The “Hidden Armies” of Britain That Battled the Nazis

Their Backs to the Wall, the Brits Went Guerrilla

In 1940 the United Kingdom faced a disastrous military situation. Waging battle alone, it could not, for the time being, depend on any major ally outside its empire. France had laid down its arms; the Soviet Union favored entente with the Reich; and the United States was hewing to its neutralist line. To be sure, the Battle of Britain, between August and October 1940, had saved the kingdom. The losses inflicted on the Luftwaffe were considerable: 2,300 of its aircraft had been destroyed. Berlin, unable to control air and sea, had to abandon its plans to invade England in autumn 1940, which averted the specter of a British defeat.

But though the war was not lost, nothing guaranteed London’s victory. The choices that presented themselves in 1940 were limited. The British general staff, unable to consider a return to continental Europe—an unrealistic option given its weak ground forces—privileged a strategy of attrition. By attacking within peripheral theaters of operation (North Africa and the Middle East, for example), it hoped to bleed the enemy while capitalizing on its own principal advantages: the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.

That hope was cruelly dashed. Although British troops initially defeated the Italian forces in Cyrenaica, they were badly beaten in Crete (May 1941), and in Libya they came up against General Erwin Rommel, an adversary far tougher than Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.

In that context, subversive warfare was an especially promising option, given that a few pioneers had not waited for London’s injunction to take action, concealing weapons here, creating modest underground newssheets there. In urging the people under the jackboot to revolt, in carrying out multiple sabotage operations in Fortress Europe, and in instigating guerilla movements, Great Britain would produce—there was no doubt about it—the collapse of the Third Reich.

That optimistic assertion rested on solid precedents. The 19th and early 20th centuries had shown that David sometimes prevailed over Goliath, a lesson that Hugh Dalton, minister of economic warfare, thought deeply about.

We have got to organize movements in enemy-occupied territory comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland, to the Chinese Guerillas now operating against Japan, to the Spanish Irregulars who played a notable part in Wellington’s campaign or—one might as well admit it—to the organizations which the Nazis themselves have developed so remarkably in almost every country in the world. This “democratic international” must use many different methods, including industrial and military sabotage, labor agitation and strikes, continuous propaganda, terrorist acts against traitors and German leaders, boycotts and riots.

That analysis juxtaposed four historical referents. It evoked, first, the successes enjoyed by irregular combatants in recent conflicts. During the Napoleonic campaigns (1808–1813), guerillas had inflicted heavy losses on the emperor’s soldiers. An identical scenario played out during the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902) and during the struggle for independence waged by the Irish Republican Army (1919–1921). In the same vein, the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and the battle, begun in 1937, pitting the Kuomintang and the People’s Liberation Army against Japanese troops confirmed that soldiers without uniforms could get the better of regular armies.

World War I had also proven that economics now played a decisive role in the conduct of operations. In 1918 the Allied blockade had precipitated the collapse of the home front and had led Berlin to lay down its arms. Striking at the enemy’s potential for industrial growth would thus bring victory; all the protagonists understood from the outset that industrial capacities would play a decisive role in that total war.

Such, at least, was the projection made in September 1939 by Neville Chamberlain, prime minister at the time. “But what I hope for is not a military victory—I very much doubt the feasibility of that—but a collapse of the German home front. For that, it is necessary to convince the Germans that they cannot win.” The British, still living with the memory of World War I, reactivated the concept of “economic warfare.” In addition to the blockade, they embraced “the air bombing of industrial targets, sabotage, and psychological warfare,” three methods that had been used during the previous conflict.

The sudden collapse of France also suggested that the Germans had relied on a “fifth column” to disrupt the Allied defenses and undermine the popular resistance. British strategists hoped to turn that weapon against its creators.

A part of the Left, finally, succumbed to a form of revolutionary romanticism. In their eyes, the two Russian revolutions of 1917 confirmed that a population under the yoke of oppression was able, sooner or later, to break its chains. Many leaders believed in 1941 that, “if Nazism was evil and maintained itself in power by force, and moreover, if it was also a German phenomenon, then clearly the response of the Europeans must be to reject it.”

“We have on our side not only the anti-Nazi elements in Germany and Austria, not only the Czechs and the Poles, but also the whole of the democratic and liberty-loving in Norway, Denmark, Belgium, France, Holland and Italy,” enumerated Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour Party, in July 1940. “Moreover, in each of these countries except Italy, there will be a nationalist appeal which can be linked with the ideals of democracy and individual liberty. I am convinced that the potentialities of this war from within are really immense.”

