07 January 2022
The Special Operations Executive had a team of highly inventive engineers developing specialist equipment for use in the field by its agents, as Edward Hallett finds out
The Special Operations Executive was nothing if not innovative with the equipment it prepared for use by agents in the field. Specialist equipment needed to be light in weight so it could be easily transported, robust enough to survive being parachute dropped into enemy territory and, if possible, capable of being carried in the open without arousing suspicion. The SOE established a development establishment called Station IX at a mansion called The Frythe near Welwyn, north of London and this institution, together with satellite factories, developed items as varied as specialist firearms to one-man submarines to help agents achieve their missions. Due to the secretive nature of these objects, their use in the field and the small number of items actually produced, collecting SOE related equipment is challenging but pieces do survive and appear sporadically on the collector’s market.
Agents did not have much specialist clothing as for the most part they wore civilian clothing in the cut and style of the country in which they were operating to blend in to the population. One special garment that was developed, however, was a special jumpsuit to be worn when parachuting into enemy territory. This jumpsuit was worn over civilian clothing to protect it during the jump and was camouflaged to help conceal the agent during the critical first few minutes after landing. The jumpsuit, commonly nicknamed a striptease suit, was made of a heavy duty fabric with dark green camouflage printed on the outside. Twin metal zips ran the length of the suit allowing it to be undone and discarded quickly. It also had a number of large pockets and spaces to hold a pistol for protection, a knife to cut parachute lines and a shovel to bury the parachute with. It was felt lined for warmth during the short parachute descent and had a buckle on the rear of the neck to which the jump helmet was attached. These suits rarely come up for sale and one of the more recent examples was offered in France for €4,000.
Radios were essential for agents to communicate back to their handlers in the UK. Early radios were large, heavy and difficult to hide. The engineers at the SOE developed a number of small portable wireless sets that could be hidden inside a suitably worn attaché case. At the start of the war the Mark XV transceiver was used. This had been developed by MI6 in 1936 and weighed 44lb with separate transmitters and receivers. A radio of this size in the field was clearly impracticable so the boffins in the SOE developed the Mark II Suitcase Transceiver which weighed just 20lb and packed into three leather suitcases. This was better but still far from ideal. In the end the most commonly used radio was the B2 radio. This radio was developed in 1942 and fitted into a single suitcase and had a transmitter, receiver and power supply. In order to boost the range of these small radios, messages were sent in Morse code, the operator sending out a coded message at a designated time each day.
The B2 had a major advantage over earlier models as it had a built in battery to supplement mains power. The Germans had discovered that they could switch off power to individual city blocks whilst a message was being transmitted, if the message suddenly stopped then it was an indication that the wireless operator was within that particular section and this allowed them to zero in on the transmitter’s location. The built in battery prevented the message from being disrupted and removed this method of detection from the enemy. These batteries needed to be charged so the agents were supplied with small dynamos that could be powered either by hand cranking, or by attaching the dynamo to a stationary bicycle. As the rider turned the pedals, this turned the dynamo and generated a current to recharge the radio batteries. Original B2 radios are scarce and a recent example sold for just under £4,000.
Another electronic device regularly used by SOE agents was the Eureka/Rebecca beacon. This was a short range radio navigation system that could be used to direct aircraft to a specific point on the ground for delivering supplies or collecting agents. Eureka was a ground based transponder which sent out a coded radio pulse. Rebecca was the receiver mounted in an aircraft and it could determine distance and direction from the Eureka beam at distances up to 20 miles. This was an essential tool for the SOE as air drops were vital for resupplying agents and Resistance cells in occupied Europe. These drops would be at night and in remote locations, but it was essential that the planes found the right drop point or valuable equipment could end up in the hands of the Germans. The Eureka beacons were well made and robust - one SOE agent buried a beacon in a biscuit tin and when it was dug up months later was still in working order and was used to guide an RAF aeroplane for a resupply drop. Eureka Beacons do appear for sale as they were later used by airborne troops and prices average about £1,000 for an example in good condition.
