SOE – photo by MadelgariusCredit: photo by Madelgarius

Everyone loves a good spy story.  Before “Bond…James Bond” and in addition to the MI6, men and women agents of World War II risked their lives to gather intelligence information on the enemy.  The British spies of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) conducted reconnaissance, espionage, and sabotage in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and aided local resistance movements.  Few knew about the organization and those who were part of it or worked with it sometimes referred to it as the “Baker Street Irregulars;” the name taken from the location of its London headquarters.  Others times it was referred to as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”  It is reported the SOE consisted of about 13,000 agents and personnel with about 3,200 women agents included in the total; however, it is estimated about one million operatives worldwide were supported or supplied by the SOE.   

The SOE Organization 

The actual configuration of the SOE was fluid over the course of the war. After some internal quarrels between agencies, the SOE became one broad “Operations” department which controlled numerous sections which operated in enemy and sometimes neutral territories; and the selection and training of SOE men and women agents.  Each section was assigned to one country, with some enemy-occupied countries having two or more sections assigned to them.  This was mainly to help those countries with their resistance movements; for example France had at least six sections assigned to it.  

Several departments and smaller groups within the SOE were responsible for researching and developing special equipment.  Other departments included finance, economic research, security and administration. Several subsidiary SOE stations and headquarters were set up to manage operations which were too distant for London to control directly.  One such station was located in New York and coordinated the work of the SOE, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6), and MI5 with the United States F.B.I. and Office of Strategic Services ( OSS, the precursor of the CIA).  

Group leaders were almost exclusively men, while couriers were almost always women as they were thought to raise less suspicion.  Wireless operators were both men and women agents.  These British spies were also known as “the Pianists.”   Initially, being an operator carried additional risk due to the operating procedures.  Messages had to be transmitted on fixed frequencies at fixed times and intervals.  This allowed German troops to triangulate operators’ positions and many were captured or killed. In the field, SOE operations were organized around a system of networks with each covering a specific sector.  Each network was structured around an organizer, a courier, and a wireless operator.  

Women Spies of the SOE 

Training for the SOE was intensive and included a commando course as well as mock interrogations and the use of guns, explosives, sabotage and wireless telegraphy and how to survive Vera Atkins British Spies – photo courtesy of the United Kingdom GovernmentCredit: photo courtesy of the United Kingdom Governmentin Nazi-occupied territory.  They were also taught unarmed combat and silent killing.  SOE Senior Recruiting Officer, Captain Selwyn Jepson said “In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women…have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.” 

Initially women were employed behind the scenes, working in London rather than out in the combat areas.  In April 1942 Winston Churchill gave his approval to send female agents into occupied territories throughout Europe.  Women SOE agents were required to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) as a cover for their secret SOE training. There are several well-known women spies of the SOE.  One was Vera Atkins. 

Recruited in 1941, Vera was soon appointed intelligence officer for F Section underWomen Spies Noor Khan - photo courtesy of the United Kingdom GovernmentCredit: photo courtesy of the United Kingdom Government the head of the section, Maurice Buckmaster.  F Section coordinated the preparation of over four hundred agents assigned to France.  In 1942 Vera’s job included intelligence gathering.  In 1943 SOE decided to use women as wireless operators.  Vera tagged Noor Inayat Khan, 29, as the first woman for the position. 

The SOE was instrumental in the preparation for D-day and Vera participated as a newly admitted British citizen.  One of the recruViolette Szabo Women Spies - photo courtesy of the United Kingdom GovernmentCredit: photo courtesy of the United Kingdom Governmentits she interviewed during this time was Violette SzaboViolette parachuted into France a couple of times for specific missions related to the communications of the German troops.  

When the war ended, over one hundred agents, including sixteen women were missing.  Vera began her search to find out the fate of the missing agents.  Noor, who went under the alias Madeline, was reported to have been held in a concentration camp and later shot with three other agents.  Charts were found with “N+N” on them which indicated they were for prisoners treated under the Nacht and Nebel order which stated both resisters and spies were to be made to disappear into the "night and fog." 

Vera spent over a year interviewing captured Nazi commanders and freed prisoners to find out the fate of her agents.  Captured SOE agents were not considered prisoners of war and thus were treated as British spies; brutally tortured and many of them executed.  Noor Khan’s fate was elusive.  Vera learned Noor never revealed any information to her captors and eventually, Vera determined Noor was executed at a concentration camp.  Many of the men and women agents of the SOE were awarded the George Cross medal, the second highest award of the United Kingdom honors system.  The SOE officially closed its doors in 1946.


Sources: (accessed February 7, 2013) (accessed February 7, 2013) (accessed February 7, 2013)


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