Training class at Milton Hall, SOE headquarters, 1944
In 1940, Winston Churchill famously ordered his Special Operations Executive (SOE) to “set Europe ablaze.” This top-secret army of mavericks soon began a program of sabotage and subversion deep behind enemy lines, and Churchill, a lifelong fan of espionage, remained closely involved throughout.
The motley collection of recruits, who ran the gamut from Oxford and Cambridge grads to thieves, operated in most countries of occupied Europe. Although small in size, SOE had considerable impact on the outcome of the war as a result of industrial espionage, propaganda, and other irregular means to weaken the Axis.
Historian Rory Cormac traces how Churchill’s enthusiasm for intelligence operations drove a global secret war, sometimes regardless of consequence. He explores whether Churchill’s impetuousness wasted military resources overseas, stirred up trouble at home, and sent thousands of brave men and women to needless deaths. Ultimately, Cormac suggests that despite some failures, Churchill’s decisions proved astute, and that SOE’s legacy shaped the peace in surprising and sometimes dramatic ways.
Cormac is a professor of international relations and the director of the Centre for the Study of Subversion, Unconventional Interventions and Terrorism at the University of Nottingham.