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Churchill's Secret Army: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Evening Program

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1H0379
Colossus codebreaking computer, 1943 (The National Archives, United Kingdom)

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 supporting resistance deep behind enemy lines, and Churchill, a lifelong fan of espionage, remained closely involved throughout.

The unique collection of recruits, who ran the gamut from Oxbridge grads to thieves, operated in most of the countries of occupied Europe and beyond. The most famous was Bletchley Park, where members were trained in the skills necessary to become secret agents. Although small in number, SOE has obtained legendary status as a result of sabotage, subversion, and other irregular means to weaken Nazi Germany and its allies.

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. They not only influenced the war, but SOE’s legacy also shaped the peace in surprising— and sometimes dramatic—ways.

Cormac is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham and a Leverhulme international academic fellow at Johns Hopkins University.

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