Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Inside the Allies' World War II Secret Operations Handbook

Imagine yourself about to be parachuted into one of the Axis-held countries across Europe, Africa, or Asia in the years between 1939 and 1945. An enormous amount of detailed and intensive training has gone into this mission. You have a cover story, a disguise complete with authentic clothes labels, and hidden weapons. Any little slip might give you away—even one as minor as reacting to approaching traffic by looking in the wrong direction. And that would mean interrogation, torture, and possibly death. Such were the odds bravely faced by the men and women of the Allied special forces. Many of the classic survival techniques and skills they used to get in, get the job done, and get out are presented in World War II Secret Operations Handbook: S.O.E., O.S.S. & Maquis Guide to Sabotaging the Nazi War Machine. (SOE refers to the British Special Operations Executive, OSS to the American Office of Strategic Services, and Maquis to the French resistance.) Here are a few illustrations from the book to give you an idea what these clandestine fighters had to assimilate.
This collage depicts several strategies and tools operators used. The top image shows a ploy by an agent to avoid interrogation (coughing and spitting might indicate tuberculosis, which the officer would want to stay away from). The middle row shows a portable radio and the process of forging false documents, while the bottom row shows knife and coin-holder insoles.
At the top is the SOE's "Welman Midget," a one-person submarine. The middle row shows tracks being disguised and a flare pistol (used to aid aircrafts in landing), while the bottom row depicts escaping the scene of an action via a local farm vehicle.
The World War II Secret Operations Handbook profiles several actual operatives as well as missions. In 1942, the aptly named British spy Denis Rake, who grew up in Belgium, convinced a German officer in Paris (with whom he had an affair) that he was a Belgian cabaret artist looking for work and appeared in drag in several nightclubs.
The "Jedburg" mission (left) by Team "Giles" was famously effective. In early July of 1944, American captain Knox, French Captain Lebel, and British wireless operator Sergeant Tack parachuted into the Finistère region of Brittany with the goal of organizing several thousand resistance fighters to carry out guerrilla warfare. They gathered useful intelligence and conducted numerous ambushes of German forces moving east toward the Normandy front line, thus contributing directly to the success of the Allies' Normandy campaign.
Members of the French Maquis at Haute Savoie
Further reading: From the History Press, Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War (13 specific operations of the OSS and SOE).
Further viewing: Former OSS agent Alan Holiday (Leslie Nielsen) is caught in a web of murder and deceit in the quirky British B film Night Train to Paris, a swinging '60s spy caper complete with a bevy of models. 


  1. Does the Handbook discuss the legendary Jean Moulin, leader of the Resistance, who was captured and beaten to death by Klaus Barbie? "Il savait tout", the French say of him. But he revealed nothing, despite torture that killed him.

  2. Any little slip might give you away—

    From an article I wrote in 2005, about Nazi spies in New England heading for NYC:

    “Stopping [in Portland, Maine] for a bite to eat, Gimpel stammered when a short-order cook asked him what kind of bread he preferred with his ham and eggs. To him, bread was bread, and ‘the fact that in America people ate five different kinds’ was surprising, he wrote.

    "The spies boarded a train to Boston at 7 a.m. That afternoon, Gimpel went into a store in town to buy a tie, and the salesman recognized the cloth and cut of his trench coat as not being American. ‘As a matter of fact,’ Gimpel managed to reply, ‘I bought it in Spain.’ He decided never to wear that coat again.”

    1. Great article, RPS.
      Whose idea was it to call the infiltration Operation Magpie?
      Weren't Heckle and Jeckle magpies?

  3. You can read here more articles about spies and their gadgets