities teenagers had actually heard of!

#HolidaysAreComing and other mindless hashtags told us that Christmas was on its way. Coca Cola claims it invented Christmas. It also claims to be environmentally friendly, but as we were fishing its bottles out of the canal last month we had our doubts.

In order to try to make them better we took to the streets get people sending them messages. It helped that Blue Planet II was on the telly, and some people made the connection between the billions of bottles coke makes every years and what David Attenborough was talking about.


By now the season of colds and NHS crises was upon us, and the campaigning season came to an end.

It's difficult claim the world was a better place than it was twelve months ago, but at least the resistance seems to be alive and well. There were certainly signs of hope: young people are both as liberal as ever but more politically engaged than before. They also seem to be able to filter out the fake news and actually user the internet to both learn about the world and change it.

The twin enfolding disasters of Trump and Brexit show that right wing Popularism is a political dead end. Fracking appears to be going nowhere and the campaigns against diesel cars and plastic pollution made great progress. However none of these problems actually went away, so it looks like we're going to have to do it all over again in 2018.

So love and peace to everyone who campaigned with me this year. Apologies I couldn't do more to help you.

Enjoy the party season. Next year we change the world.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The SOE's Greatest Hits

The Special Operations Executive was set up in July 1940 in response to Winston Churchill's call to "set Europe ablaze". A band of secret agents trained for sabotage and assassination, this was a massive case of "poachers turned gamekeepers", or rather the other way round, as the British Empire was now copying the very resistance movements that had sprung up to oppose it.

Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Gubbins had fought against the IRA in the Irish War of Independence, and he had used his experience to set up the Auxiliary Forces, who would have fought a guerrilla war against the Nazis if Britain had been invaded in 1940. He proposed a force to carry out "terrorist acts against traitors and German leaders". The government took him up on his idea and he set to work organising "movements in every occupied territory comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland".The set up base in a number of buildings on Baker Street in London.

Not everyone appreciated this move into "ungentlemanly warfare". 'Bomber' Harris, of all people, initially refused to allow the RAF to carry it's agents as he regarded assassins in plain clothes as against the rules of war. His preferred method of fighting was obliterating entire cities from the air.

7. The Swedish Steel
Operation Rubble January 1941

SS Elisabeth Bakke
Swedish steel and heavy engineering was vital to both sides in the Second World War. However the fall of Denmark and Norway cut off Britain from Sweden. France had ordered several thousand tons of iron, steel, machine tools and ball bearings from Sweden before it fell, and whilst the order was taken up by Britain, the problem was getting the goods to the UK. There were also 26 Norwegian merchant ships in Swedish waters, and which belonged to the Norwegian government-in-exile, but were trapped too. The government desperately wanted to get is hands on those Swedish balls, so the SOE was put on the case.

The plan was for Norwegian volunteers, helped by the survivors of two Royal Navy destroyers, who had made their way to Sweden after their ships were sunk in Norway, to sail them back to Britain. A trial run had discovered that the alleged German minefields in the Skagerak were a bluff, and so in January 1941 they were ready to go with four ships carrying steel and a tanker in ballast. The vessels were modified to make them easier to scuttle of things went wrong, and the wheel houses were reinforced with concrete to give some protection to the crew.

SS Tai Shan
Snow covered their escape, and kept German aircraft grounded for the morning. When they were finally spotted, the German saw the Norwegian flags and assumed they were friendly. Eventually the penny dropped and the last two vessels were attacked with bombs and machine guns, killing the captain of the tanker. However by this time they had cleared Swedish waters and the Royal Navy was able to come to their assistance and escort them to Orkney.

Operation Rubble had been an unqualified success. One million pounds worth of Swedish steel, and the same value of merchant ship, had been saved from the Germans and delivered to Britain.

The Gay Viking
Rubble was followed by Operation Performance in 1942, when ten ships tried to break out. Five had to be scuttled, one after taking heavy damage, two returned to port in Sweden, but three made it to the UK. The Swedes weren't pleased and no more ships were allowed to get away. However the war effort still needed Swedish ball bearings, so another plan was hatched, this time to use fast Royal Navy Motor Gun Boats to take off the cargoes of the two ships marooned after Performance.

Appropriately perhaps for such a queer mission, one of the MGBs was called Gay Viking.

6. Maid Honour Force
Operation Postmaster 14 January 1942

SS Duchessa d'Aosta
The island of Fernando Po, now called by it's real name Bioko again, lies off the coast of West Africa. During the Second World War it was owned by Spain.  Spain was fascist, but neutral, and so regular British forces couldn't go there. Not so the SOE, who were very interested in the Italian freighter Duchessa d'Aosta, which they feared could be used to send intelligence on shipping movements.

