Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a secret British Second World War organisation created in July 1940.
Following the fall of France in June 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill tasked Hugh Dalton with forming SOE with the instruction to 'set Europe ablaze' by helping local resistance movements and conducting espionage and sabotage in enemy-held territories.
Colonel Colin Gubbins, SOE's first head of training and operations, organised in-depth training for recruits in unarmed combat, firearms, sabotage and wireless techniques. Research and development stations were set up near Welwyn in Hertfordshire, where scientists and technicians worked on specialist weapons, sabotage equipment and camouflage materials.
Agents operated in countries under the occupation of Nazi Germany, including France, Belgium, Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia and Italy. They also operated in the Far East in a branch known as Force 136. Agents were generally dropped by parachute, although some were transported by submarine. SOE also had a Naval Section, which used small boats to put agents ashore.
Secure and well-organised radio communications between SOE headquarters and agents in the field were crucial, as living and operating secretly behind enemy lines was extremely hazardous. If discovered, agents risked arrest, torture and execution. Of the 470 agents sent into France, 118 failed to return.
Successful operations include the destruction of the Norsk Hydro Plant in Norway in 1943, which was manufacturing heavy water for the Nazis’ atomic bomb programme.
By 1945, SOE was a major organisation with agent networks extending across Occupied Europe and the Far East, and had over 13,000 men and women in its ranks.