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Books, Arts & Curiosities – “We listen round the clock for a code called peacetime”

Finest Hour 116, Autumn 2002

Page 31

By D. CRAIG HORN

Secret Agent, by David Stafford, Overlook Press, 254 pages, $29.95, member price $22


David Stafford wrote Secret Agent to accompany a television series of the same name shown on BBC2 in the summer of 2000. This is the true story of SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents, told through a series of riveting interviews with the agents and support people themselves.

“In the darkness of Nazi occupation, SOE fanned the flames of hope and kept alive the flag of freedom.” This is David Stafford as I had never read him before, combining his talents for thorough research with the prose of a Kipling. His book, which will satisfy history buffs as well as fans of Ludlum, Fleming and Clancy, is a poignant and arresting tale that concentrates on SOE activities beginning in gloomy flats at Berkeley Court—a floor below some department of the Japanese Embassy: a highly undesirable location.

Stafford recounts much of the political infighting that accompanied SOE’s evolution from what was expected to be a group of harmless backroom lunatics to a professional and effective intelligence organization that left a mark on history. He names both those who helped and those hindered its development, and describes the rivalries among the various agencies, departments and allies. He gives us a plentiful supply of footnotes and references deserving further study.

But it is the agents themselves who draw the reader. This is a story of the tricks of the trade: the humorous anecdotes and painful losses of those who risked everything for liberty. Churchill’s charge to “Set Europe Ablaze” using sabotage and subversion was their mission; anonymity at home or death abroad was their reward. David Stafford brings us the personal story of these brave men and women.

SOE was unique among wartime organizations in allowing women to join the front line as equals with men. One of the latter said: “We could never, never understand that they could be as brave as they were. They were incredibly contained and distant. Somehow you felt that there was something very special about them.”

Although the primary focus is on the agents, Stafford takes particular care also to tell the story of those behind the scenes who trained these people, saw them off in the darkness and listened for their reports from occupied Europe.

Included is an extraordinary account of a handful of SOE-trained Norwegians who destroyed the German heavy water plant in Norway, described by Sir Colin Gubbins as “an enthralling story of high adventure.” Stafford tells of SOE’s role in the D-Day plans and in the Balkans, where more agents were committed than anywhere else save France.

Failures are not omitted. “Every agent parachuted into Holland had dropped directly into German hands,” Stafford writes. And the Germans ran their own highly-successful deception campaign against SOE for several months. Nor is the infamous spy Kim Philby ignored in all his ignominy.

The average survival time of an SOE radio operator was three months. Operating behind enemy lines, they were the most vulnerable; fear and loneliness were their daily lot. For the Gestapo, capturing a radio operator was like discovering the keys to a kingdom. For these brave souls, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANYs) were their link to home and to sanity; they provided a great resource for thousands of agents, code clerks, and wireless operators. The pressure on them was tremendous: “The war was a dreadful business, don’t let anybody suppose for a moment it was anything but horrible the only thing was to fight it and make certain it didn’t happen again.”

SOE was abolished in 1945 by the Attlee government, its mission amalgamated into the Secret Intelligence Service from whence it came. SOE was out of business, but special operations lived on into the Cold War: another story challenge that I am sure Professor Stafford will meet.

Inevitably, SOE lost a lot of agents, and there remained a powerful obligation to discover what had happened to those who had fallen into Gestapo hands. This story is not yet ended, but Stafford brings closure to his wonderful book with a quote from Leo Marks, SOE’s cryptographic genius who worked tirelessly to ensure communications security for his agents. “We listen round the clock for a code called peacetime….”


Mr. Horn is Treasurer of The Churchill Cenrer and, with his intelligence background, a chief organizer of the 2002 International Churchill Conference, whose theme was “Churchill and the Intelligence World.”

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