Special Operations Executive codes in World War 2

I recently read a book by British Special Operations Executive cryptographer Leo Marks called “Between Silk and Cyanide“. This title documents the real story of the code war between Germany and the Allies in World War 2. It is a title I highly recommend reading to get a sense of the real history of what happened in SOE during World War 2 and the aftermath.

In the book, Marks details the challenges of being a cryptographer in the badly underfunded and unappreciated Special Operations Executive hereby called SOE.

Per Wikipedia: “The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a secret British World War II organization. It was officially formed on 22 July 1940 under Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton, from the amalgamation of three existing secret organizations. Its purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, also in occupied Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.

Few people were aware of SOE’s existence. Those who were part of it or liaised with it were sometimes referred to as the “Baker Street Irregulars“, after the location of its London headquarters. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. Its various branches, and sometimes the organisation as a whole, were concealed for security purposes behind names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office.”

Leo Marks in 2000. Photo taken by Steve Crook, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1694235

SOE was referred to publicly as the “Inter-Service Research Bureau” but was more aptly called by it’s more buccaneer titles such as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.  I find the latter to be the most apt calling card and it continues to be a truism even in today’s wars with Special Forces being at the pointed end of the spear.

SOE fought a nearly constant battle with the existing intelligence agencies in the U.K. due in part due to the British reluctance to play as dirty or even worse than what the Germans were doing to all of Europe. In no small part is it clearly alluded in Mark’s book that there was a “not invented here” sense of jealousy  that pervaded the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and which was a constant thorn in SOE’s side.

Many attempts were made to absorb and dissolve SOE by SIS and there was a great deal of infighting that went on. SOE called SIS by the name “C” and often added other colorful terms to complete the “C” designation.

It can be readily stated that after reading Leo’s book, I rightly asked who’s side the War Department and SIS were on after seeing the sorts of battles that went on in trying to defeat SOE from their mission.

This same sense of “fair play” traced its roots right back to the angry British accusations against American forces for not fighting fairly in the American revolution. It took World War 2 for leading military organizations to wake up to the fact that the face of war was changing and could not be fought in the same ways as had been done in the past.

Colin Gubbins. By derivative work: McZusatz – This file was derived from: ColinGubbins1.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=425033

If it had not been for the leadership by Colin Gubbins whose sheer force of personality made SOE into the great guerilla organization it was, the war may have  been lost due to the vastly different views that SIS and many in the War Office held concerning “fair play” in war.

Gubbins was also responsible for setting up the secret Auxiliary Units, a commando force based around the Home Guard, to operate on the flanks and to the rear of German lines if the United Kingdom were invaded during Operation Sea Lion, Germany’s planned invasion.

In September 1943 GHQ Middle East, the Foreign Office, and the Joint Intelligence Committee sought to remove SOE’s autonomy. Despite having the firm support of Dalton’s successor, Lord Selborne, the resulting modus vivendi placed SOE’s field operations under the direction of theatre commanders. Sir Charles Hambro, the executive head of SOE, resigned in protest. Gubbins was appointed as his replacement. SOE’s position nevertheless remained precarious, and in January 1944 there was a further attempt to dismantle SOE, following the revelation that SOE’s operations in the Netherlands had been penetrated by Nazi intelligence. — Wikipedia

Gubbins put together a dirty tricks squad of the most devious minds in Britain to create new types of weapons never seen in warfare. The inventions of the Limpet Mine, the clamshell mine, the PIAT anti-tank weapon and the Hedgehog anti-sub weapon proved to be some of the most decisive weapons ever created by human beings up to that point and these transformed the war to blunt the Nazi offensive dramatically.

SOE developed Welrod Pistol for field operatives.

SOE developed a wide range of weapons at their many labs and proving grounds. The classic Welrod pistol pictured at left, is a nearly silent killing pistol remains in use by intelligence services to this day and figures as a weapon in many modern World War 2 shooter games including my own favorite “Sniper Elite IV”. This pistol started with single-shot 32 and was changed later on to 9mm caliber due to performance issues with the 32 caliber weapon. The Welrod features the ability to be broken down and assembled quickly and is a perfect silent killing tool for special operations work. It has a 6 to 8 round magazine enabling the operating more than one chance to take down a target before having to reload. The pistol uses rubber baffles to silence the pistol. The baffles last up to around 15 shots and then are replaced to keep the weapon silenced in field operations.

