Tag Archives: SOE

Life or death communications – the use of codes by Britain’s spies in the Second World War

Did you ever write messages in code when you were a child? I remember having fun believing that what I wrote to my friend was unreadable by anyone else – even though we only used a simple code where the letters of the alphabet were transposed a number of places. For instance, if we transposed the letters by two places we could send this message:

UJCNN YG IQ VQ VJG EKPGOC VQOQTTQY – I’m sure you’ll find it very easy to read!*

Communication is vital during war, particularly for agents who may be behind enemy lines, but sending messages can also be very dangerous. For agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War it was always possible that the enemy might decipher their messages or get a fix on the radio when the message was sent – both scenarios which could put the life of the agent in danger. To ensure a transmission was as safe as possible some sort of encryption was needed to keep the message secret.

Samuel Morse

Before learning how to encode a message the SOE agent would first have to learn how to send in Morse code which is a method of transmitting text as a series of ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches which are known as ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ and are, in effect, a simple binary coding. The code is named after Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph in the 1830’s and needed a new electronic system to be able to send messages. Each letter or symbol in Morse code is represented by a series of these dots and dashes and it is the simplest and most versatile method of radio/telegraph communication. The most well-known grouping of letters in Morse code is the universal distress call    . . . _ _ _ . . . (dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot), more commonly known as SOS.

But learning Morse code was only the first step for an agent who was preparing to go overseas as it was a universally known code and so the enemy would be able to read any messages that they sent. In the early days of the SOE agents used a simple, and consequently insecure, code known as ‘poem code’ to encrypt their messages. Both the agent and the person receiving the message would have a copy of the same poem. The sender would start his message with five letters to indicate which part of the poem his encryption would be based on; the message would then be written in columns before being transposed and transmitted. These poem codes worked well because they were quite secure but the agent didn’t need to carry a code book as they could memorise the poem. There were, however, weaknesses to this system. For instance, it was relatively easy to make a mistake when encoding; also, if the enemy managed to decode one message they then had all the information they needed to decode other transmissions from that agent in the future, and even ones they had intercepted in the past.

Leo Marks

The SOE knew that they needed to improve their communications system and so Leo Marks was appointed as codes officer. He found that the poems used for encryption had to be easy for agents to remember and so were often famous ones such as ‘Daffodils’ – the problem was that these famous poems would be known by the enemy and so make it easier for them to crack the codes. One of the first changes Marks made was to have original poems written for the agents to use rather than famous ones, these original poems were often comic, satirical or sexual to make them more memorable. Not all fell into these categories though, and one of the most famous of his original poems was, in fact, a love poem written for his girlfriend who had been killed in a plane crash; he later gave this poem to agent Violette Szabo to use when she was posted to France. (Violette was executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 and her service in the SOE was commemorated in the 1958 film ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’).

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Violette Szabo

Another method Marks introduced was to simply use a different poem for each transmission to prevent any sort of pattern which might help the enemy. As it would have been hard for an agent to remember a number of poems correctly these were written on silk rather than memorised.

Leo Marks continued to work on more secure methods of encryption and the poem code was gradually replaced. The Worked-Out Key (WOK) system used a number of codes which were used only once and were written on silk (to be hidden in the agents clothing as described in my article on radio operators). Once a particular key had been used it would be torn off the silk and destroyed, leaving the next key ready for use. Marks went on to develop a One-Time Pad code where the letters of the alphabet were written in a list, the agent encoded his message by using a substitution square (i.e. substituting a different letter for each one in the alphabet). After being used once the list was thrown away and a different one used next time but still using the same substitution square. This was much safer than the poem code as there was no pattern to the listing of the letters of the alphabet and so even if the enemy managed to break the code for one message it wouldn’t help them with future ones. SOE agents liked this method as it was quick and secure.

As well as ensuring the safest possible codes Leo Marks worked on ways of deceiving the enemy through agent’s transmissions. One of these deceptions was Operation Gift-Horse which included key codes from the WOK system at the beginning of each message and fooled the enemy into thinking it was a poem code. The main aim of this operation was to get the Germans to waste their time trying to decipher coded poems when the message was, in fact, a completely different system. ‘Gift-Horse’ was used extensively just before D Day in 1944 at a time when there was already a huge increase in radio messages and so made the chances of the Germans decoding and compiling information about the invasion much more difficult.

