Thoughts from a writing life…

7 traits you’d need to be a successful agent of the SOE

If you’re reading this in the UK or the US then you have an unanswerable question that still bears pondering: how would our nation have responded to full scale invasion and occupation during the second world war?  Would we have resisted (Resisted)? Or would we have been a nation of collaborators, falling over ourselves to turn in our neighbours for being Masons, homosexuals, lesbians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews?   

We don’t know, and there’s enough speculative fiction to know that there are a lot of plausible answers. The Man in the High Castle has to be one of the best even before Amazon gave it the five star TV treatment – there was resistance and collaboration in more or less equal measure and that seems the most plausible outcome.  Even in today’s rising fascism, there’s a good sprinkling of both.  

But that doesn’t stop us each wondering as individuals if we’d have had the courage to resist. And – possibly harder –  would we have had the courage to parachute into occupied territory, knowing that the flashing lights on the ground might as easily have been set up by a Gestapo unit as by the Resistance we were hoping to meet. 

This last, at least, has answers we can study.  Leaving aside the uniformed commando units who blew bridges and assailed ports, and the undercover spies sent in or nurtured by MI6, there was one unit whose entire raison d’être was to ‘set Europe ablaze’.  



The Special Operations Executive was established by Churchill in July 1940 and soon gained the moniker, ‘The Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare’. From an imperial power that pretty much invented concentration camps and had a habit of firing insurgents alive from canons, the idea that warfare should be ‘gentlemanly’ may seem somewhat laughable, but the fact remains that the other clandestine forces thought the SOE was insufficiently secretive while the uniformed forces thought that it was insufficiently robust.

Everyone had it in for the small unit based in Baker Street, so pretty soon, they were also known as the Baker Street Irregulars.

Whatever the name, this was the first unit of the British armed forces that sent women into combat. It allowed openly gay men to serve. It took whatever were the ‘rules’ of warfare and ripped them to shreds.


So what did it take to be one of their agents?


1.  Availability

Or, probably better, if you went to school with someone who knew someone who’s brother had gone to University with one of the recruiters, there was a good chance you’d be tapped on the shoulder at a soirée and invited to a meeting.
The rest answered requests for ‘volunteers with fluency in languages’ that were regularly sent through the regular armed forces.

2.  Languages

You’d think fluency in your chosen drop-nation’s language would have been essential, but interviews with German officers after the war revealed that they picked up several agents in France because they didn’t know the correct genders of nouns. Le table and la telephone are not going to get you far when the occupiers are as fluent as the natives and a broad Mancunian accent stands out as much in Paris as it does in Oxford. So actually, if you had basic school French, you were still accepted, and often trained up to be a radio operative on the grounds that you were going to be hidden in a barn or a basement and never required actually to speak to anyone. There were long stretches in the early years when the average survival span of a ‘pianist’, as the radio ops were called, was six weeks from dropping to arrest or execution.

3.  Fearlessness

So the third and most essential trait is a cast iron constitution and an ability to view death and torture with above average equanimity. Even that wasn’t essential to being selected, only to survival. Leo Marks, author of ‘Between Silk and Cyanide’, which remains one of the best accounts of what it was like to work in Baker Street, tells of the first time he met a ‘terrified spy’ as he gave the final cypher briefing before deployment.
The sad thing is that being scared was one of the most accurate predictors of failure. Those who hid in basements whenever the Gestapo came calling were caught. Those who brazened it out, with decent French (or Norwegian, or Dutch or, rarely, Hungarian) quite often survived.

SOE agent Pearl Witherington spent many months working under the cover that she was a cosmetics saleswoman. She had nowhere to stay and so was sleeping on the night trains from one city to the next. At one point, she realized she was being stared at hard by a German officer – and that she probably looked less than pristine, which rather undid her cover. She smiled at him winningly, left the train at the next station and found another way to move around. If she’d succumbed to nerves, I suspect she would have been picked up. She was the best shot the trainers in the SOE had seen, and her organizational abilities saw her take unofficial command of the WRESTLER network. Known as ‘Lieutenant Pauline’, she ended up with a bounty of a million francs on her head.

4.  Stamina

While Pearl Witherington was sleeping on freezing trains with no food and little sanitation, both Virginia Hall and Nancy Wake were walking over the Pyrenees to escape to neutral Spain. The walk took forty seven hours in subzero conditions, with ten minutes rest every two hours, in which they had to take off their waterlogged socks and put on dry ones, or the wet ones would have frozen and given them frostbite. At the end of the ten minutes, they changed back into the wet ones and carried on. When one of the women with her was complaining towards the end, Nancy had her tripped into a stream so that she was forced to walk to keep warm, or stay behind and die of hypothermia. American, Virginia Hall, meanwhile, had a false leg from the knee down and named her prosthesis ‘Cuthbert’. On reporting to London that Cuthbert was giving her difficulty, she is reputed to have been told to have him ‘eliminated’.

So that gives us our fifth trait:

5.  Ruthlessness

If you survived long enough, you ended up organizing action against the enemy, and that meant killing people up close and personal. All the SOE agents were taught how to use both allied and enemy weapons, plastic explosive, timers, and an array of exploding rats. They were also trained in armed and unarmed hand to hand combat, and clearly used it. Nancy Wake is reputed to have killed a guard with single karate chop to the throat. They had been taught the move during training, although she recalls being as surprised as anyone that it worked – though one assumes, not as surprised as the guard. On another occasion, she forced the men under her command to carry out executions on French women who were spying for the Germans, while Virginia Hall is said to have lobbed a live grenade into a restaurant where a group of German officers was eating.

6.  Camouflage

Virginia Hall was a hunted woman with a price on her head. The enemy knew of her as ‘the woman with the limp’ and so when she returned to France, she disguised herself as an irascible old woman with the shuffling gate of an arthritic. Christine Granville is said to have ‘frequently dressed in a manner which attracted little or no attention’ – this in spite of the fact that every man who met her, more or less, seemed to fall in love with her (even a German Shepherd guard dog, which lay down with her as she hid from it, and defected from the German side to hers). Like several of the other women, she had the talent for becoming largely invisible in a crowd when she chose, and this is clearly one of the key attributes of a good agent. Leading us to our final trait.

7.   Luck

It doesn’t matter how good you are, how hard you train, how fit you are, how accurate with a gun, how well versed in the maintenance of radios and the sending of Morse – if luck isn’t with you, you’ve had it. The records are full of accounts of women – and men – lying in ditches, lying to German officers (one agent, on being caught with a suitcase full of plastic explosives, managed to convince his captors that it was modeling clay. They let him go), slipping out of an unguarded back door as the bad guys burst in the front… But the records are also full of those who lay in ditches, lied to officers and burst out of back doors and ended up dying in the most appalling circumstances in Gestapo holding cells or concentration camps. The dead were as fearless, ruthless, skilled and devoted as the survivors – the only difference was the luck on the day.



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