On July 19, 1940, the branch of the British military that was devoted to clandestine operations, espionage and sabotage that was necessary to fight the Axis powers in World War II established the British Special Operations Executive or SOE for short. Agents of the SOE were important in executing a wide variety of spy activity against the enemy including destruction of bridges and other important German military infrastructure and directing the destruction of factories and military installations needed to support the war for the Germans.
SOE agents also trained local resistance cells in how to conduct sabotage and clandestine operations against the occupying Nazi military.
Special Operations Executive agents worked almost entirely behind enemy lines in virtually every country that was involved in World War II. Evidence of their work was noticeable in virtually every country on the globe where the war touched including Denmark, Albania, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Turkey, Burma, Poland, China, Romania, Norway, Belgium, Hungary, and Thailand.
The primary mission of the British Special Operations Executive was to create distractions and diversions to draw German, Italian and Japanese military forces away from the primary areas of battle focus that the Allied were seeking to make headway against the enemy. This primary mission was subdivided into three divisions of the SOE each with a focus mission. SO1 developed sophisticated propaganda facilities to create confusion in intelligence and to affect public opinion as well as to damage the morale of enemy troops. SO2 focused on current active operations in the many countries that SOE had infiltrated whereas SO3 actively planned on new missions of espionage and sabotage that current and future SOE agents could execute against the Axis powers.
The success of the many resistance movements against the military units of Axis powers who were in occupation was due at least in part to the financing, encouragement, supplying and direction that SOE was able to provide to these movements. It is estimated that in total SOE employed 470 secret service agents in World War II, over 100 of which died in the course of performing their duties. In most cases, SOE agents parachuted into occupied territory to establish communications with local resistance movements and set up a command structure that would enable Great Britain to use to coordinate with local insurgents to strike out at the occupying Nazi armies.
SOE were experts in every skill necessary to both carry out and to train local resistance fighters in close combat fighting, bomb construction and the use of high explosives for sabotage, survival training and other needed skills. Some SOE agents were actually recruited from the criminal ranks to use their specialized skills to benefit the war effort. SOE coordinated attacks were so disruptive against Nazi installations that enemy forces had to be diverted from forward positions in order to guard storage depots, factories, prison camps, railways as well as bridges and military bases that were targets of SOE attacks without warning.
The full impact that SOE agents had in damaging the Nazi war effort is impossible to fully estimate. Because SOE agents were highly efficient clandestine agents, much of what they accomplished was never recorded or reported. But the disarray that the SOE caused to the enemy was noticeable and their ability to distract and sabotage the enemy gave the Allied powers the upper hand in many military encounters. That extra advantage is one of many reasons that it was the Allied powers that eventually proved victorious in World War II.