Learning about Britain’s Special Operations Executive
One of the obstacles you encounter as a novelist is having lots of great ideas for a storyline but realising you know very little indeed about certain subject matters that you’ve already decided are integral to the story. And you can’t fudge it – not with mainstream fiction…and especially not with anything historical. You will be found out. There is always someone who knows more, or knows better. I like to do a lot of reference book reading before I begin writing. I trust the material that is presented by scholars and by published non-fiction authors because they too will have gone through rigorous checks. Even so, one historian’s estimation of how many Jews perished on Hitler’s demonic orders and another historian’s belief about the same can differ and so getting information accurate does depend on the source.
A major hurdle for me was that once I’d decided I wanted to follow the fortunes of an Allied spy for one of my lead characters I couldn’t let the idea go but I knew absolutely nothing about being a spy, how spies were recruited, trained, how they set up the structure of their clandestine lives, how the fear felt, how they coped emotionally with the constant stress of being found out, how they set aside the threat that death stalked them at every corner.
How did they learn their backgrounds, how did they learn how to move through different landscapes…honestly I had so many questions and each additional question seemed to open up an abyss of new ones.
There are books, of course – and I read several of them relating to agents. They were all heroic, poignant and heartbreaking in their own way as so many fine, brave people were lost with their families and friends not even knowing they were spies. The Net is a wonderful tool but most writers grasp that it’s all in the little detail that makes a novel come alive and it was that amazing minutiae – usually the more emotional stuff – that I simply could not get from a reference page.
I wanted to talk to a spy … but spies are hard to run across! Besides, any still living would be extremely elderly and I was loath to hassle.
And then I found David Harrison. Ah, David…that was a good day when I stumbled across you out there in the ether. David is an historian but with a particular interest and hobby in the Special Operations Executive – a group of men and women who operated Britain’s clandestine activities in Europe as part of the War Ministry in London during WWll. His knowledge of the life of a spy was astonishing and almost any questions I asked, from what sort of food would they eat at such and such to how would my character have logically made a journey from here to here, he just knew! He also knew a whole pile more and our email conversations raged day and night between the Huon Valley in Tasmania where I was writing to Lytham St Anne’s in northern England for many months as I put together my chapters that involved getting a British-based spy ready for active duty in France.
David remained patient with me and constantly found new ways to grab my attention from sending me wonderful old clippings from previously secret files to DVDs featuring master spies like a man known simply as Roger.
Roger – in real life was Francis Cammaerts – a tall, dashing Brit with a Belgian father so he spoke fluent French, went to Cambridge, was a conscientious objector but was ultimately persuaded to join the spy network. He is one of the best known, certainly one of the most successful organisers of the resistance network in Occupied France and particularly via his brilliant Jockey circuit that constantly sabotaged German communications. He was a handsome fellow, admired by French patriots who didn’t want to toe the line with Berlin, and never stayed longer than a couple of nights in any spot during the war…such was his concern for security of the people who helped him.
Cammaerts was a teacher and a fine example of how so many of Britain’s most talented spies were recruited from everyday people with everyday jobs. This is what interested me the most and I wanted my spy to be the most down to earth person, who shunned attention and was perhaps the least likely individual that one might pick as a spy. David helped me enormously to build this character’s training from the day of recruitment.
More than anything, I needed to understand how the secretive Special Operations Executive actually functioned and David was a wealth of information with this; most particularly with helping me to breathe life into some of its well known personnel including Buckmaster, its chief; Vera Atkins, his formidable assistant, and head recruiter, Jepson.
It was David who taught me about interview rooms in hotels to how to set up a dead letter drop in France. So many agents died…often given up by collaborators and a surprising number of them were women. These women were so incredibly brave, often facing torture of the most ruthless kind before being killed…and these were teachers, nurses, everyday folk taking on an heroic task to help keep their country safe.
Without David’s knowledge, that he passed on so willingly and enthusiastically, I would never have learned about places like Wanborough Manor where a lot of training was undertaken from learning how to read maps and code to how well they performed under intoxication. I learned from David that it was at Wanborough that the staff would decline around 30% of potential spies from going forward with their training.
Each day at Wanborough began with a cross country run to maintain fitness. A lot of these people had to live rough and were constantly on the move so having strong, healthy, fit bodies was paramount.
Familiarity with France and especially the language was a prerequisite for all trainees, so recruits came from Canada to Mauritius but of course there were plenty of Brits with a French ancestry, which is how I set up my character. Ages ranged from 18 can you believe to 40 years. Most were men but over the course of the war there were 50 female agents who operated in France. Many died as I mentioned earlier.
Waiting staff, barristers, bankers, journalists, a bus driver, ice cream maker, racing driver, chef, taxi driver, fashion designer, actor, boxers, even a coupe of acrobats made it through the full training to become agents. Amazing, eh? Plenty, of course, came from the armed forces.
Sometimes we’d chat about the cricket, grandchildren, weather but mostly our notes were short and sweet, although David would almost always have an interesting attachment to add to his that would entice me to delve further. Here’s a typical note I’d send: David, when agents were repatriated from France was it done so by air or ship.
And his reply: Usually by air. Le Bourget to Hendon was a common route.
I might send David ten of those a day, of course! And he was always back through the night with terrific answers, always precisely what I needed.
So it was through this wonderful correspondence that I learned how to build a life around my character, recruited as an agent and sent to France, and even though mine is a fictional character, I was able to imbue those passages with truth because I had such a reliable and trustworthy source of information.
SOE was incredibly secretive as you can imagine. So much of its records were destroyed deliberately or lost in fires and moves. However, its people were brave and committed. If you’d like to find out more, I’m sure David would be glad to hear from readers or anyone interested in F-Section…as it was known.
I’d like to thank David here for his enthusiastic and unrelenting assistance even to as recent as last night when I sent a quick email along the lines of: ‘you haven’t got any good images I can use for my blog, have you?’ And of course, by the time I woke up, there were about 17 waiting for me in my inbox, all captioned, all cleared for use. Typical David! His page contains a list of all the 425 agents of the SOE French Section who operated in enemy-occupied France in WW2. For anyone wishing to find out more about individual agents or their circuits – contact www.soe-french.co.uk