Friday 7 December 2018

Special Operations Executive (SOE) was created during the Second World War with the instruction to ‘set Europe ablaze’.

SOE agents would help resistance movements in enemy-held territory as well as conduct espionage and sabotage operations. It was dangerous work – agents operating in Occupied Europe and the Far East risked arrest, torture and execution.

Although SOE originally employed many staff from MI6, it later recruited personnel from a wide range of military and civilian backgrounds. Discover seven stories of the men and women of SOE through objects in IWM’s collection.

Vera May Atkins

Vera May Atkins

Vera May Atkins joined F Section of SOE in April 1941, initially as a secretary but was soon promoted to become an intelligence officer and deputy to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, head of F Section.

She was responsible for overseeing training and ensuring that when her agents arrived in France they had complete false identities and watertight cover stories. Even with such preparation, operations were very dangerous– in an interview with IWM in 1987, Vera said agents were aware of just how risky it was.

‘I think we assessed the chances of coming through at no more than 50% and fortunately, the result was slightly more favourable I think,' she recalled.

IWM's collection includes two scarves given to Vera by agents on their return from operations – this blue scarf was a gift from agent France Antelme.

He was captured in February 1944 on his third mission and was killed at Gross Rosen concentration camp later that year.

After the war, she investigated the fate of the 118 F section agents had been captured by the Germans and from whom nothing had been heard following the liberation of France and the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. 

Speaking more than forty years later, Vera said she remembered ‘absolutely every one’ of the agents she worked with.

Yvonne Cormeau

© IWM (HU 47367) Head and shoulders portrait of Mrs Yvonne Cormeau who served as as SOE Wireless Operator in France.
© IWM (HU 47367) Head and shoulders portrait of Mrs Yvonne Cormeau who served as as SOE Wireless Operator in France.

Yvonne Cormeau

Yvonne Cormeau was a wireless operator parachuted into France in August 1943. She sent a record of 400 transmissions in 13 months – the highest of any SOE wireless operator.

Yvonne had been widowed when her husband was killed in air raid in London in 1940. When she arrived in France and met her boss George Starr, she realised he had been an acquaintance of her husband.

Speaking to IWM in 1984, he recalled that George felt a ‘double responsibility’ to look after her. 

On one occasion, the pair were stopped at a roadblock and had guns pressed to their backs – but it was Yvonne who managed to convince the troops that her radio set was an X-ray machine.  

Yvonne transmitted from a remote village with no running water for six months when it was usual practice for wireless operators to keep moving to avoid detection. Even when the Germans became aware a female wireless operator was transmitting in their area she managed to evade capture – they were convinced no Englishwoman would stay in such a place.

 

Ben Cowburn

Ben Cowburn

Ben Cowburn was one of the most successful SOE agents in France – he completed four separate missions between 1941 and 1944 and served the longest period in France of any active SOE agent.

One of his most successful missions was a sabotage operation to destroy six railway engines at Troyes. But he also engaged in unusual ways to make life difficult for the Germans – on one occasion, he arranged for a consignment of itching powder to be left with a local laundry and sprinkled into German uniforms.

But he was aware that his work could put people in danger.

'We had to recruit people…shoving the whole lot into danger, men, women, girls, boys and not just them but a number of their friends….it was really a very, very heavy responsibility and it weighed me down quite a lot,' he said.

This is his Légion d'Honneur – the highest honour France can bestow on anybody, civilian or military.

Alfred and Henry Newton

© IWM (EQU 4473) Wool blanket of tartan style pattern stamped with the text, 'WAFFEN SS'.
© IWM (EQU 4473) Wool blanket of tartan style pattern stamped with the text, 'WAFFEN SS'.

Alfred and Henry Newton

Alfred and Henry Newton were brothers who were parachuted into France in 1942 to advise on sabotage operations.

They had already lost their parents, wives and children to the war - they drowned when the ship they had been travelling on was torpedoed.

In 1943, they were captured, tortured and interrogated, eventually being sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.

When the camp was liberated in April 1945, they were freed alongside two other agents. They took this blanket, stamped ‘Waffen SS’ with them when they left.

Major Walter Freud

© UNI 12147 Jacket Khaki open-collared single-breasted four pocket jacket. Jacket has four brass 'GS' buttons to the front; one to each breast-pocket and each of the two epaulettes.
© UNI 12147 Jacket Khaki open-collared single-breasted four pocket jacket. Jacket has four brass 'GS' buttons to the front; one to each breast-pocket and each of the two epaulettes.

Major Walter Freud

Walter Freud was the grandson of psychologist Sigmund Freud. After fleeing to England to avoid Nazi persecution, the start of the Second World War and the fall of France in 1940, he was briefly interned and sent to Australia.

He returned to England in August 1941 he joined the British Army and recruited to SOE him in 1943. In the Spring of 1945, he,was parachuted into Austria with a mission to encourage anti-Nazi resistance, commit acts of sabotage; and to establish a British presence before the Russian advance into the area.

However, after an error during the parachute drop, he was separated from his comrades, the supplies and the communications equipment. After weeks alone in the Styrian mountains he made his way to the village of Scheifling.

Harry Rée

© IWM (UNI 127805) Woolen jumper with darned bullet hole.
© IWM (UNI 127805) Woolen jumper with darned bullet hole.

Harry Rée

Harry Rée joined the Special Operations Executive in 1940, becoming a captain serving with the Intelligence Corps. He was sent to France in 1943 under the codename Cesar.

He believed that bombing of France by the RAF was counter-productive and argued that if agents were to organize the sabotage of selected factories then the German war effort would still be undermined but with fewer civilian casualties. To emphasise the point he orchestrated the successful destruction of the Peugeot factory at Sochaux. Later, during an attempt to evade capture, he was shot four times but still managed to swim across a river and crawl through a forest, eventually getting back to England via Switzerland.

This woollen jumper shows where a bullet hole has torn the fabric – and has been darned.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

© IWM (HU 66055)  Head and shoulders portrait of SOE officer Capt Patrick Leigh Fermor, (code name "Michalaki").
© IWM (HU 66055) Head and shoulders portrait of SOE officer Capt Patrick Leigh Fermor, (code name "Michalaki").

Patrick Leigh Fermor

SOE agent Patrick Leigh Fermor, alongside his colleague William Stanley ‘Billy’ Moss, led a team that carried out the kidnap of a German general on Crete.

On the night of 26 April 1944, together with members of the resistance, they kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, then drove him through 22 German checkpoints in his own car before abandoning it and disappearing into the mountains.

After being pursued across Crete by German forces, they were finally picked upon the south coast and taken by boat to Egypt.

Leigh Femor and Moss were decorated for their daring and bravery and both became famous authors after the war.

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