- A Brief history
Qn the 16th. July, 1940, Winston Churchill invited Dr. Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, to take charge of the Special Operations Executive, as a new and overall organisation for sabotage and subversion. The body came into being as the result of a meeting in the Foreign Secretary's office on July 1st., with a decision being reached that day for the appointment of 'a controller armed with almost dictatorial powers'.

Confirmed at a War Cabinet meeting on July 22nd., S.O.E. duly incorporated Section D, MI(R) and Department Electra House and for this new role Dalton acquired the additional but secret title of Minister of Special Operations. Dalton selected Gladwyn Jebb, Private Secretary to the Permanent Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, to be his Assistant Under Secretary, responsible for his contact with S.O.E. whilst Philip Broad, also from the Foreign Office, acquired the title of Counsellor. Now surplus to requirements Campbell Stuart, of Department Electra House, resigned on August 17th. and being Chairman of the Imperial Communications Advisory Committee, thereon devoted himself to this duty.

Reginald Leeper took charge of 'country operations', as the codename for the Woburn activities, at Campbell Stuart's departure with Valentine Williams appointed as his deputy. (He left in late July, 1941, to represent the activities at the New York office of S.O.E. and from November his place was taken by David Bowes Lyon, brother in law of the King.) As for Dalton, whenever absent from the Woburn operations he entrusted his secretary, Hugh Gaitskell, to oversee the responsibilities and when Gaitskell's London quarters were almost bombed out, he acquired the tenancy of No. 6, Leighton Street, Woburn.

Relations with the existing secret services, MI5 and MI6, were initially strained, especially since MI6 pursued a preferred policy of discretion, in methods of covert espionage, neither wanting to alert nor outwardly 'upset' the enemy. In contrast, S.O.E., by it's very nature employed a bang, crash, wallop approach and set up many training schools to prepare the potential agents. Since many of these were accommodated in remote country mansions, the initials S.O.E. would sometimes be said to stand for 'Stately 'Omes of England'!

Tasked with the propaganda aspects of the curriculum, at the Beaulieu Training School, at the disbandment of Section D Kim Philby, of later notoriety, had been taken on by S.O.E. and no doubt trying to influence their views, would therefore often visit the propagandists at Woburn, by his position as an instructor.

On selection, an S.O.E. candidate would usually be sent on a basic two or three week introductory course, for instruction in physical fitness, map reading and weapons training and if successful he then passed to a Group A school in the wilds of Scotland. There he became versed in more advanced techniques, before progressing to a Group B school in the South of England. With this complete he then began more specialist courses. In the early months of the war the capabilities of S.O.E. were greatly hampered by having to rely on MI6 for not only the supply of counterfeit documents but also wireless communication with agents. However, in 1942 S.O.E. was allowed to build their own radio equipment and set up their own communications network and -locally - two of the associated centres would respectively be established at Poundon and Grendon Underwood.

Eventually S.O.E. would expand to conduct operations in most parts of the world and the London headquarters, from November, 1940, were situated at 64, Baker Street, London although this accommodation was greatly increased as the war progressed.

In April, 1942, Sir Charles Hambro, of the banking firm, was appointed as the executive head of S.O.E. but after a quarrel with his political superior he was then replaced by his deputy, Major General Colin Gubbins, who at the creation of S.O.E., from a previous position in MI(R) became head of operations in SO2. Gubbins then remained as head of S.O.E. until the disbanding of the organisation on June 30th., 1946.

Back to top