“A World War 2 historical gem”.
In July 1940, a desperately weakened Britain licks her wounds after the humiliating retreat from Dunkirk. How can the fight be taken to the enemy?
New Prime Minister Winston Churchill orders the creation of the Special Operations Executive, to ‘set Europe ablaze’ through subversion and sabotage. But this most secret of agencies must be kept secure.
Guardians of Churchill’s Secret Army tells the mostly unknown human stories of the men who were brought into SOE, straight from Intelligence Corps training, to do just that. They were junior in rank, but far from ordinary people.
They were Australian, Anglo-French, Canadian, Scandinavian, East European and British. They had been schoolteachers, journalists, artists, ship brokers, racehorse trainers and international businessmen. Each spoke several languages.
These men stood alongside courageous agents in training: encouraged them, assessed their character, and tried to teach them the caution and suspicion that might just keep them alive, deep in enemy territory. But they did much more. Many became agents themselves and displayed great bravery. All played a crucial role in the global effort to undermine the enemy.
We find them not only in the Baker Street Headquarters of SOE, but also in night parachute drops, in paramilitary training in the remotest depths of Scotland and in undercover agent training in isolated English country houses. We follow them to occupied France, to Malaya and Thailand under threat of Japanese invasion, to Italy and Germany as they play their part in the collapse of the Axis regimes. As we do so, we find a world of heroism and commitment so different from our own experience that it is scarcely believable.
“A fascinating and important study of a long-hidden corner of SOE history”
Dr Roderick Bailey, Pembroke College, Oxford, Advisor to BBC TV series Secret Agent Selection: WW2
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
There are hundreds of books about the Special Operations Executive, some accurate and some fanciful, but not one has covered this important group of heroes. I decided to fill the gap.
In April 1943, Agent Stockbroker of the Special Operations Executive parachuted into a moonlit field in German-occupied France. Despite several close shaves, he succeeded in his clandestine mission, remained free and survived the war. Two months later, Agent Valentin too descended by night under a silk canopy, to a different part of France. Just days later, he was captured and eventually executed. In the following year, a month after D-Day, Agent Adjacent dropped with six comrades into the hilly Haute Vienne region of southwest France to support French Resistance fighters in their attempt to hinder German reinforcements.
These three brave men – and many more like them – risked their lives to fulfil Winston Churchill‘s 1940 order to ‘Set Europe Ablaze’. Some of these agents survived. Many did not. But it was not just a matter of luck. As important were the suspicion and caution with which they approached undercover life and the tricks they had learned to keep themselves secure.
This book tells the mostly unknown human stories of the small group of men – yes, they were all men – who were brought into SOE, straight from Intelligence Corps training, to keep the organisation secure. They were junior in rank, but far from ordinary people. They were Australian, Anglo-French, Canadian, Scandinavian, East European and British. They had been schoolteachers, journalists, artists, ship brokers, racehorse trainers and international businessmen. Each spoke several languages. Their contribution has not yet been fully recognised.
Their initial role was ‘Field Security’ and started out as ensuring the security of agents about to be deployed on hazardous missions. Trained in counter-intelligence and skilled in a range of foreign languages, they could get alongside men and women who were preparing to risk their lives in France, Norway, Belgium and further afield. Many – like the three I have mentioned above – developed a much more active role themselves, in SOE operations worldwide.
The subjects of this book were almost exclusively men. Although many women served in support of the Intelligence Corps – many in the Auxiliary Territorial Service – its personnel were all male. Thus women, who were such an important part of SOE, regrettably do not get much of a look-in here. This may be thought imbalanced, but books and even films about SOE heroines abound. Carve Her Name with Pride, the story of Violette Szabo, is one.
This is by no means the first book about the Special Operations Executive, the organisation tasked by Winston Churchill in 1940 to take the fight to the enemy, when desperately weakened Britain had few options. Without trying hard, I found 290 such books in English. Exciting narratives have revealed the heroic operations of the men and women parachuted into Nazi-occupied territory: wreaking havoc and encouraging, supporting and coordinating the efforts of those brave enough to resist harsh and brutal regimes. Academic historians have pored over sparse documentation to work out how great a role the SOE – and the Resistance movements with which it worked – played in the Allied war effort. The disputes, too, have been documented: between SOE and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS); between SOE and the more conventional military commanders and political leaders in London; between rival political factions – in France, in Belgium, in Greece – over money and weapons; and between Allies.
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