Gubbins also implemented training schools for commando operations and deployed guerrilla forces in such numbers that Hitler ordered that commandos be shot on sight or capture, directly violating the Geneva Convention and which placed many Nazis at the end of hanging ropes at wars end due to these deaths being classified as war crimes.

William Fairbairn

Gubbins hired two men, William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes, who were some of the most deadly to walk the planet. They arrived in the form of two elderly men who turned up in Britain to offer their services to the war effort and who miraculously found their way to Gubbins after being treated less than kindly by the War Office. When he saw just how much they knew about killing and dirty fighting, they were offered the chance to teach their craft to countless numbers of students at a facility in Scotland whose end products saw countless dead Nazis as the end-product.

William Ewart Fairbairn (/ˈfɛərbɛərn/; 28 February 1885 – 20 June 1960) was a British Royal Marine and police officer. He developed hand-to-hand combat methods for the Shanghai Police during the interwar period, as well as for the allied special forces during World War II.

He created his own fighting system known as Defendu. Notably, this included innovative pistol shooting techniques and the development of the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife. — Wikipedia

Eric Sykes

Eric Anthony Sykes (5 February 1883 – 12 May 1945), born Eric Anthony Schwabe, was a soldier and firearms expert. He is most famous for his work with William E. Fairbairn in the development of the eponymous Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife and modern British Close Quarters Battle (CQB) martial arts during World War II.

Originally working for an import/export company selling weapons in East Asia, he claimed he volunteered for and served in the British Army as a sharpshooter on the Western Front during World War I. Returning to China in 1917, he joined the volunteer branch of the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) Specials with the rank of Inspector in 1926. — Wikipedia

Sykes ended every self-defence lecture with his trademark phrase “and then, kick him in the testicles” as this method ensures that regardless of the effectiveness of the given tactic used, the assailant would be at least moderately incapacitated.

Fairbairn and Sykes wrote an number of books on fighting techniques that are popular to this day. Their classic fighting knife, the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife is still produced and is an deadly killing tool in the right hands.

SOE headquarters at 64 Baker Street in Westminster, England as it is today. A small  green memorial plaque is see next to the door detailing SOE’s presence at this location.

Colin Gubbins was primarily backed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill who ordered Europe to be “set ablaze” to stop the Germans from conquering the whole of Europe.

SOE’s headquarters at 64 Baker Street were the center of operations for the agency and housed some of the most brilliant minds in England. The site remains today as a store front that is marked by a small plate recording that the SOE once led a most ambitious intelligence fight against the Nazis from this innocuous location near London’s heart.

Leo Marks came to work at SOE as the result of an accident of his name being close to that of a influential family of the same name and also due to the fact he was entirely too smart for his original training at the SIS (C) training center at Bletchley Park. He was viewed as something of a misfit and was just promising enough as a cryptographer to be kept but was not conformant enough to fit in at SIS. The fact was he was a genius and it was only much later that he was referred to by a leading cryptographer at SIS as “the one who got away”.

It is interesting to see how many truly smart people who don’t fit the normal cogs of compliant robots do find their way despite being mislabeled as “misfits” by the blind and dumb of many organizations today.

In the following audio interview (about 22 minutes), Leo Marks details a short overview of his time at SOE and the many battles and strange aspects of working at SOE that he had to contend with. It is filled with humor and irony as he details his experiences during World War 2:

The code wars were striking because of the the battles that took place with Leo Marks fighting equally with his own department in the SOE leadership to understand the dangers of the SIS poem codes and the fact that he correctly surmised that the Dutch SOE agents had been thoroughly compromised by the Germans, resulting in almost all Dutch SOE agents inserted in the field being captured, killed or exploited for use by the Nazis. Marks did everything possible to save these agents but it was the interagency war and politics of it that doomed these agents. Had SIS been more on board with SOE and worked together as a team, it is likely that the Dutch disaster would have been avoided for the most part and the SOE efforts would have been more successful in Holland.

SOE provided essential support with sabotage operations to assist with the successful Normandy Invasion on D-Day.

SOE had much better successes elsewhere, despite the refusal by SOE and SIS to handle the fact that the codes had been broken and that transmissions to field agents were, in fact, communications to and from Nazis in Holland rather than agents of SOE. The Nazis played SOE who was trapped in a SIS/War Office war that made admitting the problem worse than severing the contacts and stopping sending agents to their doom.

Marks did his best to stop the agents being sent into harm’s way but couldn’t stop the insanity on his own and had to go along with the fiction until it finally came to a point that even the Nazis couldn’t hide the fact of the compromised Dutch operations any longer. It came to a point of openly mocking the British and for which SOE openly mocked the Germans back for what was in store for them.

