• The Soldier-Historian

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

The Riggal Training Diaries - Modes Ref 2016.017.1. Photo courtesy of the Combined Military Services Museum, Maldon, Essex. Captain Riggal was an SOE instructor and kept training diaries from his wartime service.

‘We have got to organize movements in enemy-occupied territory comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland, to the Chinese Guerrillas now operating against Japan, to the Spanish Irregulars who played a notable part in Wellington’s campaign or - one might as well admit it – to the organisations which the Nazis themselves have developed so remarkably in every country in the world. This ‘democratic international’ must use many different methods, including industrial and military sabotage, labour agitation and strikes, continuous propaganda, terrorist acts against traitors and German leaders, boycotts and riots.[1]

- Sir Hugh Dalton, Minister for Economic Warfare, 1940

With Churchill setting his intention to ‘Set Europe ablaze’ the inception of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) or the affectionally nicknamed Stately ‘Omes of England was birthed from a mixture of experience, intelligence and eccentricity. Sir Hugh Dalton, Minister for Economic Warfare in 1940 spearheaded its creation, Dalton was acutely aware that not only was a different type of warfare needed, but different types of people to wage this new type of warfare as well.

The SOE was created by the pairing of two already established small military sections. A small section in the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) and a Military Intelligence Research (MI R) section. They were run by two experienced soldiers: Maj Lawrence Grand (SIS) and Maj Jo Holland (MI R). Both men were clever, with vast amounts of energy and sharpness, yet it was Maj Jo Holland that had a particular interest in guerrilla warfare. He concluded that guerrilla warfare could assist in diverting key enemy resources and troops when used in conjunction with supporting echelons of force (airpower or land troops), therefore his tactical expertise aligned well with Dalton’s vision. Hollands’s mindset was perhaps influenced by the great T.E Lawrence for whom he had worked and even witnessed Lawrence’s exploits when fighting the Turks. Therefore, in July 1940 the SOE was officially established, sometimes referred to by other War Office departments as 'The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare'.

Agents were initially selected by those who had become employed by the SOE, men already serving or utilising the ‘old boys’ network. Yet, due to the dangerous work required of the potential agents, a more rigorous approach was adopted. Agents had to not only speak the language of the country they would be operating in but to ‘look native’ too. A high level of intelligence was assessed as well as parental nationality, childhood residence and where they had been schooled. Clandestine warfare then also provided opportunities for women. Their gender helped them to carry out secret work with less suspicion and to travel and pass on messages with great success. It is this progressive decision birthed from wartime necessity and the seeking of a tactical advantage that enabled the French Section of the SOE to begin to recruit its first female agents. Women were recruited through the auxiliary services they had joined at the outbreak of the war, like Noor Inayat Khan and even, in the case of Odette Sansom, by answering a fake radio advert for photographs of France, a recruitment tactic engineered by the SOE.

Audley End House, Saffron Walden in Essex was Special Training Station 43 (STS 43) from 1941.

And so, with their remarkable agents recruited training began in earnest. The SOE utilised the many stately homes in both Scotland and England that afforded them vast swathes of land to practice weapons and demolitions training as well as maintaining the secrecy of the organisation. The preliminary training course was undertaken by both male and female agents and was three weeks long and consisting of weapons training, learning how to communicate in Morse code, basic Army instruction in physical exercise, obstacle courses and unarmed combat. The guerrilla warfare aspect was conducted in Scotland where the landscape was inhospitable as it was beautiful. It was here agents learnt to mix and use explosives, pilot small boats, and received additional training on how to load and fire in the dark German, British and American weapons – something agents Vera Leigh and Violette Szabo GC excelled at. They learnt camouflage and concealment and how to traverse areas of ground without being seen, how to live off the land, avoid being followed, how to follow a target and to kill silently.

Of the first women to be trained by the SOE was the trail blazing Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American, who had worked for almost a decade as a secretary for the American Consular service, she travelled and worked in Venice, Turkey, Estonia, and Poland with her goal to become a Diplomat. She was highly intelligent having studied French, German and Italian at what is now Columbia University, and Economics at George Washington University as well as being decisive and diligent. However, her application to become a Diplomat was refused again and again, not because she was a woman but because she was disabled. Virginia had lost her left leg below the knee in a hunting accident in 1933. In the face of adversity this remarkably driven woman did not give in, when war was declared she put her Diplomat dreams aside to travel to France to drive ambulances. After the fall of France she found herself in London, where a chance encounter lead her to the SOE. Her prosthetic leg was nicknamed 'Cuthbert' and would become a unique hiding place for secret documents during her time as an agent.

Virginia was the first of many women sent by SOE’s French Section, and she stayed for one of the longest periods of any agents, male or female. She was a natural for clandestine work, please lookout for the next post where I will go into depth on her deployment and missions for the SOE in France where the Gestapo were constantly thwarted by the ‘Limping Lady’ who they deemed, in 1941, as the most dangerous agent in France.

[1]MRD Foot, SOE, p. 18.

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