To help disguise SOE equipment in occupied Europe specialised objects were produced to hide items inside. These were made to look like typical household products and needed to have the same weight and sound as the item they were purporting to be. A can that was supposed to be a real tin of food needed to have the same weight and label, and feel the same when shaken, as a real can of food. A can of oil had to have some method of containing at least a small quantity of oil inside it so that is sloshed in a realistic manner and if the cap were unscrewed a cursory glance showed it did appear to contain oil. The SOE developed a wide range of these concealed storage items, suitably labelled up as common household products for the country in which an agent was operating. The SOE warned that: 'Careful selection of commodity containers is necessary to ensure that (a) weight of packages is similar to real goods, (b) that weight to space is closely related, i.e. it would be wasteful of space to send rifle ammunition in tins of tobacco on account of the small number of rounds that could be packed in, say, a half-pound tin, and still keep the weight down to that of the original quantity of tobacco.'
Larger objects could be concealed inside a shell over store. The SOE’s handbook described the store as a way of: ‘Camouflaging single units of bulk stores such as arms, ammunition, food, etc.’ These stores used larger objects and the manual explained: ‘Different types and sizes of metal drums are designed to represent normal commodities in the countries concerned. They are used for the concealment of arms, ammunition, explosives, and are painted and stencilled to appear as paint, tar, tallow, creosote, herring oil etc. These drums can be fitted with a bung-hole, and a section inside the drum is filled with the liquid which it is supposed to be carrying so that it will stand scrutiny when a dip-stick is inserted into the drum.’
As well as extensive use of the Sten gun, the SOE made use of a number of specialised weapons, better suited to assassination and concealed use. These weapons were produced in relatively small numbers and by the secretive nature of their use, survivors are rare today.
The Welrod pistol was designed to be an extremely quiet, single shot pistol and was introduced in 1942. This pistol was a long cylinder with a chamber and simple non automatic design with a large suppressor to reduce the noise of a round firing. It had a magazine for either six rounds of 9mm or eight rounds of .32 ACP and the bolt had to be cycled after each shot to chamber a new round. It had a maximum range of 25yd, but was often used a point blank range or even with the muzzle touching the victim. This reduced the sound even further and, when new, the sound of firing the gun was just 73dB. As this weapon was designed for SOE use there were no markings on them to indicate where they were made, just a simple serial number. Just 2,800 were made and original deactivated examples can cost up to £5,000 each.
An even more concealable weapon used by the SOE was the sleeve gun which was produced by Station IX as a version of the Welrod without a hand grip. The SOE’s handbook described it as: ‘A short length, silent, murder weapon, firing .032 ammunition.’ In form the sleeve gun was a short tube, with a trigger button near the muzzle. The SOE explained: ‘The gun is carried up the sleeve until required, it is then slid into the hand and the muzzle pressed against the victim, at the same time operating the trigger with the thumb. After use, the gun returns to its position up the sleeve and all evidence such as the empty case is retained in the gun.’
The SOE also made extensive use of explosives to blow up enemy infrastructure and for use in assassinations. The most common type of explosive in use was a plastic explosive known as Nobel 808, which looked like green modelling clay and smelt of almonds. This explosive was very stable and so needed to be set off with a special detonator. SOE agents used explosive No. 10 time pencils which were brass tubes with a glass vial of acid inside. When the agent had set the explosive he pushed the pencil into the charge and squashed the tube with his boot or a pair of pliers. This broke the vial of acid and this slowly ate away at a release wire at a steady rate, once this wire had been dissolved the spring plunger of the detonator was free to fall and set off the main charge. The length of time between priming and detonation could be altered by changing the strength of the acid and time pencils were developed that ranged in duration from 10 minutes to a full 24 hours. Inert examples of the time pencil are available for around £75 each.
The plastic explosives could be easily moulded into many shapes and the SOE instructed its agents in using explosives disguised as dead rats or lumps of coal. These could be left in a locomotive tender and when thrown into the firebox by the engine crew they exploded, destroying the locomotive and track and causing major disruption to the rail network. The risk of this was perceived as so great that many locomotive crews refused to drive their engines and here even the threat of sabotage seriously disrupted the German war effort without any need for action itself. The rats were never used in action as the Germans discovered the plans before they were implemented, but the subsequent search by the Nazi authorities for exploding rats caused far more disruption to Europe than their actual use ever would have.
The Special Operations Executive, by its nature, was a secretive organisation and so original and attributable items of SOE equipment are rare. However, the same equipment issued to SOE agents was used by other agencies and surplus unissued examples were sold off after the war. This means that there is a small pool of the correct pattern equipment out there for collectors to find and whilst it is probably impossible to say with certainty that an object was definitely used by the SOE, these items are at least of identical specifications to the ones used in the field.
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