Special Operations Executive (SOE)

LINKS to other pages in the 'Beaulieu Estate' site and to the Travelling Days series:

1 : Introduction
2 : Motor Museum
3 : SOE Exhibit
4 : Gardens
5 : Beaulieu Abbey
6 : Palace House
7 : James Bond Exhibit

Information on this page is provided with acknowledgement to : Wikipedia : BBC Hampshire and Isle of Wight : POV Production Company Limited's "Beaulieu - School For Spies".

THE SPECIAL OPERATIONS EXECUTIVE (SOE) was a British World War II organisation. Following Cabinet approval it was officially formed by Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton on 22 July 1940. Its purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers and to aid local resistance movements.

It was initially 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. To those who were part of it or liaised with it, it was 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'.

For security purposes various branches, and sometimes the organisation as a whole, were concealed behind names such as the 'Joint Technical Board' or the 'Inter-Service Research Bureau' - or even as fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office.

SOE operated in all countries or former countries occupied by or attacked by the Axis forces, except where demarcation lines were agreed with Britain's principal allies (the Soviet Union and the United States). 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 just over 13,000 people, about 3,200 of whom were women. After the war, the organisation was officially dissolved on 15 January 1946.

The following (edited) report dated November 2010 is presented here with acknowledgement to the BBC (Hampshire and IOW).

The (Beaulieu) Country Estate was used for training spies before they were deployed behind enemy lines in occupied Europe - but none of the villagers knew what was happening on their doorstep.

The list of activities undertaken at Beaulieu reads like a James Bond adventure. The agents were trained in planting explosives, burglary, forgery, sabotage and silent killing. More unusual techniques included planting bombs inside dead rats. There were other spy gadgets such as those now housed in the Beaulieu museum and some of which are shown here

It was incredibly dangerous and risky work - the operatives knew if they were caught behind enemy lines there was no chance of rescue. At one stage, radio operators were only surviving for an average of six weeks.

Tania Szabo, the daughter of one of the spies, returned to Beaulieu for BBC One's 'Inside Out'. She wanted to see the places where her mother, Violette Szabo, was secretly trained before working as a spy in northern France.

Ms Szabo said: "She came back with information about V1 rockets and in addition managed to get a viaduct blown up."

Violette Szabo operated successfully behind enemy lines in France before eventually being captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis in the aftermath of D-Day in 1944.

Considering the number of books that have been written about SOE, very little has been revealed about the most frequently mentioned of its training establishments, the 'Finishing School' on Lord Montagu's estate at Beaulieu.

So secret were the activities that even the Montagu family was unaware of what was taking place. Wishing to find out more, Lord Montagu commissioned local historian, Cyril Cunningham, to undertake the necessary research. Cunningham's book published in 1998 was the outcome of a difficult investigation, and a remarkable story it is.

Large numbers of agents from Britain and the Nazi-occupied countries of Europe were trained at Beaulieu in the delicate arts of secret inks, coding, clandestine communications and black propaganda, along with nefarious skills (also mentioned above) including silent killing, housebreaking, safe-blowing, forgery, unattributable sabotage and survival techniques.

Students would also learn how to get out of a pair of handcuffs, how to devise secret signals and how to resist interrogation. If they survived their training and a gruelling parachute course the students were then dropped into occupied territory to disrupt the German forces. They were taught by some extraordinary characters including former spies, a professional burglar and the infamous double-agent Kim Philby, who played a significant role in the design of the curriculum.

Some 3,000 agents passed through Beaulieu between 1941 and 1943, including Andrée Borrell, Nancy Wake, Odette Sansom, Peter Churchill, Francis Cammaerts and Joachim Rønneberg (who later led the Gunnerside Mission to destroy the heavy water plant in Norway that was part of the German atomic bomb programme) were trained at a number of large country houses scattered across the Beaulieu Estate before returning to occupied Europe to work with Resistance groups.

Nearly half of them would never return.

Some of the exhibits to be found in the SOE MUSEUM at Beaulieu (above, left and below)


Major-General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins KCMG, DSO, MC (2 July 1896 - 11 February 1976) was the prime mover of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in World War II.

Gubbins was also responsible for setting up the secret Auxiliary Units, a civilian force to operate behind the German lines if the United Kingdom was invaded during Operation Sea Lion, Germany's planned invasion.

He was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery in 1914 and served as a battery officer on the Western Front. He first saw action on 22 May 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres and on 9 June was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.

In July 1916 he participated in the Battle of the Somme and received the Military Cross for rescuing wounded men under fire. On 7 October he was wounded in the neck by a gunshot but fully recovered.

In the spring of 1917 Gubbins participated in the Battle of Arras and in early 1918 was promoted to Captain. He took part in the Battle of St Quentin but shortly afterwards was evacuated from the front with trench fever.

In November 1940 Gubbins became acting Brigadier and, at the request of Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare, was seconded to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had just been established to 'coordinate all action by way of sabotage and subversion against the enemy overseas'.

Later, as head of SOE, Gubbins co-ordinated the activities of resistance movements worldwide. Gubbins' role involved consultation at the highest level with the Foreign Office, the Chiefs of Staff, representatives of the resistance organizations, governments-in-exile, and other Allied agencies including the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

It turned out that the organized resistance was more effective than Whitehall had expected. In northwest Europe, where SOE's activities were under Gubbins's personal control, General Dwight D. Eisenhower later estimated that the contribution of the French Resistance alone had been worth six army divisions.

When SOE was shut down in 1946 the War Office could offer Gubbins no suitable position so when he retired from the army he became the managing director of a carpet and textile manufacturer. He subsequently remained in touch with people in many of the countries he had helped to liberate.

"Remember before God those men and women of the European Resistance Movement who were secretly trained in Beaulieu to fight their lonely battle against Hitler's Germany and who before entering Nazi-occupied territory here found some measure of the peace for which they fought."

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