On June 13th, 1940, Winston Churchill, the new prime minister, proposed creating an organization designed to wage subversive warfare.

These views, far from being confined to a small circle of dreamers, were validated by fringe elements of the Establishment. Hugh Dalton, a leftist through and through, believed in the revolutionary potential of oppressed peoples. Colin Gubbins, who joined the special services in 1939, took guerilla warfare seriously, having personally witnessed its effectiveness. Appointed aide-de-camp to General Edmund Ironside, head of the expeditionary force to Arkhangelsk, for more than a year he had had a front-row view of the civilian war that, in a Russia in the grip of chaos, set the Whites against the Reds.

At the time, he observed “the potential strength of the resister who was able to choose the terrain, the target and the moment to strike.” Transferred to Ireland between 1919 and 1922, he had fought the Irish Republican Army there and had been struck by the success of the “armed bandits” and their leader, Michael Collins. In 1939 he even wrote a report titled “Investigation of the Possibilities of Guerrilla Activities,” which gave an overview of his thinking.

Finally, Winston Churchill had always shown enthusiasm for unconventional warfare. Ever since his experience in the Boer War, he had had a passion for guerilla tactics and “retained a fascination for novelties, especially of the exploding variety.” As minister of the interior, he had given MI 5, the service responsible for counterespionage, complete latitude in the surveillance of correspondence; as First Lord of the Admiralty, he had spared no efforts to unmask German spies.

In short, the country of Lawrence of Arabia, far from looking down on subversive warfare, took it seriously. In July 1940 Churchill even gave it a decisive push.

*

On June 13th, 1940, Winston Churchill, the new prime minister, proposed creating an organization designed to wage subversive warfare, a suggestion that received the support of his colleagues. Exactly one month later, Lord President of the Council Neville Chamberlain circulated among his peers a preliminary draft that defined its terms: the new organization would “co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas.” That text, adopted on July 19th, gave rise to the Special Operations Executive, which henceforth considered it the organization’s “founding charter.”

SOE, far from sprouting on virgin soil, amalgamated different preexisting services. After the Reich’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, the Foreign Office had created an organization in charge of propaganda, Department EH (for “Electra House,” where it was housed). The Canadian press magnate Stuart Campbell became its director. Immediately thereafter, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known by the initials MI 6 (Military Intelligence, section 6), had formed a “Section D” (for “Destruction”), entrusted to Major Lawrence Grand, to consider how enemies could be attacked, “otherwise than by the usual military means.”

Finally, in the autumn of 1938, the minister of war developed a department of research known as GS (R) (General Staff, Research), which, under the leadership of Major John Charles Holland, devoted itself to studying guerilla warfare. It was renamed MI (R) (Military Intelligence, Research) in early 1939. These three services, however, merely scraped by and, despite sketchy efforts at coordination, overlapped. The British authorities, in creating the Special Operations Executive, which officially came into being on July 22th, 1940, intended to give new impetus to subversive warfare while avoiding rivalries and duplication. It was a risky wager at best, in view of the obstacles in the way.

On July 16th, 1940, Winston Churchill met with Hugh Dalton and announced to him that SOE would be attached to his Ministry of Economic Warfare. He assigned it a key mission: “Set Europe ablaze.” But the choice of the Labour leader was more a canny political calculation than the result of strictly strategic considerations.

Back on October 25th, 1924, the conservative Daily Mail had published a vociferous letter from Grigory Zinoviev, president of the Comintern (Communist International), who enjoined the small Communist Party of Great Britain to perform acts of sedition. The publication of that firebrand was ill-timed. Occurring four days before the legislative elections, it ruined the chances of the Labour Party, which was accused of being either the dupe or the accomplice of the Reds. The Tories therefore won the election, which enraged Labour. Was the document authentic? Historians have doubts, as did Labour Party members, who soon suspected that His Majesty’s secret services had had a hand in the affair.

In short, the Intelligence Service was not dear to the hearts of the democratic Left. To maintain the national union within his cabinet, the Conservative Winston Churchill had to offer guarantees to his Labour partner, as Clement Attlee, Lord Privy Seal, forcefully demanded. MI 6 (espionage) reported to the Foreign Office, MI 5 (counterespionage) to the Ministry of Home Security, which were both occupied by Conservatives. “If a third secret service could be created, and run by a Labour man, the political difficulty could be quickly resolved.”

