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Forces War Records Blog

SPECIAL OPERATIONS EXECUTIVE RECORDS - SABOTAGE & ESPIONAGE

Blogger: GemSen I’ve written a couple of blogs recently involving the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Britain’s spy heroes, including Cold War spy-catcher, Ferguson Smith, who died last month at the age of 98. Also picking up on this interesting subject area,  the Imperial War Museum in London is currently revealing the sort of gadgets that were invented to help Britain's spies and agents do their jobs. The men and women of the Special Operatives Executive (SOE) used gizmos and gadgets to help them spy on the enemy — filtering back information to base, constantly in danger of losing their lives. They might seem very 007 but these sort of gadgets were dreamt up a while before the James Bond films made them famous.
 
During the Second World War there were many people in the occupied lands who were prepared to resist the Germans and the job of the SOE was to locate people who could resist the Germans and also send agents in to help the resistance movements. Officially formed on 22 July 1940, The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British World War II organisation set up to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements. Not many people knew about the SOE’s existence and to those who were part of it or liaised with it — it was known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” and was sometimes referred to as “the Baker Street Irregulars”, after the location of its London headquarters. SOE operated in all countries or former countries occupied by or attacked by the Axis forces, except the Soviet Union and the United States. The organisation directly employed just over 13,000 people. After the war, the organisation was officially dissolved on 15 January 1946. Ingenious gadgets… Below is a description of some of the ingenious gadgets available to SOE agents that were used to great effect during the war on display at the Imperial War Museum called 'The Horrible Histories: Spies which runs until January 2015. Biscuit Tin Radio In order to pass on vital but messages - communication between agents had to be seamless and secret. There were various ways that spies used to keep in touch in different situations and environments, depending on what happened to be available to them. Two-pound Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins were used to conceal radios and make them inconspicuous - they were sent to agents active in the resistance in France in 1944 by way of parachute. “The SOE had a team dedicated to making radios and other gear look like everyday objects. The more ways you had to communicate, the more ways you had to get your message out,” Amanda Mason, creator of the exhibition told the Mirror. Pipe pistol You can probably guess that this was a gun disguised as a pipe – it could be used to smoke tobacco even when loaded. The pipe fired .22 calibre bullets through its stem with the idea was to send them to Britain’s Home Guard to “deal with” any enemy paratroopers. Amanda said: “Unfortunately this one is a prototype and it was never taken into service.” Spike letterbox Used by resistance agents throughout occupied Europe - messages would be rolled up inside the spike and the spike put back into a fence, where it would go unnoticed except for those who knew it was there. Bicycle charger The Resistance attached bikes to generators and powered up their radio sets by pedalling. Rodent bombs These do what they say on the tin (or rat, in this case) – and were simply dead rats filled with explosives. British spies planned to plant them in factories behind enemy lines with the vision that workers would throw them on the fire and they would explode. Apparently, it never worked as planned because: “The Germans discovered a consignment of dead rats, so it didn’t work,” Amanda said. But once this became common knowledge in Germany people became so wary of dead rats that they left them to rot — which spread disease. Overshoes Devised for raiding parties in the Far East, these rubber soles would slip over SOE agents’ military boots to leave prints in the sand and disguise their treads to make the enemy think the footprints were those of barefooted locals. Heavy boot prints would have been an instant giveaway. Amanda says: “But like a lot of special inventions that were made, we don’t know how many of them were actually used and tried out in the field. Some never made it.” Washing line messages The IWM exhibition includes a washing line with clothes on it – a handkerchief, eiderdown, lace and a pair of pants - the resistance would use clothes on washing lines to convey secret messages. Counterfeit documents SOE agents had to blend into their surroundings and they had to use people with backgrounds which matched the countries where they were stationed. False identities would be backed up by fake documents which could stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny. Amanda says: “The SOE had a whole team of specialist forgers making fake papers. Source: Mirror Want to find out more about your ancestors and their roles during war? Why not log on to Forces War Records and search our vast collection of records and start your family history research… Delve into our ‘historic documents’ library and read some of the interesting war diaries that we get sent – there’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there.
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