By chance there was a small party patrolling west Africa, in a trawler called Maid Honour, searching for any secret German U-boat bases up African rivers. The SOE hatched a plan to use the Maid Honour force to cut out the vessel. The crew of the Axis vessels were apparently all pretty miserable, and most of them had caught VD, so the cover story would be that they had mutinied and, by chance, had bumped into the Royal Navy. The mission was incredibly sensitive politically. There must be no evidence left that Britain was involved. 

The SOE started planning, and they were helped by catching the Spanish governor with his native mistress, after which he stopped being suspicious of their motives and was very helpful. The wife of the chief electrician was bribed with a diamond necklace, and she ensured the worker on duty would cut the power when necessary.

The plan was for the Italian officers, and those of two smaller German ships, to be lured ashore with the offer of a party, with free booze and the best of the local ladies of the night, whilst the assault team stole into the harbour, blew the anchor chains, coshed any crew that resisted, and towed the vessels out to sea to meet a Royal Navy corvette, who would take them off their hands in international waters.

And that is exactly what happened. As far as the citizens of Fernando Po were concerned, there was a bang in the middle of the night, the town's lights went off, and when they turned them on again the Italian and German ships were gone. The only casualty was a ship's cat who had been sleeping in the anchor locker.

The Calcutta Light Horse in 1944
So successful was the operation that SOE effectively repeated it in March 1943 with Operation Ehrenfels in Portuguese Goa, but this time the operation was rather less James Bond and rather more Dad's Army. Instead of elite raiding forces, the assault team was made up of middle aged civilian of a unit called The Calcutta Light Horse, that had last seen action in the Boer War and was now little more than a social club.
Creek. This time the target was the German freighter the

Again, the ruse of a free party ashore worked and the Calcutta Light Horse snuck aboard, sank the ship with explosives and escaped with no serious injuries. Again everyone knew who'd done it, but the secret was kept until 1978.

5. The Gorgopotamos Viaduct
Operation Harling November 1942

SOE and Andartes
The SOE rarely worked alone. Usually they linked up with local resistance groups, providing weapons, communications and expertise to help their struggle. In Greece they were hampered by rivalry between the National Republic Greek League (Εθνικός Δημοκρατικός Ελληνικός Σύνδεσμος or EDAS) and the much larger communist Greek People's Liberation Army (Ελληνικός Λαϊκός Απελευθερωτικός Στρατός or ELAS). 

However the Greeks weren't the only ones failing to get along. MI6 and the SOE both had separate Greek missions, and their failure to cooperate delayed operation in Greece.

Eventually a small SOE team was airdropped into Greece, carrying the entire Middle Eastern supply
The aftermath
of plastic explosives, and managed to get the two guerrilla groups to work. Their target was a vital bridge on the main Thessaloniki to Athens railway. 

Andartes, armed with British hand grenades, attacked the Italian bunkers guarding the bridge whilst the SOE explosive experts set their charges on the steel pillars. A train carrying Italian troops was stopped by the Greek covering party before they could influence the battle. 

It had all gone well and hopes were high for more cooperation between EDAS and ELAS in future. However it was not to be. Within weeks the two groups were shooting each other and Greece was sliding towards civil war.

4. The abduction of General Kreipe, April 1944

In Crete resistance to the Nazis started as soon as the first German paratroopers landed in May 1941, with andartes fighting alongside British and Commonwealth troops. When British troops left the island, the guerrillas fought on from the hills. The SOE were sent to assist and they were joined by Allied soldiers left behind during the evacuation and even escaped Russian POWs.

When Italy signed an armistice in September 1943 the Germans occupied the whole of the island and the Italians were interned. General Angelica Carta, who had not gone in for the wholesale massacres practised by the Germans, didn't fancy this much, so he made contact with SOE agent Patrick Leigh Fermor, who arranged for the General to be smuggled off the island by the Royal Navy. This gave the SOE man an idea, and with fellow agent Bill Stanley Moss he returned to Crete with a  plan to take a German general next.

One dark night the two SOE men dressed as German police and stopped the car of General Heinrish Kreipe as he returned to his villa and commandeered his car. With Fermor wearing the General's hat in the back seat Moss was able to drive through 22 German roadblocks before they abandoned the vehicle and made their getaway.

The German garrison turned out in force once they realised Kriepe was missing, but with the help of the Cretan Resistance the party made an escape across Mount Ida and met up with a Royal Navy landing party. Once his staff finally realised Kreipe wasn't coming back they responded by - drinking a toast, as they'd never liked him much.

3. Heavy Water
Operation Gunnerside October 1942

The fall of France left Hitler with all the ingredients he needed to make an atomic bomb: Europe's only cyclotron in France, uranium mines in Belgium, and Heavy Water in Norway.

Fortunately Hitler regarded quantum mechanics as 'Jewish science' and the allies were always ahead of the Germans in the race for the atomic bomb. Knowing how to make one themselves, they also knew how to stop the Nazis making one. Top of their list was stopping the Heavy Water needed to moderate a nuclear reactor getting to Germany.

