In July 1940 many countries in mainland Europe were occupied by Nazi forces. Britain was expecting to be invaded within months. Against this background, Winston Churchill authorised the formation of a new secret service. It was called the ‘Special Operations Executive’ or SOE for short. The aim of the SOE was to make life as difficult as possible for invading and occupying forces. They did this through a network of their own agents and by establishing links with existing resistance operations.
The SOE got the nickname ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Conduct’ on account of their unconventional and sometimes underhand methods, techniques and equipment. They did not play by the rules.
A diverse group of scientists, engineers and craftsmen worked for the SOE. Their job was to devise equipment to help disrupt the enemy forces at every opportunity. Much of this equipment was fairly conventional – basically variations on guns and bombs. However, they also did some impressive lateral thinking and came up with plenty of novel ideas.
A young man called Ian Fleming, who worked for British Naval Intelligence, encountered some of the SOE’s more exotic inventions and devices in the course of his job. Then, in the 1950s, he started to write books about a spy called James Bond. Q-Branch, the department which supplies Bond with his gadgets, was directly inspired by the SOE’s inventors.
Imagine you are a fireman on a steam train. The train’s job is to transport troops, or maybe arms. Your job is simple, just keep shovelling coal into the firebox to keep the train moving. Then you spot something. Lying on the coal is a dead rat. There is a simple way to get rid of that. The next load into the fire contains both coal and the unfortunate rat. Then you carry on shovelling. A little while later the firebox explodes.
The SOE created a hundred exploding rats. One of the staff obtained the dead rodents by posing as a student carrying out research. The rats’ insides were then replaced with plastic explosive and a heat sensitive detonator. The idea was that after being dropped onto piles of coal at rail depots and power stations, they would finish up exploding inside furnaces.
In reality, the first batch of exploding rats was captured by the Germans before they could be used. This had a surprising effect. Worried that there might be thousands of potentially lethal dead rats all across Europe, the Nazis expended a huge amount of time and effort looking for them, with transport often delayed. The SOE declared the operation a success, if in a slightly unplanned way.
The Ultimate Permanent Marker
Resistance to occupation was not all about de-railing trains and blowing up ammunition dumps. Sometimes it was a case of just getting a message across. Often the message was in the form of graffiti; an anti-Nazi slogan painted on a wall or shop window. The problem was that standard paint was fairly easy to remove, so the graffiti might only be on display for a few hours.
Working with ICI, one of the UK’s biggest chemical companies, the SOE came up with a cream that looked innocuous and could pass as face cream or toothpaste in a search. They even gave it an authentic cosmetic style smell. However, when smeared on to a piece of glass the cream did not just sit on the surface of the glass, it etched into it. When the occupying force washed the cream off, they found the message they were trying to remove was permanently on display. The only solution was to completely replace the window or windscreen.
Things went slightly wrong in 1943 when a batch of this special cream was sent to SOE agents in North Africa. It was packaged to look like tubes of toothpaste. Unfortunately the instructions on how to use it did not arrive. So, thinking they were being sent some difficult to get toiletries, some of the agents quickly applied it to their toothbrushes. This resulted in some very sore mouths and nicely etched teeth!
Radios in Disguise
The image of the French Resistance lifting floorboards to reveal a secret radio receiver is familiar from many films and TV shows. Although only able to receive signals, these radios were a vital way to give the resistance coded information and instructions.
Early in the war the radios were cumbersome, fragile and difficult to hide. To improve things, the SOE produced the ‘Miniature Communications Receiver Mk1’ (MCR1). From late 1943 onwards, up to 500 of these receivers were sent out each week to agents in both Europe and the Far East.
The word miniature means different things at different times, and by today’s standards the radio was quite big. It measured 8 inches by 3.5 inches and was two inches thick – about the size of a large paperback book. However, at a time when most home radios took up as much space as a microwave oven and the transistor did not exist, the MCR1 was impressively small.
The radio was housed in a tin which usually contained biscuits (cookies). This allowed it to be kept in a living room or kitchen without arousing suspicion. The British biscuit company Huntley and Palmer must have wondered why they had to send quite so many empty tins to the Ministry of Defence. The container gave the French the idea for their nickname; the MCR1 became ‘le receptuer biscuit’.
To help cope with the demands of operating behind enemy lines, SOE agents were issued with a range of different drugs. Some were for their own use and some for use on the enemy.
Letters of the alphabet identified the different drugs. The ‘A’ tablet was the most innocuous, an air-sickness pill. If you have just parachuted into an enemy area the last thing you want to be doing is throwing up. Then, when you were in the middle of a long mission and needed to keep alert for longer, or get a burst of energy, you took a ‘B’ tablet. This was an amphetamine, Benzedrine.
During operations, agents might use an ‘E’ capsule. This was a fast acting anaesthetic, which knocked a person out for a minute or two. If you needed someone to be out of action for longer you dissolved a ‘K’ tablet in their drink. Morphine based, one tablet would put an average sized man to sleep for four hours. But agents had to be careful which drink they were lacing, as ‘K’ tablets had a bitter taste when added to tea.
The item no agent wanted to use was the ‘L’ tablet – a lethal cyanide suicide pill.
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