I found this on Sunday when I was walking along the Albert Embankment in Lambeth. I’d been offered a lift as far as Lambeth North, having crashed in Twickenham, and figured I’d stroll into the city. London on a Sunday morning is an entirely different city to London on a weekday or even on a Saturday. Places like Soho and Trafalgar Square are rarely so quiet.
The bust, as you can tell from the inscription, commemorates the Special Operations Executive, who were well-known Second World War badasses. Actually, Yr. Humble Chronicler’s own great-grandmama applied to join them, according to some letters recently unearthed. Unfortunately it doesn’t state what position she went for. It was probably something administrative, but all I’m saying is there’s no evidence it didn’t involve hanging off the undercarriage of German bombers with a stick of dynamite held between her teeth.
The SOE were a kind of early black ops organisation. Prime Minister Winston Churchill created them with the order to “set Europe ablaze”. History does not record whether anyone said, “What, literally?” The SOE’s brief was to commit acts of sabotage, assist resistance movements and generally be unsporting – indeed, one of its nicknames was “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.
There was a certain amount of friction between the SOE, the regular armed forces and the other secret services, in part because the SOE’s job was to go around causing trouble, while other secret services relied on discretion. In fact, had they been on the losing side, the SOE would undoubtedly be regarded as a terrorist organisation. Apparently, though, official policy was “no bangs without Foreign Office permission.” A rule John Profumo would have done well to remember.
Agents could be male or female, gay or straight. They could even be convicted criminals. Even British nationality wasn’t a requirement – a lot of the agents were recruited from countries that had been taken over by Hitler’s armies, seeing the SOE as a means of striking back at the enemy.
As you might imagine, the SOE has been pretty inspiring over the years, and not just to terrorists. The film Carve Her Name With Pride was based on the exploits of SOE agent Violet Szabo. Where Eagles Dare, Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone were all either heavily inspired by or based on SOE operations. Even the greatest fictional spy of them all owes something to them – Ian Fleming based his characters on a number of agents. Vesper Lynd of Casino Royale was apparently directly inspired by agent Christina Granville (real name Krystyna Skarbek). Appropriately enough, one of the names being put forward for the role of Skarbek in an upcoming biopic is Eva Green.
Undoubtedly stirring stuff. However you feel
about the activities of the Special Operations Executive, their bravery and their contribution to the Allied victory are hard to deny. So I feel a bit churlish pointing out an error on the memorial, but I’m too pedantic to let it go. “In the pages of history their names will be carved with pride”? Are you talking about carving their name into paper? Am I missing something?
So anyway. If you want to know more about the SOE, I recommend the Imperial War Museum’s Secret War exhibit. Also the Blitz Experience, not that it has anything to do with the SOE, but it’s kinda fun.