The SOE had sent a team to stake out the Norwegian plant, called Operation Swallow. The first attack was made by paratroopers in gliders. It failed disastrously, so the SOE decided to do the job themselves. A team of four Norwegians were parachuted in.

The operation was mainly an exercise in survival in arctic conditions. Armed with intelligence from a
spy in the plant, they attacked by stealth. When a bridge over a river was found to be guarded they crossed undetected via an underwater ice bridge.

The Gunnerside Team
The explosion in the bowels of the factory was initially ignored by the Germans, but when they eventually realised what had happened 12,000 soldiers turned out to search for the SOE agents, but the team managed to make a clean getaway, skiing 250 miles to neutral Sweden. They were back in Britain by the end of the month.

Swallow was still out on the plateau though, and one of the team, Claus Helberg, bumped into three German skiers who pursued him. He out ran two and killed the third in a gun battle. That wasn't the end of his adventures and not long afterwards he found himself on a bus taking him to a concentration camp. Despite a broken arm he was able to jump off and escape.

The SOE later evaluated the operation as their most successful sabotage of the war.

2. The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich
Operation Anthropoid June 1942

Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis
Heydrich was one of the most ruthless of all the Nazis, but also one of the least mad. Put in charge of the Final Solution in Europe he was probably responsible for the deaths of two million civilians.

The task of assassinating him was given to seven members of the Free Czech army operating in England. The were parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the in June 1942, and set about planning the hit. Ruling out an attack on his train or an ambush in the woods, the team opted for the dangerous option of an attack in the middle of Prague.

Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were the agents chosen for the job. At 10:30AM on 27 May 1942
Heydrich's car
Heydrich set out for his daily commute to Prague Castle. Too impatient to wait for a police escort, Heydrich and his driver were alone. Gabcik stepped out into the road and tried to shoot Heydrich with his Sten Gun, but British technology failed hum and the gun jammed. Heydrich tried to shoot back, but his German gun didn't work any better. Gabcik threw a grenade and ran, pursued by Heydrich's driver, who the SOE men shot with their American pistols.

The SOE team were convinced the attack had failed, but in fact Heydrich had been wounded. The Nazis didn't trust a local Doctor to operate on him, so Himmler sent his own team of surgeons. However, either because of infection in the wound, or because Heydrich had become a rival to Himmler, the Reichprotector died.

The German's reprisal were brutal, including the complete destruction of two villages, and made the SOE wary of assassinating any other senior Nazis. Despite this the death of the ruthless, but resourceful, Heydrich probably ultimately saved lived.

7. The French Connection
Station F May 1941 to August 1944

France was the main target of SOE operations. 480 agents, including 39 women, and 10,000 tons of gear, were sent to help the Resistance. But it was also the most difficult country to operate in, with the average life expectancy of an SOE radio operator was six weeks, and overall one in four of the French section were lost.

The SOE used a variety of techniques: from blowing up railway lines to planting fake rats filled with explosives, which would explode when the driver or fireman of a locomotive tried to dispose of the body by throwing it into the engine's firebox. Other tactics were more sublte. Trains would have their axle grease removed or their travel plans switched so they ended up hundreds of miles from where they were supposed to be, without anyone even knowing the SOE had been involved.

The greatest success in France was on D Day, when sabotage operations destroyed another 52 locomotives and cut the railway in 500 places in the 24 hours before the landing. The SS Das Reich Panzer Division, based in the South of France, should have been able to get to Normandy in a day. Instead a series of attacks by the SOE and the Resistance lengthened the journey to nearly two weeks. They missed the main battle and ended up being surrounded and destroyed by the American Army.

By the end of the war, Station F had destroyed more trains and locomotives in France than the entire Allied air force had managed. According to Eisenhower the SOE played a "very considerable part in our complete and final victory


The SOE was officially dissolved in January 1946. However it lived on in a series of books and films: Operations Postmaster and Creek were combined into the 1980 film The Sea Wolves, elements of Operation Harling inspired 1961s The Guns of Naverone, Moss and Fermor wrote books about their war, as did George Psychoundakis of the Cretan Resistance, and Moss's book, Ill Met By Moonlight, became a film in 1957 in with Dirk Bogart playing Fermor, Operation Gunnerside became the 1965 film The Heroes of the Telemark whilst Operation Anthropoid has been filmed no less than ten times, most recently in 2016.

The main fictional legacy of the SOE, and its secret agents with unusual weapons and a license to kill, is of course James Bond. However, given the original inspiration of the organisation, the film that you should really watch to understand how a resistance group can defeat enemy occupation using unconventional tactics, is Michael Collins.


Ill Met By Moonlight by W Stanley Moss
Churchill's Secret Warriors by Damien Lewis 
Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings
Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War by Ian Dear 
The use and effectiveness of sabotage as a means of unconventional warfare -  an historical perspective by Captain Howard L Douthit III