Leo Marks holding up a SOE Silk Code Sheet. Codes were cut off the sheet after each use with up to 200 WOKs (worked out keys) codes per sheet.

Marks created new codes using silk “WOK” (worked out keys) codes and one time pads that were far easier to use and made the code harder for the Germans to break. The “silk codes” were printed on silk cloth and very easy to use. This consisted of a cloth with multiple codes printed on it that allowed an agent to use a one-time code to encrypt their messages to London. Getting the silk to produce the codes in wartime London was easier said than done and Marks moved heaven and earth to procure the silk, photographers and printers to make them a reality.

Marks later debrief to the most senior British officers in which he spoke candidly about what he was up against was acknowledged by the brass and they acknowledged his talents and loyalty. It was clear the Churchill knew the full scoop as well.

SOE’s contribution to D-Day cannot be overstated as they coordinated the disaster upon the Nazis with sabotage operations that directly blunted the Nazi response to the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 at Normandy. Their sabotage of train cars transporting German tanks and railway lines as well as communications infrastructure and road sabotage contributed greatly to the Allies defeating the Germans in France and taking the country back from the Nazis.

Poems, Tragedy and After the War

Marks left the SOE at war’s end and despite being urged to move over to SIS refused to do so due to the hostility there at SIS and his knowledge that he wouldn’t have a long career there if he stayed on. He had enough for one lifetime of service to his country by my read of his story.

He went on to have a career in the arts and entertainment and often wrote poetry. The poem “The Life That I have” (see end of article for the poem) that he wrote with a female SOE agent Violette Szabo (poems were a form of code used in agent communications in the field by SOE agents).

Marks never liked the poem codes and fought a year-long battle to have the poem codes disposed of in favor of silk cipher codes and one-time pads that were infinitely more secure and safe than the easily broken poem codes. His battle is detailed in great detail in his book “Between Silk and Cyanide”.

SOE Agent Violette Szabo

Marks wrote the poem in Christmas 1943 about a girlfriend, Ruth, who had recently died in an air crash in Canada. He gave it to Szabo to use for her field poem code during his mission brief with her before she was inserted into the field for operational duty.

In 2012 Max Hastings wrote that Szabo was “adored by the men and women of SOE both for her courage and endless infectious Cockney laughter”, while Leo Marks remembered her as “A dark-haired slip of mischief….She had a Cockney accent which added to her impishness”

Szabo later was killed by the Nazis has been shared many times and is a moving tribute to her memory.

SOE was broken up in January 1946 and it’s duties transferrred to SIS which immediately set about destroying SOE’s operational assets. A mysterious fire that destroyed nearly 80% of the SOE records broke out around this time and it is inferred that the fire was intentional. What we do know of SOE comes from information from it’s former agents who spoke out in increasing numbers from the 1960s on. Very few in the public knew of SOE until it’s exploits became more well known in the latter half of the 20th century. Precious few agents and SOE personnel survive today.

SOE supported existing sister organizations like the SAS, American OSS which became the CIA and others whose missions continue to this day. SOE’s legacy remains a legendary story whose exploits are worth reading about and knowing.

Special Forces Club Crest

Not content to sit idle after he was unceremoniously dumped from military service after the war, Colin Gubbins created the Special Forces Club in England that few know of even today. Originally it allowed only SOE members to come into it’s doors but eventually opened to SIS, SAS commandos and other intelligence professionals to pay honor to the Special Forces of Britain. There, agents could freely talk and socialize in a place that, outside of the club, the “Official Secrets Act” kept them from divulging until many years had transpired.

It remains unknown to this author whether Leo Marks was a member of this club, but I suspect he was indeed a welcome member due to his many contributions to the war effort.  It is my hope that this was the case.

The Special Forces Club preserves the memory and sacrifices of those agents and personnel who sacrificed their time and lives to insure the Nazis did not take over the world and to those who have done the same since World War 2. We are in their debt.

Leo passed away on January 15, 2001 after a lifetime of creating and writing. He never was a soldier in the classical sense, but it is my personal belief that Leo was a consummate special forces soldier of his own caliber. May he rest in peace.

Lysander aircraft used for SOE insertions and extractions as well as arms deliveries. Taken & submitted by Paul Maritz, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Life That I Have

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

–Leo Marks



Image of the Special Operations dedication seal at 64 Baker Street in Westminster.