Britain’s Wartime Secret Service
by David Stafford
BBC Worldwide, 2000
[Challenge # 12 : A book featuring spies or espionage.]
Super-spy shenanigans, the kind we’re familiar with from James Bond movies and Cold War espionage novels, began in WWII — in the offices of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, a secret agency separate from the regular spy agency, the SIS. The SOE dealt with the dirtier aspects of the war, like destroying enemy infrastructure, working with resistance groups inside Nazi Europe, assassination, and propaganda. This book, written in conjunction with a BBC TV documentary series that came out in 2000, acts as both an accompaniment and extension of it.
I have to say I learned a lot, but also that it was kind of dull. This was probably because the book was designed for those who had already seen the documentary and wanted to go more in depth on the subject matter. But it didn’t help that the more exciting SOE episodes from the war, such as the destruction of a heavy water plant in Norway that foiled Nazi Germany’s plans for an atom bomb, were rendered lackadaisically. I know this wasn’t supposed to be a thriller novel, but I just didn’t feel the danger and risk.
It didn’t help that a lot of the reminisces of the folks who actually worked in the SOE during the war were along the lines of “Captain Jenkins was a rough and tough jolly sort of fellow who knew his P’s and Q’s.” I’m exaggerating, of course, but it did seem that was all most of them had to say. The book and documentary came out in 2000, so I’m sure many of those folks have passed by now.
(That brings up a haunting point: within my lifetime, all of the people who had first-hand memories of WWII will be gone, victims to fighters to perpetrators.)
Another fault of the book is that it barely mentioned the most spectacular of the SOE’s successes, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich.
The book did have some interesting parts, such as the dangers of the radio operators, who accompanied the teams of agents on enemy territory. The operators were a must-have as they were the only means of communication with the agency. The messages were heavily coded, and went first to a human radio operator in England who transcribed them, then on to a decoder who resolved the actual message. Radio technology being what it is, they were often heavily garbled. But there were no international phone lines or internet back then. The radio sets were a little larger than what might fit in a cigar box, and transmission was very risky as the Nazi occupiers had means to sniff out locations. For safety’s sake the radio operators were always on the move.
Other interesting parts dealt with a branch of the SOE that made forgeries and primitive James Bond-like gadgets, such as an exploding rat. Seriously.
I also learned some things I’d rather not know, such as the fate of several women SOE agents, who captured and executed at a German concentration camp — injected with Phenol (phenolbarbital) and shoved into a cremation oven still alive, though presumably unconscious. The incident so traumatized the Nazi guard that did the deed he ran away from the camp and never went back.
I have to say the book did inspire an interest in the time period for me. I’ve watched several good movies and documentaries on Nazi Germany and also on the Mossad, who was responsible for bringing Adolf Eichmann to justice.