The Bletchley Circle Review – SOE

The second and last episodes of The Bletchley Circle introduced another secret war-time organisation, the Special Operations Executive, or more commonly called SOE.

In The Bletchley Circle story Jean spent time working with SOE before working at Bletchley Park and knew just how to extract information from a former colleague to drive their murder hunt further.

I found the second episode gripping. The story twisted away from the obvious and introduced another layer to the mind of the killer. It also cleared up why the four women would consider pursuing the killer by themselves. The killer had carefully chosen a scapegoat and Susan, Millie, Jean and Lucy had followed his carefully laid clues and led the police to the wrong man. Too late Susan realised her error but the police simply patted her on the back; but the police were happy, they had their killer.

The women examine the character of the killer. He knew what he was doing. He had traits of someone recruited into developing propaganda material during the war. Jean knew all to well, this work carried out by the SOE.

I only know only the basics about SOE, which you will find described below. It has inspired me to read more about it, especially as our contributors, John Gallehawk, is in the process about writing about an SOE training centre. I have included some of the books I have purchased, borrowed from my local library or added to my reading list. Perhaps there is something for you there too.

What was SOE?

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) secretly created in July 1940 by Winston Churchill ‘to set Europe ablaze.’ Created from three separate organisations, which the Government set up after Germany annexed Austria (the Anschluss) in March 1938:

  • The Foreign Office created an organisation known as Department EH (after Electra House, its headquarters), or CS after it’s head, newspaper magnate Sir Campbell Stuart to look into the effects of propaganda in warfare.
  • Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) formed Section D (Devices Section), under Major Lawrence Grand, to investigate the use of sabotage, propaganda and train those to undertake such work.
  • The War Office set up GS(R) (General Staff Research) headed by Major J. C. Holland with the remit of researching guerrilla warfare and later renamed MI R (Military Intelligence Research)  in early 1939.

From 1940 these organisations initially became the three organisational branches of the Special Operations Executive (SOE):

  • SO1 (Propaganda) – the pre-war beginnings of this department was known as CS after its head, Sir Campbell Stuart, or EH – Electra House, the building where the department was based. The arguments between MInistry of Information and the Foreign Office saw to it that SO1 was transferred to the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) in 1941 and controlled by the Foreign Office.
  • SO2 (Active Operations – sub-divided geographically), which became the sole survivor of the three SO organisations and became what we now know as SOE. It covered all aspects of recruiting, training and deploying personnel into enemy, and sometimes, neutral territories.
  • SO3 (Planning) – also suffered in the reorganisation and was soon merged into SO2 after it ‘proceeded to strangle itself in festoons of paperwork‘.

SOE’s broad remit often led to confusion and inter-departmental bickering with the War Office, the Foreign Office and Secret Intelligence Service about its responsibilities and priorities. SOE was viewed as an annoyance and interference. It’s more direct approach to operations seen as distasteful and counter-productive to the more discreet tactics employed by other Government departments.

Despite this lack of popularity, which meant that many cheered when it shut it down in early 1946, the SOE ‘has enriched the nation’s stock of heroic legends, many of them true.’ These stories of bravery and daring continue to inspire and amaze us 70 years later.

If you want to learn more about the SOE there are many good books that cover the organisation as a whole, biographies of key agents, scientific secrets and the stories of the men and women who served, as told through their obituaries in The Times.

As a starting point, I recommend reading any of the books like SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive 1940 – 1946by Michael R.D. Foot, who, after the war, was appointed the official historian of SOE in France and had privilege access to material that did not become publicly available for many years.

His book SOE is a solid introduction to the hard, unbiased facts of the SOE. A solid grounding in fact keeps you grounded when reading other exciting sensationalist accounts of SOE and the exploits of the agents.

There is a paragraph in the author’s notes that I really like:

Historians, like sergeant-majors, like to arrange people and things in order, to assign everyone a particular job at a set time. SOE like other bodies for waging war, was not so neatly organised in fact. It was on the contrary unusually complex, and its complexities have not been made any more easy to unravel by the dense fog of secrecy in which it lived. In that fog a few fragments of it have still to be hidden, and wisps of fog still keep getting in the way of the seeker after past truth.” Michael Foot – author’s note in SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive 1940-1946.


SOE and The Resistance: As told in The Times Obituaries describes the extraordinary contribution to the allied war effort made by the Special Operations Executive, from its formation in 1940 to the end of the war. Understand how resistance was encouraged among the populations of Europe and the Far East to encourage sabotage of industry and communications critical to the Axis cause, as recorded in The Times obituaries for the heroic men and women who served with the SOE in enemy-held territory.



SOE: The Scientific Secrets

This book explores the mysterious world of the tools SOE used for their missions of subversion and sabotage. Written by two scientists, one of whom served in the SOE and one who helped with clearing up after it was disbanded in 1946; their insider knowledge presents a clear account of the way SOE’s inventors worked. From high explosive technology to chemical and biological devices; from the techniques of air supply to incendiarism; from camouflage to underwater warfare; and from radio communications to weaponry, “SOE: The Scientific Secrets” is a revelation about the tools that allowed the murky world of spying and spies to operate during wartime.


There are many excellent books about SOE and those who served. Click on the books to take you to more information on the Amazon website. I have definitely added A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE to my reading this. It looks fascinating.

If you read any of the books, let me know what you think. It would be great to hear your views. Also, if you’d like to know more about Bletchley Park Research, keep up to date with new articles, books and contributors, then please Subscribe to our newsletter.


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