Hugh Dalton forthrightly demanded that responsibility, based on a theory he outlined without delay. He distinguished “war from without,” which the military was called on to conduct, from “war from within,” which the civilians would have to wage. In his mind, subversion fell primarily to the leftist organizations—parties and labor unions—an idea he would not let go of. And he managed to convince Churchill of it. As the historian David Stafford points out, “It was certainly Dalton’s view that SOE would be a ‘revolutionary’ organization, just as it was his opinion that SOE had as its field of operations a Europe potentially open to revolt.”

One logical and major consequence was that SOE would be a civilian and not a military organization. Dalton reminded Attlee that “regular soldiers are not men to stir up revolution, to create social chaos, or use all those ungentlemanly means of winning the war which come so easily to the Nazis.” Was he up to the task? “Doctor Dynamo,” as he was nicknamed, displayed unflagging energy. At the same time, he was a target of criticism and was even labeled “Doctor Dirty” by his detractors.

Dalton was brought up in Windsor and attended the select Eton College, before continuing his studies at Cambridge. Many of his peers considered him a class traitor. His temperament did him no favors. Although very active, he did not have “any great sense of organization,” as his friend and personal assistant Gladwyn Jebb confided, adding, “He had a rather elephantine way of endeavouring to ingratiate himself with people.”

The Conservative minister of information, Brendan Bracken—nicknamed BB within the circles of power—despised him. At a luncheon, he criticized him repeatedly, stating that “nobody would work with him, neither the Chiefs of Staff nor any of the Ministries. Dr Dalton bored people by the way in which he talked and this would be likely to prove a serious deterrent to any progress on the part of [SOE].”

Finally, though the minister of economic warfare declared enormous admiration for his prime minister, the reverse was not true. That posed an operational problem. Dalton, because he did not belong to the war cabinet and did not have privileged access to 10 Downing Street, had difficulty defending the interests of SOE, which in such a context faced a difficult birth at least.

*

SOE was run by three men in succession. Frank Nelson, a businessman who had joined the Conservative Party, was in charge until May 1942. “He was now aged 57 and, somewhat to our surprise, wore the uniform of a Pilot Officer in the RAF.” Charles Hambro, a business banker, succeeded him in May 1942; then Colin Gubbins, a career officer, replaced Hambro in September 1943. Bickham Sweet-Escott, a former member of SOE, reported that Hambro “was just over 44; he was a man of immense energy and vitality with a quick wit, and an imagination and grasp of principle rare in a professional soldier. He enjoyed life to the full; he never forgot a face or a name, and he had a gift for inspiring confidence in those working under him. He was in fact a born leader of men.”

Originally, the Special Operations Executive comprised three branches. SO 1, entrusted to Reginald (Rex) Leeper, oversaw propaganda, having grown out of the Foreign Office; SO 2, under the leadership of Colin Gubbins, was in charge of special operations; and SO 3 headed up research and planning. These last two branches quickly merged, and in August 1941 propaganda was assigned to a new organization, the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), whose creation was officially announced in the House of Commons on September 11th. Once that organization chart was drawn up, it was necessary to construct a doctrine of action.

Hugh Dalton believed so firmly in the possibility of revolution in the occupied countries that he convened a symposium on October 19th, 1940, to explore channels for bringing it about. “Among the questions which he would like discussed were: What types of Revolutions were possible in the different territories? How far could we produce one type of Revolution rather than another? Had any real study [been] made of the theory and technique of Revolutions?”

In his view, the oppressed masses would quite logically spearhead the revolt. “Our best friends in occupied Europe are not the bourgeoisie, much less big business, or Generals, but the masses, and principally the industrial workers. Therefore, our propaganda should primarily be addressed to them.”

Many feared that an insurrection with no connection to an Allied offensive would end in a needless bloodbath.

These generous but general watchwords still had to be translated into acts. The minister of economic warfare foresaw promoting action in three areas. Subversive propaganda would turn “the population of the occupied countries against the forces of occupation” and undermine their morale. Sabotage organizations would seek to “wear down the Axis morally and economically and so hasten the date when our military forces can take the offensive.”

In addition, secret armies would be formed but would be used only “when immediate support by regular forces is imminent, or when the German power is actually crumbling. Otherwise they will be crushed out of hand and reprisals will be so severe that there will be no chance of their resurrection.” Hugh Dalton was far-sighted. He anticipated dispatching enough men and materiel between September 1st, 1941, and October 1st, 1942, to constitute subversive groups comprising about 500 men for Norway, 500 for Denmark, and 3,000 for France, and to form substantial secret armies: 19 thousand recruits were anticipated for Norway, 24 thousand for France.

