Monthly Archives: January 2016

Spying in Europe – The work of the SOE

SOE

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 in Scotland
Training in Scotland

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?

 

Arisaig House
Arisaig House
Parachute training
Parachute training

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.

Beaulieu House
Beaulieu House

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.

Mauthausen
Mauthausen Concentration Camp
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Book Review – ‘The Royalist’ and ‘The Protector’ by S J Deas

Unusually, I am recommending two books for you to read this month.

The Royalist‘The Royalist’ is the first book about William Falkland by S. J. Deas, set during the English Civil War. The main character, William Falkland, fought for the king but was captured and, as the novel opens, he is in prison awaiting execution. Falkland is led out, presumably to his death, but instead he has a surprising meeting with Oliver Cromwell who wants him to investigate some suspicious deaths in an army camp. To do what Cromwell wants is the only way that Falkland can save his own life, and return to his family.

‘The Royalist’ is a real page-turner, with many plot twists which keep you guessing to the very end. Are the deaths suicides, or something more sinister? What is the reason for Cromwell calling on a royalist to investigate, rather than one of his own men? Falkland finds the answers Cromwell wants (no spoilers here!) and is free to return to his family.

The Protector‘The Protector’ continues the story of William Falkland which began in ‘The Royalist’. Still searching for his family, Falkland is once more called upon by Cromwell, this time to investigate the disappearance of a woman – the sister of the renowned John Milton. Once again the author creates a compelling mystery. Why would someone kidnap Milton’s sister? Is it to silence the writer, or for some other reason? What happened to Ann’s husband? What secrets are hidden in a ruined manor house in Lincolnshire? Deas masterfully weaves a detective story with a picture of life during the English Civil War. Rather than a straight history, details of the war are revealed through conversations amongst the characters, as part of the plot rather than a telling of facts. Deas also conjures the feelings of insecurity, threat, suspense and suspicion which were rife in England at the time as friends, neighbours and families chose sides and fought for what they believed was right.

These two books about William Falkland are thoroughly enjoyable historical mysteries. The characters are well-rounded and totally believable. Falkland is a sympathetic hero, Milton is a complex character who draws out conflicting emotions in Falkland (and the reader!), Miss Cain is a resourceful woman who ably assists in the investigations, and the initially simple Warbeck turns out to be a more complex character than first imagined.

I thoroughly enjoyed the history and mystery in these two books, and hope that there will be more novels about William Falkland in the future.

I heartily recommend both books to you.

Mr Deas website can be found here

The Royalist can be found on Amazon

The Protector can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Book Reviews here

New Year – New Book

The end of 2015 has seen me lay down my pen on my current work – Rebekah. The novel is now complete and you can  read a sample here.

The next stage is the rather lengthy process of editing, finding a publisher, and bringing the book to you as soon as I can.

Next week I will begin writing the first of a series of novels set during the Second World War. The main character is a war correspondent who will bring a totally new perspective on the conflict for most readers. I look forward to sharing the progress of this project with you.

In the meantime, I wish you a very Happy New Year. May 2016 bring you all that you hope for. May it be a year of peace, love, happiness and achievement.