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Churchill's top secret agency

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

Letter from the Ministry of Warfare to the Prime Minister
The head of SOE urged Winston Churchill to keep the secret agency
Files just released at the National Archives reveal some of the secrets of Britain's wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE).

The papers released include letters written by Winston Churchill in 1945, on the future of SOE. This top secret agency, set up in 1940 to "set Europe ablaze", specialised in undercover and covert operations.

Sabotage and subversion was their brief. They had considerable success: disrupting German operations in France, assassinating Himmler's deputy in Czechoslovakia and thwarting the German atomic programme by blowing up the heavy water plant in Norway.

As the war drew to a close, there were around 2,000 surviving agents, with a vast network of contacts.

The files show that the head of SOE, Lord Selborne, grew increasingly concerned about their future. He argued the agency could have a valuable role in peacetime, supporting British interests in a covert, "unacknowledgable way".

The SOE specialised in clandestine operations.

The Russian menace

To allow SOE to be "stifled", he wrote, would be "madness". He was concerned about what he called "the Russian menace" and "the smouldering volcanoes of the Middle East".

He set out a plan for SOE's future - to become an independent body, possibly reporting to the Ministry of Defence. It could be a blueprint for James Bond.

There would be a centre for underground warfare, training agents in "all forms of clandestine activity" including covert propaganda, rumours, influencing public persons and minorities and sabotage.

The agents would give "covert support" to foreign governments if they were supportive of Britain. If not, they could "create and foster clandestine opposition". They could even undertake secret financial transactions if required by HM Treasury.

The foreign secretary of the time, Anthony Eden, wrote there was "useful scope for a covert organisation to further the policy of HM Government" in peacetime - but he wanted to control it himself.

To have SOE run by the Foreign Office would be like inviting an abbess to supervise a brothel
Head of SOE Lord Selborne
After all, he wrote, he was already the minister responsible for MI6 and MI5. Lord Selborne strongly opposed this. To have SOE run by the Foreign Office would, he wrote in May 1945, be like "inviting an abbess to supervise a brothel".

Churchill himself, a great supporter of SOE, did not resolve the row. A brief note says simply "Someone else should settle this". Elsewhere - there is a scribble even more brief, simply saying "after the election".

He lost that election of course, and his successor Clement Attlee closed SOE down in January 1946.

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