In addition to Dalton, other leaders broke bread at the revolutionary table. And the United Kingdom had a formidable weapon at its disposal: radio. Douglas Ritchie, BBC announcer and future director of the corporation’s Europe department, believed that, thanks to its broadcasts, London could easily unleash powerful insurrection movements.

We have here, if we develop it and make use of it, a weapon of war of an entirely new kind. No such power has ever been in the hands of man before. The Germans have no such weapon. . . .

At a word from London the life of German soldiers or German-controlled police in the occupied countries can be made impossible. . . . The cafes which the Germans frequent can suddenly run out of beer and all food but the most indigestible kind. . . .

With the assistance of British industrial experts the BBC can give instructions on how workers can spoil their work. . . . Towards the end of the campaign millions of workers all over Europe, at a word from London, will strike and set buildings and factories on fire. . . .

When the British Government gives the word the BBC will cause riots and demonstrations in every city in Europe. Individual Germans will be killed by small bodies of local patriots who have already been instructed to single out their man and deal with him. Crowds will march through the streets demanding the return of their country’s independence.

To turn this possibility into reality we have to do two things. We have to sharpen this unique weapon and practice its use and we have to convince the British Government by demonstration if necessary, that the weapon has all the striking power that we claim and that it must be used to bring the war to a rapid conclusion.

Radio constituted a particularly effective medium, in that many households in Fortress Europe were equipped with a set. For example, Denmark had 863,400 radio sets (224 for every thousand residents), the Netherlands 1,440,600 (160 per thousand residents), and Norway 429,400 (145 per thou- sand residents). In autumn 1939 France counted up 5 million sets, to which an additional 1.5 million undeclared receivers can probably be added (that is, 162 per thousand residents). Many households, then, could receive and spread the good word, a factor unprecedented in the history of warfare.

These grandiose prospects, however, alarmed or put off certain leaders. Some suspected SOE and its supervising minister, Hugh Dalton, of laying the groundwork for the Great Revolution in Europe. In fact, “the guidance which he regularly provided for his officials usually had a strong socialist flavor which may have made some of the working propagandists less eager to follow his lead.” Others pointed out how unrealistic the proposed solutions were. Indeed, nothing suggested that the people under the jackboot would unite under the banner of revolt, as Gladwyn Jebb, assistant to Hugh Dalton, made clear in October 1940:

The most astonishing feature in Europe today, not only in the occupied areas, but also in Germany and Italy, is the spread of apathy and indifference. People seem to be so exhausted, physically and morally, that they do not care very much what happens so long as they get enough to eat. They are, therefore, prepared to obey anybody in authority, that is to say anybody who possesses some kind of guns. . . .

On the whole, however, indifference seems to hold the field. For this reason the phrases “general uprising” or “revolution” may possibly be misleading. They have romantic connotations and imply a spirit of sacrifice and devotion which appears now largely to have vanished, at any rate from Western Europe. It is conceivable that the general collapse for which we are hoping may come about rather by a withering of confidence in the Nazi leaders, involving internecine feuds of which we could take advantage, more especially in the outlying districts of the enslaved areas, than by picturesque, mass revolts of apathetic and incidentally unarmed slaves.

Many feared as well that an insurrection with no connection to an Allied offensive would end in a needless bloodbath. Colin Gubbins, chief of SOE operations at the time, explained:

In conquered and occupied territories the eventual aim is to provoke an armed rising against the invader at the appropriate moment. It cannot, however, be made too clear that in total warfare a premature rising is not only foredoomed to failure, but that the reprisals engendered will be of such a drastic, ferocious and all-embracing nature that the backbone of the movement will probably be broken beyond healing. A national uprising against the Axis is a card which usually can only be played once. . . .

It is thus essential not only that these subterranean movements should be supported by us, but also that they should be sufficiently under our control to ensure that they do not explode prematurely.

Colonel F. T. Davies, director of services, went even further: “I am not sure that the chief role of SO 2 is the creation of hidden armies; more may be achieved by stealth and on a much [more] modest scale.”

As a result, these considerations led SOE to scale back its mission and clarify its aims. In mid-May 1941 the new organization planned not only to produce propaganda but also to form underground organizations in the occupied countries capable of conducting raids or sabotage operations and secret armies that would be able to deploy on D-Day.

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Excerpted from The Resistance in Western Europe, 1940-1945 by Olivier Wieviorka, translated from the French by Jane Marie Todd. Copyright (c) 2019 Columbia University Press.  Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Olivier Wieviorka
Olivier Wieviorka
Olivier Wieviorka is professor of history at the École normale supérieure de Paris-Saclay. His books in English include The French Resistance (2016), also translated by Jane Marie Todd.





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