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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

Postscript

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.

Reference

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

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