So the types of puzzles which we find so enjoyable as a leisure activity had a far more serious role for a secret agent behind enemy lines. Maybe next time you do a puzzle in a magazine or a book you can take a moment to think of those for whom coding was not a simple pass-time but a key part of their work which, if not done correctly, could cost them their life.



A life on the line – SOE radio operators in the Second World War

England. June 1940. Things looked bleak for the Allies after the fall of France and the retreat from Dunkirk, Britain was on the defensive and most people believed that the invasion of England would soon begin. In an effort to take some of the fight to the enemy Winston Churchill authorised Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, to set up a clandestine organization to help form, supply and run resistance movements in occupied countries. This new Special Operations Executive (SEO) was to be responsible for recruiting and training agents who would then be sent behind enemy lines. (The work of the SOE). One of the most difficult roles which members of the SOE undertook was that of wireless operator.

The early equipment needed by radio operators was cumbersome – a short-wave morse transceiver (capable of both sending and receiving messages) weighing a hefty 30 pounds along with a flexible aerial 70 feet long – all of which had to be concealed in a suitcase 2 feet long. It was hard to be inconspicuous and not act suspiciously whilst carrying such incriminating equipment in enemy held territory. The SOE realised how important the correct equipment would be for the survival of their agents and began to design their own lighter and more portable sets. The culmination of this work was the Paraset, a major improvement as it weighed just 9 pounds and was small enough to carry in a small attache case yet powerful enough to send and receive messages over distances in excess of 500 miles.

Type 3 Mark II (B2),

Type 3 Mark II (B2),used when longer range was required

An SOE wireless operator had to know the area they worked in intimately. It was vital that they transmit from a different place, and only very briefly, each time they made contact with base as it was estimated that, in an urban environment, the Germans were able to track down a transmitter in around half an hour. Agents also had to create schedules for their transmissions which did not involve making contact on the same day of the week or at the same time of day, as any sort of pattern which could be identified by the Germans would be disasterous. The ideal for an agent was to set up, transmit, dismantle and get away within a maximum of 20 minutes to avoid capture and torture. To be found transmitting would almost certainly mean death to the operator, but it could also be devastating to the resistance group they worked with. If the enemy captured a transceiver and code books they would try to use them to trap the rest of the grouup. To try to prevent such deceptions each wireless operator was instructed to spell certain words incorrectly – if a transmission was made with the word spelt correctly the handler back in England would know that the operator had been compromised and, hopefully, have time to warn field agents in time for them to make good their escape.

Noor Inayat Khan, a member of the SOE who was executed by the Germans

The majority of radio operators sent behind enemy lines by the SOE were women as it as believed that they would be able to move around with their equipment without drawing as much attention to themselves as a man would. After all, it was quite common for women to be out shopping with a bag during the day whilst a man in a similar situation would be much more conspicuous. The women who signed up to do this work were under no illusions as to the importance, and the danger, of what they were committing to – the life expectancy of as SOE wireless operator working in Occupied France was just six weeks. (The Women Who Spied For Britain)

Some resistance groups were set up by the SOE whilst others were formed by locals with SOE support, yet regardless of how they began all groups received their instructions directly from England (or one of the subsidiary bases in other theatres of war, such as Cairo). The wireless operator in the ‘circuit’ lived in isolation with only brief contact with a single member of the group. It was a lonely existence in order to protect the remainder of the group. A wireless operator would not take part in operations such as sabotage, their only role was to be responsible for transmitting orders, or arranging the transport of agents and drops of supplies. In the early days all transmissions went through the radio station at Bletchley Park but the SOE later had its own stations at Poundon and Grendon Underwood – messages from the field would come in there to be forwarded to SOE HQ in London by teleprinter.

Security was vital in this clandestine world, both for the agent in the field and the information being transmitted. One way of ensuring security was by having an agent who knew how to transmit safely and securely, but the use of codes was also incredibly important. To begin with insecure poem codes were used, but these led to a number of disasters and so Leo Marks was made chief cryptographer. As part of his role Marks helped to develop single use ciphers printed on silk in an effort to save agents lives. The reason for such an expensive material was simple – it didn’t make a rustling sound like paper so, once concealed in the lining of clothing, it would not be detectable during a casual search.

