Britain’s Second World War Special Operations Executive (SOE) was created in 1940 with the aim of wreaking sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Europe. What it was, and how and where it operated, is still told best for the general reader by MRD Foot in his SOE: The Special Operations Executive (Pimlico, 1999).
Two more recent books deserve special mention. Sarah Helms’s A Life in Secrets (Abacus, 2007) explores the intriguing life of the legendary SOE officer Vera Atkins, who made it her personal mission after the war to discover what had happened to those female agents who vanished into the “night and fog” of the Nazi concentration camps.
It’s a harrowing story, and so, in another way, is Roderick Bailey’s gripping and highly readable account of SOE liaison officers at work in Albania. Not for nothing is it entitled The Wildest Province (Vintage, 2009), for conditions in this tribal and mountainous wilderness were so harsh and treacherous that simple tasks such as taking pot shots at Nazis must almost have come as a relief. Guerrilla war may often seem romantic, but in reality it’s a nasty and brutish affair.
British missions behind the lines would never have survived without the help of the rural population. After Italy’s surrender and its occupation by the Germans, Italians waged one of the most successful resistance movements of the Second World War.
In Pebbles from my Skull (London, Hutchinson, 1963, but second hand copies easily found) the Scottish novelist Stuart Hood (a former controller of BBC One television), who spent a year in a POW camp in Italy after his capture in North Africa, vividly describes his life among partisans in Tuscany. It’s a lyrical and moving account of the almost medieval conditions in which the Italian peasantry still lived, and where brides still brought dowries of chestnut trees to their marriage.
In his epic book Rossano (Hodder and Stoughton, 1955), another Allied prisoner of war, Major Gordon Lett, tells how he led a group of partisans in the Rossano valley in the northern Appenines and how, as SOE liaison officer with the Blundell mission, he survived some severe German rastrellamenti (literally, rakings) before helping liberate La Spezia in the Liguria region of northern Italy.
David Stafford’s latest book is Endgame 1945: Victory, Retribution, Liberation (Abacus, 2007). He is now writing the official history of SOE in Italy 1943–45)