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The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a secret British organization created early in the Second World War to encourage resistance and carry out sabotage behind enemy lines—or, as Winston Churchill famously challenged its first head, to “set Europe ablaze.” SOE, also known as “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, operated in most of the countries of occupied Europe. By mid-1944 it was 13,000 men and women strong.
Recruits were trained to become secret agents, deploying an undercover arsenal that ranged from single-shot cigarette pistols to booby-trap bombs camouflaged as camel dung. False documents and identities, props such as tree trunks that hid radio equipment, and fashions cut in the Continental style created by the agency’s own wardrobe unit enhanced the deceptions.
Agents carried out scores of clandestine operations small and large behind enemy lines, including killing one of Himmler’s deputies and blowing up strategic rail bridges, water plants, and power stations. On D-Day, SOE operatives crippled the German’s 2nd SS Panzer Division when they siphoned off all the axle oil from the division's rail transport cars and replaced it with abrasive grease.
Although relatively small in number, SOE agents had a considerable impact on the outcome of the war. The organization was disbanded in January 1946, having done much to sustain morale in occupied Europe and to disrupt Germany’s ability to fight.
Historian Harry Butowsky tells the SOE’s story of courage, sabotage, and subversion. Butowsky is a retired historian for the National Park Service and lecturer at George Mason University.
Watch a BBC History digital short about the SOE.
Learn about the countryside impacted by World War II on the cruise of Eurpean Coastal Civilizations.
Visit the Smithsonian Journeys page to see more
trips to Europe.