Wireless operators who served behind enemy lines played an incredibly important role during the Second World War, particularly in the weeks leading up to the D Day landings in June 1944. Without their courage and sacrifice the war could have dragged on for months longer, and many more lives been lost. In my novel, Heronfield, one of the characters is a young woman who places her life on the line to be an SOE wireless operative in St Nazaire. My creation is an amalgamation of many women who served, and is my tribute to them all.


One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter…The French Resistance during the Second World War

Members of the maquis
Members of the maquis

How would you feel if your country was invaded, your homeland occupied and your government capitulated? Would you give in or would you fight to free your country? Citizens of France, like people in many other countries, had to face this dilema during the Second World War. For many people the thought of living under German rule was intolerable and so they chose to fight.

There was not just one resistance movement in France, different groups of like-minded people – from communists to Catholics, anarchists to aristocrats – came together to do what they could to oppose the Nazis. The German Blitzkrieg had overwhelmed France in 1940 and left a country divided with the north occupied by the Germans and the south run by the puppet Vichy government. Desperately unhappy and determined to drive out the conquerors many French joined the resistance; their initial aim was to attack the Germans wherever possible but over time they also developed intelligence networks which gathered information for the Allies, and also helped downed airman to escape. At first these resistance fighters worked in individual groups and had no contact with like-minded people but, over time, networks were set up which enabled better co-ordination and greater success. Soon postal workers were intercepting messages and telephone workers destroying lines, the railway workers blew up bridges and rails as well as diverting and derailing trains. There were other groups (notably the PAT line and Comet line) which helped downed American and British airmen get back to England, travelling through France and over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain before being sent back to England.

Escaping over the Pyrenees
Escaping over the Pyrenees

A tank corps officer who had escaped from France just before the surrender set up an official resistance in England with the help of the British Government. His name was Charles de Gaulle. On 18th June 1940 the BBC broadcast his call to the French people to start a resistance movement. His words were a call to arms: ‘Is the last word said? Has all hope gone? Is the defeat definitive? No. Believe me, I tell you that nothing is lost for France. This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is a world war. I invite all French officers and soldiers who are in Britain or who may find themselves there, with their arms or without, to get in touch with me. Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not die and will not die.’ Churchill publicly recognised de Gaulle as the leader of the ‘Free French’ and denounced the Vichy government which held a court-martial and sentenced de Gaulle to death in his absence.

Charles de Gaulle calls the French to arms via the BBC
Charles de Gaulle calls the French to arms via the BBC

To make the resistance more effective Jean Moulin convinced de Gaulle to unite all of the disparate resistance groups into one great army of resistance to give the Allies a better chance of defeating Nazi Germany. de Gaulle asked Moulin to set up a National Resistance Council which promised resistance fighters that they would get arms and money from the British if they agreed to fight together, which they eventually did in early 1943. Moulin was later betrayed and arrested.

Jean Moulin
Jean Moulin

Many people think that de Gaulle and the Free French were the only resistance in France, but that is incorrect. Some resistance movements took their orders directly from de Gaulle, others from the SOE (Special Operations Executive set up by the British to train and operate agents in occupied countries), there were regional groups, and groups which consisted of specific racial or political members such as communists or Jews. Over time people began to realise that this disorganised resistance was not as effective as it could be and, in June 1941, all communist groups joined together to improve their ability to fight the enemy. The Communist resistance fighters were not fighting for France to return to the way it had been before the war, their loyalty lay with international Communism and to Russia which was fighting with the British against Germany, their objective – to set up a communist government in France which would owe allegiance to the Soviet Union. These communist resistance fighters were renowned for capturing and killing German army officers; not unexpectedly this led to swift and brutal reprisals, sometimes as many as 50 hostages were shot in retaliation for the death of one German officer.

The SOE in France
The SOE in France

One of the best know resistance groups is the Maquis which was a group of guerrilla fighters who operated independently and fought in the rural areas of France, especially the high mountain regions. These ruthless fighters were experts at hiding out in the bushes which lined the roads then ambushing Germans, so they took their name from the maquis bushes that grow alongside country roads. In preparation for D Day the British dropped arms and money to the Maquis who were able to use the resources to prevent German reinforcements reaching the beaches of Normandy. German reprisals became evermore extreme, including the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane in June 1944.


