The SOE had a big section devoted to forgery. Its staff, some of them recruited directly from prison cells, produced over a quarter of a million fake documents. Most of these were individually produced for specific agents. They ranged from passports and ID cards to Travel Passes, Work Permits and currency.
One of the biggest operations by the Forgery section involved the creation of 300,000 fake ration cards. These cards were issued to German soldiers when they returned home on leave. They enabled them to get food in their home towns and cities. In April 1943, the RAF dropped the counterfeit cards over several German cities. After years of food restrictions, the temptation to pick up a ration card lying in the street and use it to get a bit more to eat would have been strong. Enough people used, or attempted to use, the fake cards for the confusion they caused to be reported in German newspapers.
Cigarettes can be harmful to health
In an era when most of the population were smokers, cigarettes provided an unobtrusive way to carry flammable material around. Over the course of the war, SOE produced over 43,000 ‘special’ cigarettes for use by agents.
These were not all the same. Great care was taken to use the correct paper and even tobacco for the country where the agent was operating. There were two types of cigarette. Some contained incendiary materials, so lighting a cigarette and then dropping it onto something flammable could start a significant fire. Others contained a small explosive charge. This could be used to create a distraction or, for example, to blow open a locked door.
It was, of course, essential for the agents’ health that they remembered which cigarettes in their holder or packet were real, and which had a more dramatic purpose.
The need to scratch
One of the SOE’s official objectives was to undermine the moral of the enemy forces. To achieve this they sometimes resorted to very primitive forms of chemical and biological warfare.
The powdered seeds of the Mucuna plant have another name – itching powder. From 1941 this was sent to resistance groups to be added whenever possible to the uniforms and bedding of German forces. It worked. About 25,000 U-boat uniforms were treated and at least one crew returned to port under the impression that they all had severe dermatitis.
The Norwegian resistance went further. They managed to add the powder to the inside of condoms which were due to be used by occupying troops. Numerous hospital visits to treat painfully irritated private parts followed. The Norwegians even raised some funds. They sold condoms with added itch to local brothels, and made a healthy profit.
Who hasn’t washed?
Smells were also used to good effect. The SOE chemists developed the S-Capsule. This contained a particularly unpleasant blend of fatty acids. The effect was to replicate very powerful body odors. The capsules were usually released in confined spaces such as crowded bars. As a minimum the bar would rapidly lose all of its customers. If conversation along the lines of ‘Well it’s definitely not me …’ escalated, the capsules could set off a brawl between troops.
Sometimes fluid from an S-capsule was squirted directly onto the uniforms of senior Nazis. The German Foreign minister had the embarrassment of hurriedly leaving a formal diplomatic reception in Turkey when his coat suddenly became extremely smelly.
There is anecdotal evidence that laxatives were also sometimes used. The wine served to the Italian High Command on the eve of a major battle was allegedly laced with the purgative phenolphthalein. The following day the generals were far too busy in the bathroom to focus on the battle. They lost.
Hindering transport was a major objective of the SOE. This was often done by replacing the lubricant in wheel bearings with an abrasive powder. After a few miles of travelling the wheel would seize up.
This tactic had a significant impact soon after the allied invasion of France on D-Day. The Second Panzer Division was in the south of France and they were immediately ordered to Normandy. The tanks were loaded onto rail wagons and the trains headed north. After less than 65 miles everything ground to a halt with overheated and seized bearings.
A SOE group, which included two French schoolgirls, had sabotaged each of the tank carrying wagons; replacing the oil in the bearings. The tanks had to be unloaded and travel many miles by road. All along the route the French Resistance did everything they could to slow their progress. The division did not reach Normandy until 17 days after the first landings. Any chance of quick retaliation had gone.
While tanks and armoured vehicles needed a big explosion to be disabled, other road vehicles were much more vulnerable. A wrecked staff car could still do a good job at blocking a road. The SEO designed a tire burster. It contained a small amount of plastic explosive and a pressure sensitive detonator. The whole device was less than 2 inches in diameter.
Then it was down to the camouflage section to disguise these ‘mini-mines’. Many of the people working here had previously worked in the film and theatre industries; so they had plenty of experience of making the fake look real.
Animal droppings were the preferred disguise, as they could be left lying on a road without causing suspicion. To keep things realistic, horse droppings were made for use in northern Europe, mule dung for Italy and camel poop for North Africa. To ensure accuracy, samples of the real thing were obtained from London Zoo and then reproduced in plastic. The poop was then carefully painted to look authentic.