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Behind the fighting lines

Memories of an SOE Historian, by M. R. D. Foot

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

Memories of an SOE Historian M. R. D. Foot

Pen & Sword, pp.208, 19.99

M. R. D. Foot confesses that he has always endeavoured to follow Whistler’s counsel, ‘Not a day without a line’. His written output is impressive and his judgments severe on those who do not come up to his standards. Heinz Koeppler, his boss at a Foreign Office study centre, with his fawning on his superiors and bullying of his staff, turned out not to be a gentleman.

Foot makes clear in his first chapter that he himself comes of gentleman stock and is proud of it. True, his father married a Gaiety Theatre chorus girl; but his grandfather had married an heiress, retired as a general from the army to set up as a country gentleman. Often staying in his grandfather’s house, Foot would hear discussions over the port about whether shooting a fox was a greater social sin than wearing a made up white tie.

In spite of his upbringing Foot did not become a country gentleman, lacking the money to sustain the status that such a position demanded. He was later to write, ‘England in the late 1930s and early 1940s was run almost entirely by an educated governing class drawn from the public schools’. Such a school was Winchester. As a colleger, all expenses paid, Foot became a prospective member of the governing class. But a single-sex residential school with a cult of male nudity did no good to his private life. It left him ignorant of the basic facts of sexual intercourse, which he gleaned, he confesses, as late as 1939, from a left book club manual. It was in this state that he fell in love with Iris Murdoch. Scarcely surprisingly, their affair did not flourish and she ditched him. One of her later lovers complained in print that she was no good in bed. To Foot this was not the act of a gentleman, though he himself, in this book, repeats the complaint.

But for the outbreak of the second world war Foot would have pursued his studies for a BA at New College, Winchester’s sister institution at Oxford. Instead he served as a soldier for six years, ending up as an intelligence officer in the Special Air Service. Desk work did not satisfy his desire to fight. After D-Day, he insisted on being dropped in Brittany. In order to escape German search patrols he sought refuge on a farm, only to have his neck broken and his skull cracked by the farmer and his sons armed with pitchforks. So much for the notion that all French peasants welcomed the British invaders as liberators. After all, it was the locals who were executed when the SOE blew up a train or torched a factory. Foot comes out of the episode a brave and grimly determined warrior.

In August 1945 Foot could resume his studies at New College, where he held a history scholarship. He chose to take a BA in Modern Greats, i.e. philosophy, political science and history. This surely was a mistake. His tutor, Herbert Hart, told him: ‘Foot, you have not got the philosophical mind’. He could have become a successful historian. Failing to get a first-class honours degree, his reaction was typical of the man; he collected notes on the careers of eminent persons who had got second-class degrees. In 1937, after listening at Winchester to a lecture by Field Marshal Wavell, he ‘became fascinated by the concept that a deft stroke or two far behind the fighting lines can affect the course of a battle or even of a war’. By the late 1970s he had acquired a reputation as an authority on clandestine warfare.

When German troops occupied France and Britain was driven out of Europe at Dunkirk, in great haste in July 1940 a new secret organisation was cobbled togther — the Special Operations Executive — to deliver a few deft strokes behind fighting lines. Its agents would be dropped by parachute in enemy-occupied territory to supply any local resistance groups with arms and wireless sets to receive instructions from London. It would, in Churchill’s famous phrase, set Europe ablaze, killing as many Germans as possible and engaging in sabotage. Foot was selected as the official historian of SOE. As the title of the present book makes clear, this, he considered, would be his major contribution to the history of the second world war. The story of the French SOE operations came out in 1966 and was a bestseller; that of their operations in the Low Countries, published in 2001, was a flop.

Every secret service is bedevilled with turf wars and personal animosities. SOE and SIS ‘behaved like an ex-couple in a savagely hostile divorce case’. Their respective heads loathed one another. These rivalries did not prevent the London Controlling Service, by its deception operations, from leading the German General Staff into making gross miscalculations as to the place and time of the Allied invasions of Europe; the work of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park ‘was a world-shaking intelligence coup that allowed the Allied High Command to see right into the mind of Hitler’.

These two contributions were, so to speak, on the credit side of the balance sheet of victory in 1945. The contribution of the SOE was, from the outset, a matter of controversy, as it still is for some ‘mere sensation mongers’. The early operations of SOE, particularly in the Low Countries, were a catalogue of avoidable disasters; but later, Foot argues, ‘the triumphs far outweighed the disasters’. Most historians would now accept this balance. To Foot the heroism of SOE agents, constantly facing exposure, capture, torture and death, was as admirable as bravery on the battlefield.

His chapter on the world of the wartime secret services is illuminating and important, if densely written. His articles in The Spectator are a model of clarity, but his accounts of his private life, his three marriages and his consequent house-hunting are not always compelling reading. Confessional memoirs flood the book market. Unfortunately we don’t all have the talents of St Augustine.

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