The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British World War II organisation. It was officially formed on 22 July 1940 under Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton, from the amalgamation of three existing secret organisations. Its purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, also in occupied Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements. One of the organisations from which SOE was created was also involved in the formation of the Auxiliary Units, a top secret “stay-behind” resistance organisation, which would have been activated in the event of a German invasion of Britain. Few people were aware of SOE’s existence. Those who were part of it or liaised with it are sometimes referred to as the “Baker Street Irregulars”, after the location of its London headquarters. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. Its various branches, and sometimes the organisation as a whole, were concealed for security purposes behind names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office. SOE operated in all territories occupied or attacked by the Axis forces, except where demarcation lines were agreed with Britain’s principal Allies (the United States and the Soviet Union). It also made use of neutral territory on occasion, or made plans and preparations in case neutral countries were attacked by the Axis. The organisation directly employed or controlled more than 13,000 people, about 3,200 of whom were women. After the war, the organisation was officially dissolved on 15 January 1946. A memorial to SOE’s agents was unveiled in October 2009 on the Albert Embankment by Lambeth Palace in London Weapons
Although SOE used some suppressed assassination weapons such as the De Lisle carbine and the Welrod (specifically developed for SOE at Station IX), it took the view that weapons issued to resisters should not require extensive training in their use, or need careful maintenance. The crude and cheap Sten was a favourite. For issue to large forces such as the Yugoslav Partisans, SOE used captured German or Italian weapons. These were available in large quantities after the Tunisian and Sicilian campaigns and the surrender of Italy, and the partisans could acquire ammunition for these weapons (and the Sten) from enemy sources.
An example of the effectiveness of ‘Local activities’ with SOE assistance- was the Assassination of SS. General Heydrich in Czechoslovakia in May 1942.
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SOE also adhered to the principle that resistance fighters would be handicapped rather than helped by heavy equipment such as mortars or anti-tank guns. These were awkward to transport, almost impossible to conceal and required skilled and highly trained operators. Later in the war however, when resistance groups staged open rebellions against enemy occupation, some heavy weapons were dispatched, for example to the Maquis du Vercors. Weapons such as the British Army’s standard Bren light machine gun were also supplied in such cases. Most SOE agents received training on captured enemy weapons before being sent into enemy-occupied territory. Ordinary SOE agents were also armed with handguns acquired abroad, such as, from 1941, a variety of US pistols, and a large quantity of the Spanish Llama .38 ACP in 1944. Such was SOE’s demand for weapons, a consignment of 8,000 Ballester–Molina .45 calibre weapons was purchased from Argentina, apparently with the mediation of the US. SOE agents were issued with the Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife also issued to Commandos. For specialised operations or use in extreme circumstances, SOE issued small fighting knives which could be concealed in the heel of a hard leather shoe or behind a coat lapel. Given the likely fate of agents captured by the Gestapo, SOE also disguised suicide pills as coat buttons.
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