Andro Linklater

Inspirational individuals

Andro Linklater on Roderick Bailey's history of special operations during the Second World War

My 85-year-old neighbour bows to passing magpies, casts spells, and gleefully claims to be ‘a mad old bat’. Eccentric you might say. But she also speaks Mandarin Chinese and sports on her desk a photograph of herself in 1945 carrying a rifle on a hillside above Kunming in southern China where she helped SOE run one of the most successful blackmarket operations of the second world war. So it would be truer to say that she has never cared much for being one of the crowd. Egregious is really the word.

Reading this oral history of the Special Operations Executive, it is clear that being egregious was the one quality that everyone who served in SOE had to possess. Almost all other forms of warfare involved merging individuality into the unit. ‘There was the regimentalness, you know’, one agent remarked of his career as a soldier. ‘I thought it was terrible actually. It’s not my kind of life.’ Brought into being in July 1940 by Churchill’s injunction to ‘set Europe ablaze’, SOE provided a means of fighting singly, as a saboteur, a resistant, a terrorist. It’s why these stories, though they have been told in scores of other books, remain utterly compelling. This is what it is like to be solitary, expelled from society’s comforts and conventions to live in a hostile world.

Whatever other qualities SOE looked for — ‘We were to be gangsters’ one male recruit suggested, ‘but with the behaviour, if possible, of gentlemen’ — the basic requirement was the ability to react individually. A classic SOE test for recruits was to crawl across ropes suspended between trees at different heights. Crossing on the lower ropes was compulsory, the highest was optional, but that was the one you had to cross to pass the test.

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