Jewish resistance fighters often felt that they had more reason than anyone to fight the Germans. One example was Andre Scheinmann who was a German Jew who fled to France with his parents after the infamous Kristallnacht. Andre joined the French army at the outbreak of war, was captured and then escaped before pretending to be a collaborator and getting the job of running the railways in Brittany. In reality Andre was a member of the French resistance and was second in command of a complex network of almost 300 spies which reported German troop movements to the British. With this excellent information the British were able to bomb troop transports from the air whilst the group also blew up trains on the ground. Andre Scheinmann’s luck eventually ran out. Captured by the Gestapo he spent almost a year in a French prison before being sent to a concentration camp, finally ending up in Dachau where he survived to be released by the Americans. Andre was one of the lucky ones, it is estimated that there around 56,000 French resistance fighters were captured by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps during the occupation, half of them paid the ultimate price and never returned to their homes.

Jewish resistance
Jewish resistance

The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by the Germans and so de Gaulle chose the Cross of Lorraine as the symbol for the Free French and encouraged people to fight under this banner, particularly after D Day when the Allies asked that all resistance fighters wore armbands showing the cross to make them easily identifiable. These brave French fighters played a vital role in the early days of the invasion.

Cross of Lorraine
Cross of Lorraine

Of course, there were more ways to resist the Germans than by sabotage or guerrilla warfare. The coal miners of France bravely went on strike and so slowed the delivery of coal which was much needed for the war effort in Germany. Some groups produced clandestine newspapers which encouraged all kinds of resistance, from asking doctors to only approve known collaborators as fit to be sent to Germany on forced labour to letting farmers know how they could get food to resistance fighters. By far the greatest contribution, however, came from those who worked to gather intelligence for the Allies which was vital in the planning stages for the invasion of Europe. By early 1944, sixty intelligence cells were working flat out, in the month of May alone they sent almost four thousand reports to the Allies.

It was not only men who played their part. During the early years of resistance, when supplies were limited, many laboratories were set up to make explosives. France Bloch-Serazin was a scientist who made explosives in her apartment for the communist resistance; she also made cyanide capsules for the fighters so that they could avoid torture if they were ever captured. Bloch-Serazin was arrested and tortured in February 1942 before being sent to Hamburg where she was eventually executed by guillotine a year later. Then there was Madame Lauro who destroyed food supplies intended for the Germans by pouring nitric acid and hydrochloric acid onto the food in freight trains. The most famous resistance network, the Alliance Réseau, was led by another woman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. The Alliance worked with the SOE gathering information on German plans and military strength. Madame Fourcade gave animal code names to her network (she herself was called Hedgehog) and so the Alliance became known as Noah’s Ark. Madame Fourcade was captured but escaped and joined the Maquis; she fought with them until the end of the war when she was able to return home.

Marie-Madeleine Foucarde
Marie-Madeleine Foucarde

It is difficult to estimate the value of the work carried out by the resistance in France, but Eisenhower said that the resistance had made a contribution equal to ten to fifteen divisions (one division would have around ten thousand soldiers). It is also hard to gauge how effective these resistance fighters were, but it is known that 10,000 German troops were held back to deal with the Maquis du Vercors and so could not be moved to the front line immediately after D Day. It is impossible to say how many were involved in the resistance although the post-war government put the figure at around 220,000 men and women. And the casualties amongst the resistance? No-one really knows although estimates have been put at 8,000 killed in action, 25,000 wounded and around 56,000 sent to concentration camps, 27,000 are believed to have died there. As many as 5,000 aircraft men and possibly 1,500 POW’s escaped via the ‘lines’ thanks to the resistance; casualties amongst the French were high with possibly as many as one death for each escapee who reached safety.

Georges Blind smiles as he faces a German firing squad
Georges Blind smiles as he faces a German firing squad

It took a special kind of bravery to live in occupied territory for years, hiding your true feelings, acting in the dark to fight the oppressor, living in fear for yourself and your families. My novel, Heronfield, pays tribute to the French men and women who fought so hard for their freedom during those dark days of the Second World War.

Spying in Europe – The work of the 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 Concentration Camp