1941 found Britain standing alone against Hitler’s Germany. Britain had had no troops in Europe since Dunkirk, and there was no prospect of troops being able to land in the foreseeable future. Churchill was frustrated by this and set up the Special Operations Executive to train volunteers who were willing to parachute into occupied territories, where they would help the local population to fight the Nazis. More than 400 SOE operatives served in France where they played a decisive role in the preparations for, and days following, the D Day Landings. More than 25% of SOE agents who parachuted into France never returned home.
So how did someone become a secret agent during the Second World War? The initial choice was not of soldiers with military expertise, that training would come later. The key factor was whether someone had any special qualities which would be useful in occupied territory. Maybe they were fluent in a foreign language? Maybe they had a background living in France or one of the other occupied countries? Whatever first attracted the SOE recruiters, all volunteers initially underwent an interview in a foreign language, talking about nothing more sinister than their background. The possibility that they might be asked to work as a secret agent was never mentioned, and it can be assumed that all interviewees left the strange meeting in a London hotel room feeling very confused and, no doubt, curious. If the interviewer felt that the candidate had potential then another meeting would be arranged in the same hotel. If successful, working for the SOE was proposed to them, and any willing to serve their country in such a dangerous and secretive role started their basic training.
Training needed to be long and hard if operatives were to have the best chance of survival. The first stage was military based, with an emphasis on fitness, handling weapons, map reading, unarmed combat, demolition, how to operate in the field and basic radio communications. Not everyone made it through this first stage of training, but those who did headed north to Scotland. SOE’s staff HQ was at Arisaig in Invernessshire, located on a rugged coastline in a remote part of Scotland. The location was a perfect place to train secret agents – in secret! Trainees spent between three and five weeks living in local accommodation in and around Arisaig whilst continuing their weapons training, and working on other skills they had already started developing. By the end of the course they would be familiar with a large number of weapons from all countries, meaning that they would be able to make effective use of any guns they managed to ‘liberate’ whilst behind enemy lines. Alongside this they learnt unarmed combat and how to kill silently, as well as beginning to learn rudimentary coding. As sabotage would play a large role in an agent’s work Arisaig was the place where they learnt and developed their skills with explosives – from simple bombs, to planning and blowing up railway lines or arms dumps. The physical training was hard, with both men and women undertaking the same courses over difficult terrain, although everyone recognised its importance. Who knew when they might have to move silently and swiftly through the countryside to conduct a raid, or make an escape across country with the Germans in hot pursuit?
Many a recruit failed the physical training. Those who made it through headed south once again, to learn how to jump out of a plane. Training took place at Altricham, with the planes for their five jumps leaving from Ringway (now Manchester Airport). To pass this part of the training the recruits would have to conduct four daylight and one night time jump. Low altitude jumps were the norm as any flight into occupied country would be low in an attempt to avoid German radar.
The next stage of training involved specialization – from demolition to radio operation, industrial sabotage to silent killing. And all the time, more weapons practice, more physical training, more field craft. The training was intense and unremitting. As well as the obvious training recruits underwent tests of which they were totally unaware. Strong drinks were readily available, something which ordinary soldiers undergoing basic training would never experience. The ulterior motive? Could the potential agent drink sensibly and hold his or her drink? Were they likely to talk too much (and too loudly)? Would this be a liability? Any who failed the test would be reassigned elsewhere and never serve behind enemy lines.
The final training took place on Lord Montague’s estate at Beaulieu in the New Forest, where agents studied techniques for passing messages, how to live a secret life in enemy territory, personal security, how to act if they felt they were under surveillance and, of course, how to maintain their cover story. All agents received a new identity with a complete history and family for their ‘previous life’ in occupied territory. This was the most frightening thing for many agents, for it was the little things that could give one away. It was said that one agent looked right first when crossing a road instead of left, momentarily forgetting that the French drive on the other side of the road to the English. This small mistake was said to have been enough for him to give himself away to the enemy.
Final testing took place at Beaulieu with agents undergoing mock raids, or making contact with trainers posing as resistance members, or losing a tail – the list was endless. But, at last, those who had made it through from the initial strange interview in London to this final testing were given home leave, before preparing to embark on a journey into enemy territory from which many never returned.
The courage of the men and women who served behind enemy lines was remarkable, but people often forget that life for agents was not easy when they were back in England. No one knew their secret work, and this could take its toll on family life. The main character in my novel, ‘Heronfield’, is Tony, a young man who is proud to serve his country by joining the SOE. He knows that it will be difficult but the conflict within his family is far more than he ever dreamed it would be, compared by his father to his older brother who was a fighter pilot, and falling short of what was wanted and expected. As for the girl he loved… Could she love a man who seemed afraid to join an active unit and fight? I wrote Heronfield as a tribute to the brave SOE agents, both men and women, who offered so much for their country, suffered so much, and in many cases, made the ultimate sacrifice.