German Penetration of SOE by Jean Overton Fuller [Book Review]
I’ve been reading about SOE for more than three decades. This is the third book about SOE that I’ve read so far this year, and it is one of the earliest to point to the man behind the curtain. There is a carefully cultivated view of plucky heroism fighting thuggish Nazis, and prevailing eventually.
The reality is clearly quite different. Each of the three books I’ve read this year has pointed that out (see my reviews of books about Vera Atkins & Nancy Wake). That we know this is largely down to Jean Overton Fuller who spent her life trying to uncover what actually happened. She started looking for Noor Inayat Khan and got embroiled in all the others. It was during these investigations that Fuller discovered the German penetration of SOE.
The German Penetration of SOE
Most of this book was written in 1958, so the author had the ability to cross examine many of the survivors. She spoke to both sides, several of the German staff in the SD and Abwehr responsible for the german penetration of SOE collaborated with her. Even allowing for the personal motives of those involved the evidence conflicts, and there are definitely deliberate obfuscations. Not entirely surprisingly given the people being dealt with were trained in the dark arts of espionage and subversion as well as sabotage.
It’s clear that several SOE operations were blown, and the evidence suggests either that London was incompetent or knowingly went along with it. Many captured radio operators were rebuked via messages for leaving out their security checks. London also kept contact with people long after they’d had multiple reports from other sources that those people were compromised.
Pre-war links with Germans
There’s also the matter that one of the key staff officers of F Section knew Josef Kieffer, the Gestapo chief in France before the war, along with Henri Dericourt who organised air operations in France from late 1943 until the Spring of 1944. Dericourt freely admitted after the war that he’d passed information to the Gestapo to protect his operations. Nicolas Bodington, the staff officer, spoke in Dericourt’s defence at the trial and said it was done with London’s blessing. The UK government said nothing officially, and claimed Bodington was acting as a private citizen when he gave evidence.
Another interesting factor is the rapid execution of Kieffer, the SD chief in Paris. Kieffer had interrogated most of the captured SOE agents, and done so without torture. In fact his methods mirror those used by MI5, and are nothing like the expected stereotype. He also held all the agents in France to be near for further questions until after the Allies had landed. When he sent them East he tried to keep them out of concentration camps. It was Kieffer’s boss in Berlin that gave the orders to transfer the agents and have them killed. Yet Kieffer was sentenced to death by a war crimes tribunal and hung a few weeks later, before he had a chance to be questioned by anyone else. Many of the other condemned men were passed round for evidence and interrogation for months before sentences were carried out. Also men that had done worse than Kieffer were spared death. Kieffer’s boss Horst Kopkow being a case in point, Kopkow got given a job by the British after the war for his knowledge of the soviet espionage networks.
Overall The German Penetration of SOE is an interesting book, and one that amasses a pile of evidence and draws some sensible conclusions, although much of the evidence was either destroyed or still classified when the book was first written. It’s definitely a good early read for anyone interested in SOE operations in France.